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Is wagyu enough to splurge at Tacoma’s trendy downtown steakhouse? Our writer has her say

Towering over the dining room at Cuerno Bravo are two tall trees constructed of wooden rods, from which oversized glass hearts and rustic pendants with Edison bulbs hang. Like much of the experience at this almost 3-year-old steakhouse in downtown Tacoma, it’s showy, portending a lively, out-of-the-ordinary dining experience, where steaks sizzle on fiery hot stones and lime halves are flamed tableside with exaggerated swoops of a server’s hand shaking cinnamon all over your drink.

It’s easy to understand why diners have flocked here since it opened in the fall of 2020. A modern steakhouse with Mexican flair, a flashy cocktail menu served from a long mahogany bar, an open kitchen in a historic downtown building. There just isn’t much like it in Tacoma or Pierce County, on paper and pretense anyhow. Owner and executive chef David Orozco also arrived — at an admittedly challenging time — with two success stories as proof of concept; he operates the popular Asadero Prime in Kent and Ballard, known for their beef.

While the steaks at Cuerno Bravo have the foundation to be stunning, they have been that way only sometimes, and most other elements of the experience need polishing to achieve the promise of “a full sensory dining experience,” from unremarkable accompaniments to clunky presentations and temperamental service not always befitting the price tag.

We tried to walk in on a weekend evening but were cited an hour’s wait, even for the bar. Returning on a still-buzzy Thursday, we found two seats in the corner. Our fellow barmates and everyone at tables in the dining room — full at 7 p.m. — seemed to be having a ravishing time.

Almost immediately after ordering, a server delivered a wooden tray precariously lined with four miniature gravy boats of pico de gallo, pickled onions and salsas, intended, we learned after inquiring, for the steak we didn’t yet have.

We started off on a bad foot with the molletes, a sliced loaf covered in a peelable layer of cheese, scattered with wrinkled tomato cubes and shreds of limp cilantro. Even the menu’s reminder that it was finished in the wood-fired oven could not save it from living in my memory as glorified Texas toast.

Not wanting to shell out nearly $90 for the “full-blood wagyu from one of the best in Australia” or $120 for eight ounces of Japanese A5 filet, we settled on the American wagyu vacio for a modest $36. As staff explained to us on only one of three visits, a medium-rare request is generally advised, as the meat continues to cook on its hot serving stone.

Like most of the steaks at Cuerno Bravo, the vacio, a flank cut popular in Argentina, is served on a sizzling hot stone, garnished with rosemary and salt. If instructed in full, staff advises you to move the steak to the board and lay slices back on the stone per your personal tastes.
Like most of the steaks at Cuerno Bravo, the vacio, a flank cut popular in Argentina, is served on a sizzling hot stone, garnished with rosemary and salt. If instructed in full, staff advises you to move the steak to the board and lay slices back on the stone per your personal tastes.

Marbled and rich, accented by the provided rock salt and chimichurri, it was a succulent steak, sourced from Snake River Farms in Boise. We took turns watching each slice sizzle on the stone. As a novelty, it was fun, but it also felt like a portion of the work (and none of the price) had been offloaded. I’ve never been able to embrace DIY dining, but others might enjoy the thrill.

A few months later, solo on a Friday night, the dining room was bustling with staff ferrying boards to and fro without making eye contact. I waited 10 minutes awkwardly by the door for the host to reappear. I gave up. On another weekday, my date and I sat down on the short end of the bar near the street-side windows. It was a tight squeeze, with a couple seated closely behind us at what must be the worst table in the house, but we had a nice view of the action.

As I sipped an acceptable spicy margarita, my date pushed the napkin below his beer toward the wall. The surface was covered in oil — chimichurri, it turns out, from an earlier guest. The bartender flippantly wiped away the residue after we handed him several balled-up cocktail napkins.

Thus was the beginning of meals saved, sometimes, by the beef.

Keeping with the steakhouse theme, sides — reasonably priced around $9 — are served a la carte. The arroz de la abuela sounded delightful: rice cooked with cream, onions and fire-roasted poblano peppers. It was homey. Also served in a small, rectangular cast-iron skillet, the rajitas poblanas were a disappointing mush of corn and peppers, plated with unbuttered crostini. You’re better off with the guacamole, which is bright and undeniably fresh but dented by more of the unwanted bread. The tostadas helped, but I longed for a standard tortilla chip.

