Take El Camino; move it from Fremont to downtown; cut the room in half; add an obvious, topical name; embrace Belltown hipsters and groovers—that should suffice as a basic introduction to El Ni� El Nino 113 Virginia, 441-5454
dinner daily, weekday lunch
major credit cards; no checks The city's latest upscale Mexican restaurant opened in the old Gravity Bar/Raison D'Etre space four months ago. Accordingly, the room is well dressed in tile, stone, and metal, with vintage lobby cards from old Mexican movies serving as place mats. Clever. But the most significant features of the dining area go unnoticed at first glance. Looming in the shadows above the large front window is a row of darkened stage lights. Black loudspeakers are anchored ominously to the ceiling corners. Hidden behind the host desk: You guessed it, two turntables and a microphone. Come late-night weekends, El Ni� nightclub alter ego takes over as the dining area is cleared to create a dance floor. It's a transition worth avoiding. When the 10 o'clock hour drew near one Friday night, the waitstaff quietly removed empty tables and chairs around us, causing no significant annoyance. That job was left to the DJ. Having just arrived with a box of vinyl, he began fussing with the turntables and the mixer. Then, like an impetuous child, he couldn't resist turning up the music to "test" (long before dancers had arrived) if the system was working. It was, loud and clear. His message was unmistakable: Your dinner is over. Little did he know that my expectations, spurred by a promising if uneven initial visit, were dashed long before he took to the wheels of steel. El Ni� main problem: an identity crisis over whether it is a restaurant, tequila bar, or discotheque. For one Monday night, at least, it was clearly the first. While a handful of folks sampled the long list of tequilas and house margaritas (nice and dry, but pricey) at the bar, dinner was the primary focus, and it began with a bang. Simple as the dish is, finding a good bowl of tortilla soup isn't easy in this town, but El Ni� panchita cervantes sopa azteca ($4.50) was on the money—rich with spices, hot but not too hot, and served as a pur饬 unlike the brothy stuff ladled elsewhere. The los sopes surtidos appetizer ($5.95) was even better, topping three mini-boats of almost creamy masa dough with delectable chicken picadillo, black beans, and roasted vegetables respectively. Splitting these four ways wasn't easy, and not a morsel was wasted. After that auspicious beginning, our entr饳 were disappointing except for one bright spot. El Ni� signature dish, according to our excellent waiter, Damyn, is huachinango a la Veracruz ($12.95), a deep-fried, butterflied red snapper served with a tomato, caper, olive, and garlic sauce. It was an impressive sight on the plate, and the fish couldn't have been more tender or flaky. But like most snapper, it was too mildly flavored to get terribly excited about. Tacos de Cabo pescado ($6.95), served as a plate of odd-tasting, batter-dipped nubbins of ling cod (dozens of them) on corn tortillas, was a peculiar and unappealing take on fish tacos. I expected more from the puerco adobo ($12.95), marinated pork tenderloin that was dry and lifeless. Quite the contrary was true, however, for the sublime carne asada ($10.95). The intensely marinated beef resonated with flavor and, unlike most skirt steak, was practically fork-tender. On the whole, the meal's hits and misses balanced out, leading me to believe the menu held more winners like the carne asada. Alas, it was not to be. My Friday return got off on the wrong foot when the tasty black bean dip, served with fresh cornmeal bread upon seating a few weeks earlier, was replaced by herb butter. A minor quibble, but not a good omen. We were also informed that the kitchen had run out of the los sopes surtidos and calamari appetizers, the lamb shank (borrego), and, for the second straight visit, the tres leches cake. Our alternate appetizer, camar� de coco ($6.95), came recommended, though I couldn't do the same for those four deep-fried prawns coated in coconut flakes. Too chewy, too greasy. I wanted to order carne asada again and told a friend to get it after praising the dish to her relentlessly. I opted instead for pollo guajillo ($11.95), a grilled chicken hindquarter in a sauce of tequila, coconut, pineapple, ginger, and cilantro. How that combination of ingredients could wind up as such a heavy, dark, and oily near-gravy escapes me. The banana-leaf-wrapped tamale con pato ($9.95) was skimpy on the duck meat, and its masa filling was considerably mealier than that used in the los sopes surtidos appetizer. Even the carne asada was a bit of a letdown—still tender, but not as savory or juicy as that memorable first serving. The potential for excellence lurks at El Ni�the Restaurant, but at the moment its food sits several notches below similar offerings at places like El Camino and Cactus. As for El Ni�the Nightspot: What Seattle needs more of are places to eat late, not more dance floors on which to cut a rug early.