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Friday, February 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Ooba's stands apart in Mexican-food universe with creative spark

Special to The Seattle Times

Ooba's Mexican Grill


17302 140th Ave. N.E., Woodinville; 425-481-5252

Mexican

$

Web site: www.oobas.com

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays.

Margaritas, mojitos, beer and wine / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access

Rating: recommended

Gardeners making their annual springtime pilgrimage to Molbak's in Woodinville would be well advised to drive the extra four minutes to a strip mall around the corner from Albertson's, where there is terrific Mexican food to be enjoyed. Where? Just look for the unlikeliest possible storefront.

Food snobs like me think they must venture into some dive in the barrio for great Mexican food, but Ooba's proves food snobs like me dead wrong. It's a polished hybrid of the fast-food and full-service genres (order and pay at the counter off a menu posted on the wall, but they'll bring your food — including margarita or beer — out to your table). Stylish surroundings include booths, tables and a serve-yourself salsa bar.

Citizens of Redmond, who have had an Ooba's in their midst for seven years, will know what I mean when I say that the comfort and ease and friendly welcome of this place turn out to be just the beginning of its charms. Cuisine-wise, it is a far sight more ambitious than you'd expect at these prices, with consistently more admirable — read highly flavorful — results.

You'll find all the usual suspects, quesadillas to fajitas to tacos, along with some lovely forays into less-predictable territory: Grilled salmon or mahi mahi or marlin, marinated in honey-orange sauce, perhaps, or served over wilted jalapeño spinach. Or chili-rubbed, slow-roasted pork ribs topped with salsa verde. Even the most plebeian items on the menu distinguish themselves with a creative spark, like the burritos, which are crafted of, among other things, minted rice, white beans and chipotle cream. Whatever meat you choose will be freshly grilled and fragrantly redolent of the fire.

There are even good homemade chips and formidable margaritas to round out the feeling of really having been out for a meal. Sound great? Then make a dash for Redmond or Woodinville. Or, if a bridge stands in your way, practice patience: Reliable rumor has it Ooba's is eyeing a third outpost on Capitol Hill.

Check please

Grilled Yukon potato quesadilla: "That's a great choice," volunteered the gal in line behind me, and she was right. Firm and flavorful Yukon golds, cut to a ragged dice and grilled, appeared with pico de gallo, fresh tomatoes and a lovely cream made of garlic and roasted chipotles, all melted together with Jack cheese between flour tortilla flaps. The result was a combo of impossible richness and flavor.

Grilled green beans: "That's a great choice," said the gal behind me again — but this time I couldn't agree. The beans were nicely wilted and charry from the grill, just as they should have been, but the chipotle rub on them lent more mouth-puckering saltiness than fire.

Batter-fried codfish tacos: "Oooooh — that's my favorite!" gushed my personal menu adviser. ("I eat here a lot," she explained sheepishly.) It was indeed a sensational plate, a trio of tidy tacos lined up in their folded corn tortillas like three little schoolkids in uniform, with plenty of beautifully gilded batter-fried cod, shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and a compelling aioli-like garlic cream they call crema agria.

Grilled-chicken burrito: White beans (a welcome novelty), minted white rice, Jack cheese, guacamole and that extraordinary chipotle cream made every bite of this behemoth an adventure. Best were the bites that included the grilled chicken, which was suffused with the flavor of the fire.

Margarita: Fruity, tart, salty and poured with a generous hand, to enjoy with crisp homemade chips. What's not to like?

Itemized bill, meal for two

Grilled Yukon potato quesadilla $5.75

Grilled green beans $2.00

Batter-fried codfish tacos $5.50

Grilled-chicken burrito $5.75

Margarita $4.95

Tax $2.10

Total $26.05

Kathryn Robinson: kathrynrobinson@speakeasy.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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