Friday, July 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Budget Bites

Stylish Mexican Grill Has Skirt Steak Worth A Whirl

Special To The Seattle Times

--------------------------- Restaurant review / Redmond ---------------------------

XX Ooba's Mex Grill, 15802 N.E. 83rd St., Redmond. Lunch, dinner ($2.50-$8.95; children's menu $2-$2.25), 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday, noon-9 p.m. Saturday. No smoking. Major credit cards. Beer and wine. Wheelchair access. 425-702-1694.

Move over Taco del Mar: There's a new kid on the block. For now, that new kid - Ooba's, open since September - is merely one singular sensation. Of course, the same could once be said for Taco del Mar, which, five years ago, was little more than a single shop at Seventh and Madison in Seattle, since reproduced on a corner near you, and you, and you.

Ooba's owner, Craig Johnson, has expansion in mind. Here's hoping he can swing it, since food this good, brought to you by a guy this earnest, deserves a broader audience. Twenty-four hours after trekking to Redmond, I'm already craving another grilled skirt-steak quesadilla. And, believe me: For someone who makes a living eating burritos and pizza, that's saying something.

Johnson shouldn't have much trouble cloning his upscale taqueria-and-then-some - but he'll be hard-pressed to clone himself. Outfitted in shorts and a T-shirt, with a he-means-it smile below a mop of blond hair, he brings to mind a California surfer with an unabashed love for things south-of-the-border. He's as adept at chatting up his customers while taking orders and clearing tables as he is chatting in Spanish with the cooks and dishwasher who keep things moving in the broad expanse of a stainless steel-accented kitchen.

The spacious, stylish, arc-shaped restaurant is all swanky color, negatory on the Mexican tchotchkes. A counter offers ringside seats on the action. Diced vegetables get a quick flip or three on the grill before being folded (along with the works) into a flour tortilla, wrapped in foil, and quick-steamed. Voila! A veggie burrito! Beer-battered rockfish is fried and stuffed into tacos, as is marinated salmon; daily specials such as halibut or portobello mushrooms take a turn on the grill. Chips are made in-house (a handful comes alongside everything) and you may help yourself from the salsa bar, where flavors run from smoky to smokin'. Unlike most Mexi-feederies, you won't leave here thinking, "I swear, I'll never eat again!" Instead, you'll be wishing, as I did, that there was an Ooba's on a corner near you.

SKIRT-STEAK BURRITO: My other half refused to share his other half, grudgingly offering a couple of bites that made my otherwise burritoed-out heart go pitter-pat. A clean-tasting burrito? Gotta love that. Lightly minted rice and Northern white beans, not too much Jack cheese and a bit of guacamole allow the mega-flavors of the marinated, tender-city skirt steak to shine through.

PORK TACOS: Grilled, chipotle-rubbed pork stuffed into two handmade corn tortillas with crema de chipotle, habanero salsa and the house guac blend. A daily special that truly was.

SKIRT-STEAK QUESADILLA: We were forced, due to circumstances beyond our control, to order this cheesy, pico de gallo-garnished, crispy tortilla after we finished our meal - if only to taste that skirt steak one more time. Next time, I'm not sharing.

CORN ON THE COB: Yes, that's lime adding sass to this charred ear of sweet, white corn. S'wonderful.



TAX: $1.77 TOTAL: $21.27

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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