"WHY CAN'T I FIND a decent Mexican meal in this town?" groaned a Santa Fe expat recently, and I had to sympathize. Oh, we've a handful: There's Fandango for swanky, Cactus for popular, Mama's for campy, El Puerco Lloron for cheap—and speaking of cheap, there's this funny little cart that sometimes sets up at Rainier and South Edmunds that whips up one badass taco for the change rattling around in your pocket. Tia Lou's
2218 First, 733-8226 lunch Mon-Fri 11:30am-2pm, dinner Mon-Sat 5pm till whenever AE, MC, V (no checks); full bar But, without question, we are underrepresented by restaurants that understand chili peppers and the distinctive nuances of their fire, restaurants whose salsas serve more to enliven the palate than numb it half-dead. A new entry on the scene gets it about right, however, and it's called Tia Lou's. It's in Belltown, but don't hold that against it (they even offer, gasp, free parking) and it opened last May, starting its life as Mama Lou's. The title character here is Eluteria Garcia Contreras, a New Mexican matron who reportedly fixed a mean tamale and pozole and green chili stew for her kids and grandkids as they grew. Two of those grandkids, Greg and Eric Contreras, entered the restaurant biz four years ago, starting a couple of sports bars in Bellevue. Last year they found the space late vacated by the 2218 Club, a charming loft-encircled, brick-clad room that wouldn't need much doing to make into Old Mexico. That they did, right down to the burbling fountain in the middle of the room, and the Contreras brothers' tribute to their grandmother Lou was up and running. When Mama's Mexican Kitchen took issue with the name, the brothers chose instead their grandmother's nickname, Tia Lou. She'd be honored. Brochetas de Mariscos ($13.75, to be shared by two people) was a platter of fish, prawns, vegetables, and orange wedges on six skewers, charbroiled carefully and brushed with a glaze of savory chipotle butter. Black beans were heaped on one side of the platter, a rakish cilantro-pocked corn salad on the other. All in all, a sensational appetizer. Lou's tamales ($4.75 for three, $8.75 for six, $16.50 for a dozen) were moist and grand, their firm, tender golden crusts giving way to a fiery red chili/pork filling. Aside from the sure-handed flavors, the fusion of textures here was just right. The seafood quesadilla ($8.95) was another textural score, with heaps and heaps of Dungeness crab and shrimp falling out between flour tortilla flaps all creamy with cheese. Topped with a big dollop of sour cream and drizzled with an artful orange swirl of roasted red pepper and chili sauce, this one was absolute heaven on the palate, comfort food's comfort food. Another appetizer with mouth-feel was the torta ($7.50), a couple of flour tortillas stuffed with black beans, shredded chicken, and cream cheese, then fried, allowing all kinds of satisfying creamy/crunchy pleasures. Queso fundito ($5.75), a trio of melted cheeses topped with chorizo, grilled cactus, and poblano pepper strips respectively, were served alongside the aforementioned corn salad, some pico de gallo, and flour tortillas. Bundled together, these little packages—a favorite of our terrific waiter—were winners, particularly when dipped in salsa. Indeed, the mini-tacos appetizer ($4.95) was unremarkably fine, as was the bottomless basket of homemade chips. It was the salsas served with them—one tomatillo, one superspicy habanero sauce, one basic red salsa—that elevated the experience into the sphere of the memorable. Chef Rick Hansen (of Bellevue's late, great Italian restaurant, Domani) simply knows his sauces, and he wields them shrewdly. Chicken mole cr갥s ($9.25) were draped in a bravely chocolaty rendition of the classic sauce, with more than a whisper of welcome bitterness. With them came a generous serving of chunky roasted vegetables and black rice, a fluffy vegetarian grain with an unusual, almost roasted flavor. One chicken dish, pollo Huazteco ($11.95), featured a tastily roasted breast in a seductive honey chili glaze—a sweeter deployment of chilies than I'd ever tasted, and divine. Mild lentil rice and extravagantly spicy Mexican corn, dotted with white queso fresco cheese and fired up with serrano chilies, showcased the dish nicely. Another roasted chicken dish, pollo al chipotle ($11.95), featured the same juicy meat in a red sauce that left a ring of fire blazing blissfully in the back of my throat. The flames didn't consume any other flavors or leave me uncomfortably singed, as hot food so often will; they left me wanting more. So more we ate, from a fine but unremarkable chile relleno ($8.95) to enchiladas rancheras ($8.95) in a fabulous bell pepper sauce to a tough but (whaddaya know) splendidly sauced carne asada. After, reflecting on why we wanted so much to return, the refinement of all these sauces splashed vividly to mind. But Tia Lou's appeal transcends cooking, going out of its way to be welcoming. They offer not only a small parking lot for customers (just north of the restaurant—check in with the host once parked) but also some of the most attentive, charming service to ever traverse a language barrier. There's a gratis intermezzo between courses: for us a lemon sorbet refreshingly drizzled with tequila. Even the bill is friendly: A couple would really have to pig out to break $50. I can't think of a more pleasurable goal.