MAYBE I'M GETTING old. On the other hand, I'm not sure I've ever been young enough to suffer the decibels throbbing through the wall of Fuel, ARO.space's cafeteria, a few nights back. "OH, THIS? THIS IS A SOUND CHECK," screamed our waiter. At least I think that's what he screamed. "IT'S NOT USUALLY THIS LOUD." At a certain point sound actually produces motion, I was fascinated to discover; our dinners started dancing to the edges of the table and all the chairs shimmied on each buzz of bass. Fuel, the ARO.space Cafeteria
925 E Pike, 860-7395
AE, MC, V; beer and wine only till 10pm, then full bar Just as my eardrums were starting to peel away from my flesh, the chaos ceased; someone had either decided the sound had been sufficiently checked or died a really loud death. Welcome to ARO.space. You know the place; it's the old Moe's, on the corner of Pike and 10th on Capitol Hill. The cafeteria is the sterile, minimalist, high-ceilinged white box on the corner of the corner. If those words sound pejorative, they don't mean to be; you'll recall that sterile and minimalist were all the rage a few decades ago. Chairs and tables are Danish modern-y; windows are glazed white with face-sized pop-art polka dots. One half expects to see Petula Clark or Dusty Springfield's bloomin' mug appear inside one of them, or Austin Powers to come prancing down the staircase. Instead you look around and all you see are a pretty lonesome kitchen and maybe two or three sets of diners. Could it be, oh, I don't know, the freakishly loud noise? Our waiter had another explanation. "When we opened we had a lot of business, especially for Sunday brunch," he lamented. According to him, a quick succession of managers took their toll on the place; one of them ditched the Sunday brunch and popularity tanked. "A new manager is working to get things back on track now," he told us. Indeed, Seattle Weekly knows better than most about Fuel's glory days: The place turned out to be a dark horse for the coveted Best Vegetarian Restaurant award in the last Best of Seattle poll. Clearly, a whole lot of people love this place. I came to find out why. ON THE WRONG night, as it turned out. Though it's technically open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday, no one at Fuel seems too terribly troubled by accuracy. "This week we were closed on Wednesday," the waiter told me matter-of-factly when I called to inquire the next day. (Moral: call first.) I placed a to-go order, and I brought home enough to feed an army. I opened the box with the cheese-filled corn tortilla quesadillas topped with beans, pico de gallo, and cumin lime sour cream ($6.50), and here is what I found: flour tortilla quesadillas with no beans, no pico, no sour cream. (Like I said, no one's too troubled by accuracy.) Oh, the quesadillas were fine, such as they were, nicely filled with smoked mozzarella, Vermont cheddar, and Romano cheeses. But leaving out the fun stuff was a mistake that cost this dish the better part of its interest. I could have made it at home, for Pete's sake. The grilled veggie dog ($4.25) was more interesting. Veggie dogs taste utterly different from sawdust-and-animal-parts hot dogs, but it's good different, with a similar salty, tangy hit. I liked them. They grill up greaseless and at first don't seem to have quite earned their grill-marks. Doctored up with exotic greens, ours turned out to be quite the treat. The menu promised thick-cut French fries to go with them; instead we got those greasy, coated, addictive curly fries that Jack in the Box has made popular. Pretty yummy; pretty gummy. Pasta Napolitana ($6.95) was the failure of the evening. Not only was it another dish as patently uninteresting as something I would make—spaghetti in a basil marinara topped with melted Romano—it tasted off, with a subtle burned flavor. It was to have come with a small salad and bread; it did not. Neither did I get my spinach salad. Just as I was cooking up some really bad adjectives for these people, I opened the last box. Veggie Rice Bowl ($6.50) was a heap of long grain white, speckled with nutty wild rice, topped with grilled skewers of fresh vegetables with marinated tofu and ladled generously with spicy peanut sauce. Delightful! Substantial! This dish gave us our first glimmer of insight about Fuel's devoted following; it was tasty and inventive and extremely affordable. It's why we came back. AND WHEN WE , did the nice waiter who explained to us about the sound check compensated by taking our order at our table; usually you order up front (hence, the ARO.space Cafeteria). So he didn't know what beers they served ("DID I ALREADY SAY GUINNESS?" he screamed—twice); the poor boy's probably entitled to some form of worker's compensation for the brain-deadening effect of internally bleeding ears. And he brought us some terrific food. "A Mountain of Nachos" ($7.25) is aptly named, and literally enough for dinner, for two. Homemade tortilla chips, light and dark, are bountifully topped with melted mozzarella and cheddar, piles of black beans, good salsa, and Fuel's dazzling innovation, cilantro lime sour cream. This is just the kind of munchfest you want after the party at 1am; providentially, ARO.space Cafeteria stays open till two. The gardenburger ($6.50; $1 extra with side salad) was another hit, though my friend was a little deflated to encounter the usual frozen patty. A plump wheaty kaiser roll had a sprightly orange sweet pepper spread and was accompanied by the usual fresh fixins. As we were growing accustomed to expect, it came sans the promised fries, but the side salad, though relentlessly dressed, was fine, featuring fun dried cranberries and toasted sunflower seeds. But the hit was the huevos rancheros ($7.25): a big glorious mess of rice, black beans, scrambled eggs, two cheeses, a splendid ranchero sauce, and that indecent sour cream, all over a flour tortilla. Such dishes are simple, really, filling and everlastingly fun to eat, but the Almighty himself can live in their details, and does in this case. The ranchero sauce was unique and sure-handedly spiced; the eggs elevated by the inspired addition of herby clarified butter; the sour cream beyond description. It was sometime after the ambient throbbing gave way to Duran Duran that we arrived at our conclusion: Despite the formidable carelessness of this hopefully transitional phase, someone at Fuel seems to be excited about food. The best dishes here have an enthusiasm that one can't often buy at three times the price. So what if they forgot my red pepper and fennel soup of the day ($3.50, $4.75)? They sent it home with me and it made my lunch next day a perky thing indeed.