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Friday, April 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Mezcal Grill is nice but could use spice

Special to The Seattle Times

Mezcal Grill


9739 N.E. 119th Place, Kirkland; 425-820-8448

www.mezcalgrill.com

Mexican

$$

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sundays.

No obstacles / major credit cards / nonsmoking / beer (they've applied to add wine).

Rating: recommended.

Mezcal Grill is in Juanita Village, a new development in Kirkland that aims to capture the feel of a pedestrian-scale European town. It's an interesting experiment still under construction — in its current form it feels a bit like a mall with extra touches such as luxury apartments on top.

Similarly, Mezcal Grill looks like the sort of Mexican-American restaurant you'd find in a mall — it's bright and scrupulously clean, and you order at the counter underneath a menu board. But while the menu isn't terribly inventive (OK, to be honest, it's downright boring), the food is a couple of notches above food-court fare. A good salsa bar goes a long way, and Mezcal's features a spicy pico de gallo and a variety of pureed salsas at various levels of heat, all made in-house, plus radishes and pickled vegetables. Warmed tortilla chips are free with your order.

Healthy Mexican is the theme here (the Web site actually uses the term "Grillexican," but no doubt wishes it hadn't). Translation: a lot of grilled and steamed items and salads, and you can substitute whole-wheat or low-carb tortillas for regular flour tortillas. The tacos are proper soft tacos served on two warmed corn tortillas, with fillings ranging from grilled chicken to shrimp to a respectable carne asada (steak).

That's not to say you can't find anything fried. The tostada ($6) is more like what most restaurants call a taco salad — a concave fried flour tortilla filled with lettuce, beans, rice, salsa, guacamole and sour cream, with optional meat. It's also available in a smaller size, called the Chico Tostada ($3.25). It's worth ordering this for two reasons: The shell isn't nearly as greasy as a typical taco-salad shell, and it sure is fun to say "Chico Tostada." On a less moderate note, on Tuesdays after 3 p.m., Mezcal offers all-you-can-eat tacos for $9.95.

The healthy-Mex concept hasn't made it to the dessert menu, where the options are churros ($1.75) and fried ice cream ($3.25).

Mezcal Grill is a little frustrating. They definitely know how to cook: The fresh salsas are delicious, and nothing I ordered was disappointing. It passes my standard test: If some friends called up and said, "Hey, we're going to Mezcal Grill. Want to come along?" I wouldn't try to talk them out of it. But in today's landscape of taco trucks and good local chains like Tacos Guaymas and Taqueria El Rinconsito, Mezcal's menu needs spicing up.

Check please:

Chile relleno plate: Chiles rellenos are usually stuffed with meat or cheese, breaded and fried. Mezcal's version, a grilled Anaheim chile stuffed with cheese and onions and served with sour cream and red enchilada sauce, is more austere but quite tasty. The chile relleno is also available running down the center of a burrito — definitely worth a try.

Shrimp burrito: Frankly, I was skeptical. Cabbage, salsa, cheese and steamed shrimp in a burrito? I'm still not sure the cheese was necessary, but overall, this was a nice package, with plenty of shrimp, steamed just until done. Still, they could have coaxed more flavor out of the shrimp without adding much fat by sautéing them.

Fish taco: The cashier asked whether I wanted steamed or fried fish. Enough steamed food, I said. Good move — the breaded snapper with cabbage and dill sauce was fresh-tasting and filling.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Chile relleno plate $7.95

Shrimp burrito $7.95

Fish taco $2.45

Jarritos soda $1.50

Tecate beer $3.00

Tax $2.13

Total $24.98

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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