I’m old. Don’t feel bad for me, I’m certainly not upset about it. Though I’m not one to make a big deal out of my birthday, turning the oldometer to 40 felt like something worth celebrating. After watching an episode of Somebody Feed Phil where he was treated to a hoagie omakase service in Philadelphia I couldn’t help but wonder what else would be suited for a chef’s choice omakase tasting menu. The obvious answer was tacos.
I immediately reached out to Chef Luis Brambila from Bar Dojo in Edmonds, Washington, to validate the concept and he told me that he would love to put a menu together around the idea. We used my upcoming birthday as a way for me to justify the special treatment and Chef Brambila took care of the rest. He was excited to use this as an opportunity to try out the concept, and I couldn’t be happier to be the guinea pig. To be clear, I paid for my meal, but it was still an honor to be part of the creative process. I fully suspect that this will eventually turn into a special event that others will be able to enjoy, but I’d love to share my experience with you.
Tacos don’t fall in the mandate of this blog, but I did order two fantastic mocktails to accompany the meal. I’ve been to Bar Dojo several times, and I’ve blogged about their food several times (take a look). We ordered the Rose Blossom mocktail again, but there was a Honeydew Basil Shrub that I hadn’t seen before. Shrubs are made by macerating fruit in sugar and vinegar which preserves the flavor in a stable tangy syrup. Honeydew lent itself really well to that process, and it balanced cleanly with the lemon juice and basil in this cocktail. Coconut milk was unexpected but gave the drink a slightly creamy tropical feel. The Rose Blossom was super refreshing as well. Floral, but not perfumey.
Taco 1 – Spicy Ahi Tuna. There’s a version of this on the regular menu, and it’s worth the trip. A wonton taco shell filled with finely chopped spicy ahi tuna and kewpie mayo, garnished with scallions and a black truffle infused Ostera caviar. I took one bite of this and told my wife that I wanted a whole plate. Immediately. The tuna had enough heat to tingle, but not to enough to overwhelm the deep umami pop of the tiny caviar pearls. Outstanding.
Taco 2 – Salmon Poke. This was salmon, three ways. A salmon skin taco shell filled with a Mizunara barrel aged shoyu ponzu marinated salmon poke and then topped with scallions, salmon roe, and sorrel. There was also a decorative (and delicious) aji amarillo aioli dotting the plate. Definitely one of the fanciest dishes of the night, and did a great job of showcasing Chef Brambila’s creativity. The salmon skin taco shell shattered like a cracker, the sockeye salmon was perfectly paired with the delicate ponzu marinade, and salmon roe gave it a hit of briny pop. It was beautiful, and delicious.
Taco 3 – Quesabirria. Slow braised beef birria with queso oaxaca, an activated charcoal nixtamalized tortilla, micro cilantro, pickled red onion, consomé, and lime. These were more familiar flavors (I love quesabirria tacos), but very well executed. The beef was tender enough that a man of my age could eat it without any fear of tooth failure. The dipping broth (consomé) enhances the taco because it’s the same liquid that the beef was braised in. It’s an onion and chile bomb that lingers with you like long covid. Yikes…what a terrible analogy. It’s good. It’s really good. The fresh tortilla elevated this taco above what you’ll find in the local trucks. After finishing the taco I made sure to eat most of the broth as well. Too good to waste.
Taco 4 – Chicken Karaage. This taco took us back to a Japanese frying technique and was a total textural contrast to the birria taco before it. The chicken was juicy, but perfectly crisp and light. The spicy miso sauce was bright and clean, and the fresh yellow corn tortilla had a lot of roasted corn flavor. Probably one of my favorites of the night, and that’s saying something. The sorrel added a lot of color to the presentation as well.
Taco 5 – Crispy Soft Shell Crab. To be honest, soft shell crab freaks me out a bit. It looks like you’re eating a spider, but I’ve never thought it tasted bad. It’s just a mental hurdle to trust that it’s food. Chef Brambila did a great job with this, and I went into the meal fully committed to eating whatever he put in front of me. I thought that the presentation was stunning. The crab was fried extremely well and highlighted expertly with a miso yuzu slaw, unagi sauce, a blue corn tortilla, and gochugaru. I liked it, but would not have ordered it. I’m really glad it was on the menu so that I could try something new.
Taco 6 – Kalbi Rib. Back to a Korean flavor profile, this one had a super rich and beefy kalbi short rib served over a white corn and cilantro tortilla with kimchi cucumber salad, spicy miso sauce, sesame seeds, and a sesame avocado mousse. I love a good cucumber kimchi salad, and this one was terrific. It helped balance out the deep short rib flavor with a bit of sharpness and heat and paired nicely with the miso sauce. It looked good and tasted better.
Taco 7 – Pork al Pastor. Instead of a tortilla, we got a steamed (but crisped) bao bun filled with a potent al pastor marinated Kurobuta pork shoulder, soy gastrique pineapple, yuzu kosho tomatillo salsa verde, and micro cilantro. First of all, I loved the bun. It was both soft and crispy and acted like a sponge for the juicy pork. The flavors were amplified in this taco, and both the pineapple and salsa verde were singing. I had never heard of yuzu kosho before, but it’s a chile condiment made with fermented bird’s eye and other peppers. I’ll need to look into that more, because it gave the tomatillos a lot of pop. The only thing that would have made this even better for me would be a proper al pastor shaved pork from a trompo (the rotating vertical spit used for al pastor). The would have given the pork a bit more of a charred and crispy texture, but it’s hard to complain about this taco.
Taco 8 – Shrimp Bulgogi. This taco was a party. Sauteed white shrimp with XO sauce, charred avocado, watermelon radish and fresno peppers over a scallion tortilla. I didn’t have a lot of experience with XO sauce coming into this meal, but I had heard it referenced in a lot of cooking shows. It’s a fermented seafood sauce with scallops, shrimp, etc…kind of a fancy and thick fish sauce. It had a massive amount of flavor that was only partially subdued by the smokey/smooth charred avocado (talk about a contradiction). This taco had so much depth and umami that even after 8 courses I still wanted more. Serving this taco over rice would help capture all of that dripping sauce so that you don’t lose a single drop. Even as someone who doesn’t appreciate shrimp very much I loved it.
Taco 9 – Kalua Pork. This taco embraces a Hawai’ian and Japanese profile. The kalua pork was tender like butter and ridiculously juicy. Chef Brambila served it in a tortilla made with both flour and corn which provided enough structure to hold the meat without a catastrophic breach. The yuzu guacamole was incredibly refreshing. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that’s a bit more gentle and floral than a lemon which brought a very different profile to the pork. Another detail of this dish was the sprinkling of black volcanic salt that gives a very concentrated smokey spark to the bite. After my first bite of this taco my body started screaming at me to stop eating. Enough is enough. But, I shut down those inner voices and powered through.
Taco 10 – Ube Chocochurro Ice Cream. There’s always room for a chocotaco. This one was especially worth the effort. Chef made the shell out of an almond cookie dipped in dark chocolate with cinnamon/sugar accents. It reminded me of italian cannoli, or shortbread. The ube ice cream was subtle enough to smooth out the sweetness of the cookie shell. The frozen raspberries were decorative, but also a fun flavor add. Everything about this worked as expected, including the inevitable shell breakage with ice cream covering my entire hand. It’s all part of the experience.
I’m full. I’m so full. I’m also really grateful for the people at Bar Dojo for hosting me at the most appropriate time for a 40th birthday celebration…4pm. What I wanted more than anything for my birthday was to make the least amount of decisions possible. A chef’s choice tasting menu was the perfect way to get it done. Thanks Chef Brambila!