Across the street from Red Star Taco Bar, two men are either removing blood from or applying blood to Lenin's left hand. It's difficult to tell which—with white cloths, they're smearing the redness around. In his jaunty cap and fashionable mustache, the statue cares not, staring intently toward Red Star's neon red star, his mid-stride pose now given purpose: Lenin wants a taco.
Started by three bartenders who met while working at the nearby Ballroom, Fremont's brand-new Red Star Taco Bar is clearly a capitalist enterprise. But it's a more humane manifestation of the market than many of late: A prole can get full here for less than $10, while erasing class consciousness with $5 frozen margaritas.
Red Star has lots of big, sturdy, built-in booths, the kind that can withstand impassioned table-pounding. The ceiling is corrugated like a warehouse's. The murals have a Soviet-style simplicity: A star shines a beacon of light out over the silhouetted Seattle skyline on one wall, while a single flower (of revolution, maybe) blooms across the way. Two TVs above the bar usually show sports, and while there's a ball-cap-wearing contingent that indulges in that opiate of the masses, all kinds of other people ignore it and relax in the dim room—leftover Fremont hippies, a biker-looking couple, a gentleman by himself drinking tequila and scribbling intently on a wrinkled piece of paper. Through the front windows, there's Lenin, scowling; out back, a small patio.
While the price of the tacos—$3 to $5 each—might initially cause balking, they're pretty big, and they're really good. The tortillas are made in-house: The corn ones are cushy, the flour practically delicate. For filling, there's shredded beef, chorizo, carne asada, tofu. The Korean pork short rib is pliant, spicy, and sweet, with purple cabbage and pineapple bundled in, and one day's fish taco special was blackened rockfish, with the Cajun hint of cayenne contrasting the light, lush texture of the fish. The carnitas are so tender and flavorful, I'd love to see what the kitchen would do with al pastor. Tequila-lime chicken, while lacking any zing, filled the comfort-food quotient admirably, with one eater saying, "When you order a chicken taco, that's what you want."
Speaking of comfort food, at happy hour and all day on Taco Tuesdays, Red Star makes Your Mom's Taco—the classic Americanized version with a hard shell, ground beef, shredded lettuce, tomato, black olives, and sour cream—for $1 each. The shell has more substance to it than the brittle, shattering ones of childhood, and the ground beef drips orange grease just like it should. I would only say that it needs more in the way of reverse-engineered "taco seasoning," as the beef's a little bland, lacking yesteryear's packet of garlic salt and MSG.
One of Red Star Taco Bar's tacos is a fine snack, and two or three can make a meal, but it'd be wrong not to get the chips and guacamole for a near-state-subsidized rate of $5. The house-made chips are of the very thin, very crisp variety, and the guacamole isn't heavy on the lime or onion or spice, just creamy and mild and delicious, with a nice big chunk of avocado here and there. The house salsa is finely blended with a slight smoky chipotle heat. Both the guacamole and the salsa, like everything at Red Star, taste notably fresh.
Red Star's version of a quesadilla is plumper than most, a half-moon-shaped pillow with a case of flour tortilla and a filling of soft Oaxaca cheese and your choice of meat, plus a limey, vinegary salsa verde to dip it in ($4–$6). I liked it better than the chewy "taqui-queso" ($5–$7), with grilled Oaxaca cheese on top of corn tortillas, or the crunchy taquitos ($7), but as the Fremont bros say, it's all good.
Who is responsible for all this goodness? The chef is so modest, he does not want to be named, but I hear he's called Armando.
For drinks, there are two dozen kinds of tequila, but another Seattle food writer I ran into on my first visit said I had to try the bourbon jam sour, made with Buffalo Trace, house sour mix, and your choice of jam. It was a mix of strong flavors that came out balanced and refreshing and harmonious, a clever, excellent summertime drink. A mezcal michelada made with chipotle Cholula hot sauce came with a friendly question from the server: "Have you had mezcal before?" People unfamiliar with it, she indicated, have not been pleased, and you can see why: Especially with the hot sauce, it tastes pungently like smoke with a hint of gasoline, with the drink overall possibly making you think of a salty tire fire. The counterbalance is the blended margarita, to which you can add different flavors for $1, and to which you absolutely should add pomegranate: It imparts a deep raspberry color and the flavor of real, jammy fruit to go along with a substantial lime tartness and strong taste of tequila. The blended-drinks thing is being done a lot lately all over the place, but these ones are anti-cloying, exceptionally good, and only $6 each ($5 for just lime).
A friend who visited later on a weekend night said Red Star had a bouncer, which was disconcerting, but that the Fremont party hordes had not yet figured out it was there. It won't take long, but earlier in the evening should stay safe for regular people, and Red Star Taco Bar is an excellent weekend-afternoon outing. Lenin will never get across the street to a daytime margarita, but you can.