Essex’s Taco & Tiki Tuesdays Shatter Gastronomic Stereotypes in Seattle

Chef Ricardo Valdes and bar manager Niah Bystrom speak with The Daily Meal about their Tiki and taco expertise
Staff Writer

Credit: Facebook/essexbar

Valdes and Bystrom have put a lot of thought and care into the treats at Essex’s Taco & Tiki Tuesdays

With the sky a winter shade of gray, Seattlites are dreaming of the warm sun down south. Thankfully, there’s a bright spot for those staying put this season: Taco & Tiki Tuesdays at Essex.

Having been an Angeleno for over 14 years, I have eaten enough tacos to merit master status in Malcolm Gladwell’s eyes. Therefore, when I say these are the tastiest tacos in Seattle, I speak with a practiced palate. The braised meats — like the stellar lamb barbacoa — benefit from the heat wallop of a wood-fired oven, resulting in succulent and crispy meat. Made-to-order tortillas, housemade salsas, and addictive guacamole round out the taco goodness.

The drinks will shatter your stereotypes about Tiki. Yes, they come in festive goblets, but these cocktails are bone-dry, not syrupy sweet, and bursting with fresh citrus and spice. In the Pamela Hasselhoff (applause for the Baywatch mashup), amaro gets the island treatment with a mix of Cynar, lime, and falernum.

Delancey’s craft-cocktail sister next door isn’t just pulling a marketing ploy, a cheeky theme to tempt customers on a traditionally slow night. Everything on the menu — created by Essex’ bar manager Niah Bystrom and sous chef Ricardo Valdes — is top-notch. Plus, like beer and sausages, the Tiki drinks and tacos make a delicious match.

I sat down with Valdes and Bystrom to soak up their Tiki and taco know-how:

Niah Bystrom, where did your interest in Tiki drinks start and develop?
I helped open Stoneburner with Erik Carlson, whose love for rum and daiquiris inevitably rubs off on those who work with him. Tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s books gave me inspiration for my recipes.

Tiki is a platform that can be really loud while the drinks are nuanced in taste. I liken Tiki to graffiti; they are both playful forms of expression.

Why are daiquiris so misunderstood?
A daiquiri should be bone-dry. While there are versions that use spiced rum, I like to delicately add spices to the finished drink.

Falernum, which you make in-house, features prominently on the menu. What is it?
Falernum, a common ingredient in Tiki drinks, is a rum-based syrup with almonds, citrus, and spices. My recipe is flavored with lime and grapefruit zest, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, saffron, and peppercorn.

Why do Tiki drinks pair so well with tacos?
Rum goes well with tacos because sugar cleans the palate post-spice. [Part of my mission as a bartender] is to educate people that cocktails make excellent food pairings.

Chef Valdes, where do your taco recipes come from?
All my earliest food memories are centered around family, where I learned recipes and techniques. A few years back, I helped open a “new”-style Mexican place, Provecho, in L.A. That, along with my experience with French-based technique, helped guide me. [Jalisco-born cook] Pedro Perez-Zamudio helped develop the lamb, chicken, and fish tacos. [Delancey’s owner] Brandon also gave his input as far as what he wanted on the menu.

Elaborate on the tradition of Mexican slow-cooking in pits:  
Growing up, Pedro’s family and mine cooked meats in underground pits. Fires would be lit in these pits, some had brick walls, others aluminum siding, some just plain dirt. Once the coals were glowing, the meats went in and were covered with dirt.

The oven [at Essex] is a great tool because it insulates well, like the pits. We can braise our meats simultaneously and we cook everything in it. During service, we have a high-temp fire, so that the meat is seared flavorfully on super-hot pans. The oven imparts just the right amount of smokiness as well.

What makes your guacamole “famous”?
It is a mix of my grandmother’s technique with recipe testing skills I’ve learned as a cook. At Provecho, I tested recipes hundreds of time on my quest for the best guacamole. Plus, this is where my fiancé, Amy, and I met, so I guess there’s a bit of love in the recipe, too!  

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