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Not your typical taco joint

A tour through Masa with co-owner Troy Christian

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I’m not sure where to start with Masa — the latest culinary contribution from the team that brought you Argentine dining sensation Asado on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue. The menu, conceived by master Chef Sean Quinn, is huge. The flavor of the food? Huge. Margaritas? You could spend an entire weekend (and your entire paycheck) exploring your options. In the words of Masa co-owner and regional restaurateur Troy Christian, “This isn’t your typical taco or burrito place.”

If I had to pick an icon or a metaphor to set this off — you know, conceptually — I’d start with the front door. It’s huge, black, decorated sparsely with vaguely Latin American iconography and made of solid metal. If Dracula was Spanish and had a meat cooler, this would be the door he’d open to get in. Surrounded by a fairly one-dimensional façade — a pleasant plane of horizontal, evenly slatted wood siding — the door hints that what’s inside may be a little more exciting.

And it is, folks. Like stuffed poblanos and piñatas, what’s inside is so much more exciting.

Inside, Masa is a blend of stylish, metropolitan minimalism combined with everything you like about Mexican restaurants — color, smells, sounds, activity, and amazing food. There’s plenty of colorful, Posada-inspired Day of the Dead revelry painted on the walls, and enough room to seat 125 people between the bar and dining area. The spot is divided into a sizable bar/lounge, dining room, a private, upstairs dining hall, balcony and small café. Near the entrance, the café looks like what I imagine a Czechoslovakian Denny’s might look like — roughly 300 square feet of sparkled pleather booths and flat white tabletops.

The café area will eventually host a deli of sorts that will serve a more traditional list of burritos, tacos and tortas. In early January, the café also will host lunch service and will sport a stocked meat counter, selling seasoned carne by the pound. Also beginning in early January, the café will be transformed into a 24-hour taco and burrito bar on Fridays and Saturdays — begging the question: Is it wise to serve rich, spicy Mexican food to people who have been drinking all night?

Nearby, the dining room is open and simple. This is a casual place, says Christian, “a place to have fun, wear jeans, have a drink.” The menu, he adds, is unparalleled. Recipes at Masa are hand picked and traditional. Many are family recipes collected by Christian during his more than 20 years as a chef. Favorites include Chili Relleno Con Carne, a pair of poblano chilies stuffed with grilled meat, rolled in cornmeal batter and deep fried, and Grilled Pork in a Pumpkin Seed Sauce, pork tenderloin rubbed with ground annatto seeds. These and other entrees range in price from $18 to $30 for the Fender T-Bone, which is served grilled with guajillo chili butter and fried onions. Legend has it that saying “guajillo butter” 10 times will banish all your troubles.

Perhaps even more impressive than the dining room menu is the bar menu, which offers a daunting variety of snacks, including gnarly pizzas featuring combinations like mascarpone cheese, chorizo, pineapple and red salsa.  All snacks are $10 or less, and the pizzas are all $14. The full bar is stocked with a fantastic array of tequila and offers at least one $50 margarita — the Ultimo, a dizzying concoction of Gran Patron Platinum and Grand Marnier 150, frozen or on the rocks. It’s probably bad karma to drink Gran Patron Platinum frozen, though.

Upstairs is an elegant private dining room that seats 80 and an outdoor deck that will serve as many as 60 people this spring. Private dining service includes menus from both Asado and Masa. So far, says Christian, the private dining room has been packed every night since the place opened the second week in December.

The opening of Masa is the latest contribution to Sixth Avenue’s renaissance from X Group Restaurants, formed by Christian — who helped Mackay Restaurant Group open El Gaucho in Tacoma — and John Xitco, whose business background includes heavy construction, land development, petroleum, auto sales, finance, and venture capital. The pair opened Asado last year across the street from Masa’s current home, which Tacoma old-timers will remember as the home of Ricardo’s restaurant. Christian considers Masa a much needed addition to Tacoma’s growing list of top-notch eateries.

“There’s already a couple of good Japanese restaurants here, plenty of Italian and everything else. When it comes to dining — and I mean fine dining — there’s no Mexican restaurants in Tacoma,” said Christian. “We need this.”

In the long run, Christian and Xitco hope to see Sixth Avenue become a bohemian nexus in the spirit of Fremont or Portland’s Pearl District.

Elsewhere in Tacoma, Xitco is looking to buy El Taqueria Guadalajara in the Stadium District. Christian declined to discuss most details, saying concepts won’t be determined until the property is owned and X Group’s other restaurants are running smoothly.

Any hints, you ask.

“It won’t be Mexican food,” says Christian. 

[Masa, 5-10 p.m. daily, open 24 hours Fridays and Saturdays beginning Jan. 5, 2811 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253.254.0560]

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