Carlos Kainz expects two phone calls from all first-time visitors to Dulces Latin Bistro. The first call is to say that they heard from a friend about Dulces' marvelous food and astonishing wine list and want to make a reservation. The second—usually placed from a competing establishment in Madison Park—is to inquire plaintively just where the hell the place is, anyway.
If the secret of success is location, location, and location, Kainz and his wife, Julie Guerrero, have a problem, because no matter how carefully they explain that their restaurant is on 34th just off East Union in Madrona, people still blithely drive miles out of their way to 34th and East Madison, which may well be the only block on that long, long street that doesn't boast two or three restaurants at least.
Once they have found Dulces, however, they are likely to return, particularly if they take their wine very seriously. No one entering the place can miss the two (soon to be three) huge glass-fronted wine coolers containing 1,100 (soon to be 1,600) bottles, most of them among the highest of high-end reds from California and Washington. The wine cooler is literally the restaurant's centerpiece. Only the faintest, crisp aroma signals the hermetically sealed, hyperventilated "cigar lounge" to the right, while the restaurant itself, with its understated decor and floor-to-ceiling windows, is like a clean white charger plate waiting for the first dish to arrive.
Compared to the gargantuan wine list, Dulces' menu is disarmingly modest in size; indeed, a couple could eat right through Guerrero's summer menu, devouring appetizers and main dishes alike tapas-style (half-orders are available for most entr饳).
Among the former, the "trio of tostaditas" light up the table as they ignite the appetite: tiny corn-chip rounds topped with tangy preparations of chicken and tomato, tiny cubed beef bits in lime and cilantro, and cod ceviche ($8.75). Prawns a la diabla ($7.95) are saut饤 in butter and chiles; most luscious of all are the "red pepper ravioli" ($7.95), which resemble flat little square enchiladas, filled with mozzarella and ricotta delicately laced with just a whiff of chorizo sausage. You'll be hard put not to sop up every last trace of the cilantro-tomatillo cream they come in.
The one course on the current Dulces menu that lacks a real beaut is the vegetable soups, served cold in honor of the season; neither the cucumber nor the beet pur饠was distinctly seasoned enough to enliven the bland vegetable flavors. But a light hand with the seasonings is one of the things that sets Guerrero's cooking apart from most "Latin" restaurants. A pastry chef by training, she favors dishes that snuggle up to the diner, revealing their qualities one at a time.
The green chicken enchiladas ($18.95) are a perfect example: You hardly notice where the dainty chicken and manchego cheese filling of the soft tortillas stop and where the creamy tomatillo-avocado sauce they're baked in starts. Roughly treated, carne asada ($18.95) can be mighty chewy; in Guerrero's hands the skirt steak, marinated in garlic and chili oil, practically immolates itself on your tongue before your teeth even come into play.
But tenderness reaches its apogee with the carnitas de puerco ($19.50), melting chunks of browned, braised pork swimming in warm, dark adobo sauce with a side of grilled ripe mango. For fans of country Mexican home cooking, there's a pozole (a soupy pork and hominy stew, $18.95) that's as close to what Mamacita used to make as you're going to get north of the border.
The only dish on the menu that isn't fighting way above its weight class is the paella Valenciana ($21.95), but paella is a dish that—outside the Iberian peninsula—should only be made at home; it's just too persnickety to stay fresh and succulent in a restaurant kitchen, even the best.
Dessert is a high point (not an enormous surprise, given Guerrero's pastry background). Pastel tres leches ($5.50) is a soft, succulent cake saturated with milk products, a sort of Mexican-style semifreddo but more austere, classic, and scrumptious. To order another dessert would seem to be folly; when you know perfection's waiting for you, why take chances?
Considering that host/wine steward Kainz has assembled a world-class wine list (honored last year by Wine Spectator magazine), it's curious that nothing on the menu screams at the top of its lungs for ripe red wine: no duck, no tournedos, no roast meats. But that may reflect the summer menu's emphasis on light dining. In any case, don't fail at least to leaf through the wine list; you'll see big names there at prices distinctly lower than restaurant average (and lower by another 25 percent every Wednesday). Dulces is one of the places wine pros dine when they're in town, so even wine tyros can be reasonably certain that if insanity strikes and a $130 bottle of Leonetti cabernet ends up on the table, they're getting their money's worth—and then some.