Mall refuge takes diners south of the border
Special to The Seattle Times
600 Pine St. (Pacific Place), Seattle; 206-405-3400
Web site: www.eatatmexico.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Prices: lunch appetizers $3.99-$9.99, entrees $6.99-$14.99; dinner appetizers $3.99-$12.99; entrees $10.99-$21.99.
Wine: This is Margarita-ville, amigos. The wine list is short; the tequila list lengthy.
Parking: Pacific Place garage.
Who should go: A haven for shoppers, moviegoers, margarita and mojito fans, and guacamole geeks.
Full bar / all major cards / smoking permitted at the bar only / no obstacles to access.
As a group of girlfriends deliberated over the margarita-heavy drinks list at Mexico Cantina y Veracruz Cooking, a waiter stood by, pencil poised, as if he were used to this.
"Does the hibiscus syrup in the Mexican mojito make it sweet?" asked one.
"Very," he answered.
"I think I'll have a margarita then," she said.
"I would," he said, an emphatic nod underscoring his approval.
Candid, patient and informed: Those are good traits in a waiter, and he was no anomaly here. The staff at this mall-bound Mexican eatery tries hard to make customers happy.
When Mexico Cantina replaced Desert Fire on the fourth floor of Pacific Place nearly two years ago, owners Carl Garrett and Jack Baum needed only to tweak the Southwest decor to come up with something more South of the Border.
Behind the racy red facade lies a dimly lit, cavelike retreat from the hurly-burly of the mall. Fabric-wrapped lights hanging from the ceiling resemble electric chili peppers, and pretty glass mosaic candleholders twinkle on each bare table. Sun-baked "stones" stack to form walls and archways, forging intimacy in a 300-seat space that sprawls from bar and lounge to outdoor balcony, from "sidewalk" tables to a fire-lit dining area and a secluded private room beyond.
Brazilian-born executive chef Fernanda Fulkerson draws both on her professional training at the Culinary Institute of America as well as on the practical know-how of her largely Mexican kitchen staff to produce a menu that merges her own contemporary riffs with more traditional fare.
Expect tacos, tamales, burritos and fajitas, but also look for entrees like "Puerco Veracruzano" and "Ahi Tuna Flores." A sharp look could cut the tender pieces of pork, smothered in a smoky, chili-haunted tomato sauce. They rest on long-grained rice flecked with scallions and corn and spiked with the fine house salsa. The pepper-and-spice-rubbed rectangles of seared rare tuna are arranged petal-like over a mound of the same Mexican rice, joining slices of summer squash, asparagus spears and green beans, the grilled vegetables brushed with a fruity marinade of balsamic vinegar and spices.
The daily changing blackened fish ($17.99) might be mahi-mahi, and it might be overcooked and dry, as ours unfortunately was. Too bad, because the dish is an interesting composition presented with a sweet yam gratin, grilled portobello slices and young spinach leaves splashed with a tangy, warm dressing.
Mahi-mahi fared better in another day's fish tacos, wrapped in soft white corn tortillas with alfalfa sprouts and dabbed with a mayonnaiselike sauce. But the sprouts don't have enough presence; what these slender tacos need is something sturdier, like cabbage.
Too much cabbage detracts from a trio of sopes, billed as an appetizer but big enough for a meal. Three corn tortillas molded into cups form a base for layering black bean sauce and shredded cabbage, each topped alternately with shards of salmon, chicken or shredded vegetables. The tortilla shells are difficult to cut, more awkward to pick up and eat whole, and the flavors are bland.
Better to start with Mexican wedding soup, a chipotle-stoked chicken broth gentled with corn and avocado. If you go with a group, order "El Trio," three dips with distinct personalities: mild-mannered guacamole studded with pico de gallo, smooth and sultry chili con queso and kicky bean purée. Scoop them up with plantain chips, warm flour tortillas or the house tortilla chips. Fried, salted and spritzed with lime juice, these frequently go home with customers by the bagful.
Combo plates allow you to pair tacos, enchiladas, tender tamales (made from staffer "Mama Miriam's" recipe with assorted fillings) and chiles rellenos (a poblano delicately stuffed with chicken and cheese). These, like most everything else, come with charro beans, whole pintos cooked with bacon, onion and chilies.
Fulkerson uses her grandmother's recipe for the Frisbee-sized flan with caramel sauce, one of several super-size desserts on display including chocolate chimichangas that could double as Yule logs.
The waiter was quick to pick up on our lack of enthusiasm over a chocolate trifle, layers of pudding and cake topped with whipped cream and served in a glass as big as a Vatican chalice.
"How is it?" he asked, and the boldest of the group spoke up.
"You didn't say it had coconut in it."
He immediately offered to bring something else but we chose to forego the calories, and he took the dessert off the bill instead. Nice, but even nicer was the waiter who offered to brew fresh coffee — regular and decaf — for two women lingering over paperwork after lunch.
"Do you have the time to wait?" he asked. For service that thoughtful, you bet.
Providence Cicero: email@example.com
Mexican wedding soup $3.99
Enchilada, taco, tamale combo $12.99
Chile relleno $10.99
Ahi Tuna Flores $16.99
Puerco Veracruzano $16.99
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