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Friday, May 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

Espressos and enchiladas: Now there's more to love at coffee shop

Special to The Seattle Times

Baja Bistro


2410 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle; 206-323-0953

Mexican

$$

Hours: dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, brunch 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, DC, D, MC, V / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

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It's a little confusing, but that only adds to the insiderish charm of Java Love Espresso's evening alter-ego, Baja Bistro. What by day has been for the past decade North Beacon Hill's caffeine epicenter has recently morphed into a restaurant homage to owner Oscar Castro's Mexican mother and grandmother.

It happened when Castro acquired the teensy room just north of his espresso shop, which looked big enough to hold six tables and a kitchen. So he refined his mom's recipes for mole enchiladas, empanadas, Mexican chicken soup and more — and hung out a sign.

The confusing part concerns blurry borders, with the new Baja Bistro space serving Mexican dinners and weekend brunches, and the Java Love space — now the Java Love Cafe — serving its espresso lineup along with Mexican weekday lunches. But nobody much minds. Castro is an uncommonly warm and charismatic host who has placed his mark on virtually every aspect of the operation. He might take a pause from waiting on every table in the room to poke his head out the door to confirm the legality of the parking place you've chosen.

The place is spare, adorned solely with rotating art, but warmed considerably by Castro's hostmanship and the cozy community feel he engenders. And by the food: a nicely executed list of Baja Californian basics from ceviche and fish tacos to empanadas and a killer mole. Brunch reportedly includes egg dishes co-starring serrano peppers, chorizo sausage or shredded beef, and, of course, classic huevos rancheros.

I'll be back for some of that with a cafe con leche come some summer Saturday, when Castro opens his sidewalk patio and transforms Beacon Avenue into a little bit of Ensenada.

Check please:

Chicken consommé: A cup of this chicken-soup recipe makes a magnificent serving, both scaled and seasoned to cure all that ails you — even if all that ails you is hunger pangs. (If a cup is this large, one wonders how big the bowl must be.) A mild yet rich stock offers rice, stewed chicken and a kiss of chile, with a ramekin alongside so you can add your own punctuation in the form of onions, lime and cilantro. Wonderful.

Espinaca ensalada: Fresh emerald spinach leaves are simply tossed with red onions, dusted with plenty of cotija cheese and lavished in a fine, sweet Dijon vinaigrette.

Tacos de pescado: This solid rendition of fish tacos features cabbage, salsa verde, crema Mexicana and pan-fried fish chunks tucked toothsomely inside pillowy corn tortillas. Alongside (as alongside nearly everything here) come lackluster fluffy rice and tasty, if standard, refried beans, jauntily accessorized with a sprig of cilantro.

Mole enchiladas: Three corn tortillas contain a nice slightly-scant-on-the-chicken filling, but then no one orders mole enchiladas for their filling. They order them for the mole, a complex sauce with an exotic eye-of-newt-tongue-of-dog quality to it — for what other sauce on Earth combines raisins, cumin, anise, almond butter, plantains, peppercorns, several varieties of chilies and chocolate? Recipes for this ancient concoction differ, but Baja Bistro's is beautifully peppered (four kinds!), with whispers of cinnamon and lovely bitter chocolate vying for prominence. A very solid version.

Margarita: Let me bravely admit that a large part of Baja Bistro's appeal is the fact that you can get real booze here — in a nice big glass with plenty of ice, hand-squeezed lime juice and salt around the rim, if you order the margarita. This one will go down especially good once Castro gets the permit for his sidewalk dining.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Chicken consommé (cup) $1.75

Espinaca ensalada $3.95

Tacos de pescado $10.95

Mole enchiladas $9.95

Margarita $5.00

Tax $2.78

Total $34.38

Kathryn Robinson: kathrynrobinson@speakeasy.net

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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