The wood-fired oven might be too much for the rajitas poblanas.
The wood-fired oven might be too much for the rajitas poblanas.

The giant papa loca, described aptly as “football-sized” by our server, frequently emerges from the kitchen. It’s a baked potato, quasi-loaded with bacon, cheese, sour cream and wads of carne asada — too much, unless maybe this was your entree. Another starter, the carne en su jugo (soup-style beans) — like the rest of the menu — reads well but, also swimming with unnecessary steak, tasted mostly like charred smoke. The toritos, which should sing after a wood-fired bake, were swiped with barely melted cream cheese.

I reminded myself that the allure is the main-event wagyu, and Cuerno Bravo is known for its high-quality sources.

So we made a reservation with friends for 7 p.m. early this spring. Twenty minutes after our appointed time, we were shuttled to a booth near the back. A server assistant filled our water glasses while balancing a platter of sliced citrus and cucumber, which he then offered to plop into said water. It was a thoughtful gesture of hospitality that had not been presented at the bar. In execution, it felt like an afterthought; I couldn’t even squeeze the lemon to enjoy its essence.

On this occasion, our companion’s 14-ounce vacio, a thick cut of flank preferred in Argentina, was ordered to house specifications but received rare and still cold once he cut through the exterior sear. We watched as he exasperatingly lay slices back onto the hot stone to bring to any semblance of satisfactory temperature.

The dining room at Cuerno Bravo lends itself to a boisterous experience.
The dining room at Cuerno Bravo lends itself to a boisterous experience.

His partner’s carne asada should have been an easy win, but it begged for flavor beyond its visible grill marks. For $27, the plate is generously arranged with a chorizo link, soft housemade tortillas folded with cheese and a bowl of refried beans (not listed on the menu), which our server cautioned were rather spicy. They were smooth and packed moderate heat, but I was befuddled by the warning: How many before us had been put off?

We also shared the vacio tacos (four for $20). The meat — and that’s it, there is no garnish — was juicy, and I can appreciate the beauty in this simplicity. But the otherwise lovely tortillas, wrapped in parchment, grew soggy as they sat.

This time we splurged on the $88 ribeye. Another warning ensued: no stone! Turns out we gravely needed one. Ordered medium-rare, the steak was far from such, and we took turns using our friend’s stone.

It was in this moment I concluded that the show of Cuerno Bravo was the driving force behind its popularity in Tacoma, a city graciously devoid of such fanfare, save for one obvious exception. I can forgive occasional service blips in our current era, but when you drop $250, before gratuity, you don’t expect your appetizers to arrive before your cocktails — unless, perhaps, you are forewarned — your water glasses to remain unfilled or your used plates to be stacked atop one another, layered with cloth napkins and heaved away all at once as you stare at the bill.

Cuerno Bravo’s painkiller combines navy-strength rum with orange and pineapple juice, coconut cream and a frozen lime that is lit on fire and dowsed with cinnamon powder, which causes it to spark.
Cuerno Bravo’s painkiller combines navy-strength rum with orange and pineapple juice, coconut cream and a frozen lime that is lit on fire and dowsed with cinnamon powder, which causes it to spark.

When our drinks finally arrived, the server placed an empty snifter with two cocktail straws on the already cluttered table. He then performed the cinnamon-dust trick over a painkiller (rum, coconut, orange, pineapple) in a tall daiquiri glass. The lime was set ablaze with a handheld blowtorch. Shaking spice over the fire, the flames sparked two feet into the air. Nearby tables of new diners ogled.

I asked what the extra glass was for. Just the straws, he replied, asking if my companion wanted them. Too short to reach the bottom of her glass, she declined. We had barely taken a swig when, 10 minutes later, came the steaks.

CUERNO BRAVO STEAKHOUSE

616 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, 253-328-6688, cuernobravo.com

Wednesday-Sunday 4-10 p.m. (reservations recommended)

TNT DINER TAKE

Value: fair — $100-$200 for a couple to share two starters/sides and a steak, plus two drinks

Quality: high-quality steaks, sourced from the U.S., Japan and Australia, but accompaniments lackluster

Atmosphere: buzzy, with open kitchen and striking decor

Returnability: The experience lends itself to celebration, but execution is inconsistent for the vibe and price. Focus on the steaks, and be sure to ask staff how to deal with the hot stone.