Breaking the Rules at Poquitos

Encore servings are required at Capitol Hill's sunniest Mexican joint.

My frequent review companions know the drill: At a review dinner, there's no ordering a dish that's already been claimed, monopolizing a plate, or ostentatiously asking "What do you need me to get?" within earshot of a server. The rules are so ingrained in my eating-out friends that they've learned to police their own infractions. So I knew something was off-kilter when I mentioned an upcoming review meal at Poquitos to a diner who'd joined me at the glitzy Capitol Hill cantina for my first visit. He suddenly looked as sheepish as the rookie review partner who helpfully provided a restaurant host with my real name when she arrived early for our lunch. Mustering the seriousness most people save for tax season, he told me he'd been thinking about the carne asada he'd had at Poquitos. While many north-of-the-border kitchens bless sirloins and ribeyes with the traditional grilling treatment, a spectacularly flavorful, corn-fed skirt steak from Painted Hills stars in Poquitos' version of the dish. Skirt steak, known as "fajita steak" to Tex-Mex fans, comes from the underbelly of the cow, and has a regrettable reputation as a tough and chewy cut. Handled correctly—as it is at Poquitos—the meat struts with an unabashed beefiness. Poquitos' carne asada glitters with a guajillo sauce that lends the beef an enchanting heat and parrots the smokiness of the scalding grill, where the steak picks up its crust. The standard serving temperature is medium-rare, which keeps the red meat from straying beyond tender territory. Plated with grilled onions and plopped in a puddle of the zesty pepper sauce, the beef makes for a very pretty picture that my review companion couldn't get out of his mind. "I think I want to order that steak again," he told me. Re-orders are verboten on review visits, unless the restaurant has so badly botched a dish that a second chance is warranted. My date knew it, and so did I. Yet as I revealed in my reciprocal confession, I'd been daydreaming about a repeat too: I wanted a second go at Poquitos' spicy shrimp.  At Poquitos, margaritas are served on the rocks in one flavor—lime—and there aren't any nachos. Yet the restaurant doesn't evoke old Mexico so much as it recalls a much-needed Mexican vacation. The venue has been craftily engineered by Deming Maclise and James Weimann, who notoriously hammed up the French-bistro theme at Bastille in Ballard. At Poquitos, the tiled Art Nouveau dining room and heated patio bar are typically packed with noisy merrymakers who've come to drink tequila and shimmy to the pickings of a roving mariachi band. It's the scene shivering Seattleites envision when they book a trip to Cancún in December. Even the exuberant servers here could double as Club Med counselors: "A bunch of tickets got lost, blah, blah, blah," a notably chipper server explained when we asked after a missing order of guacamole, reasonably confident that one delayed appetizer wouldn't interfere with our fun. "Another margarita?" Just as beachgoers who spend a week in Mexico have a knack for romanticizing the country—drug warfare and rampant poverty don't fit the vacation narrative—it's easy for eaters to overlook Poquitos' minor flaws. The popular patio can feel cramped, the drinks are weak, and a number of dishes lack punch. But there are sufficient enticements here to feed fantasies and spur multiple return trips. Take the shrimp, which I rationalized back to my table by pointing out that my second-round dining companions deserved the opportunity to try it. The half-pound of plump prawns are shrouded in a maroon-hued chipotle garlic sauce that stings the fingers. While the curlicued critters are no doubt designed to be swaddled in one of Poquitos' cushy, housemade corn tortillas, it's tempting to treat them like Mexican crawfish, alternating swigs of draft Pacifico with brave gulps of saucy shrimp. The shrimp's encore performance was slightly less impressive than its initial showing. The heat was drastically dialed back from the nostril-clearing, neck-wetting heights that made the first batch so pleasurable. But had I not spent the previous week savoring their memory, I probably wouldn't have cared. The menu's appetizer section is studded with equally enjoyable snacks. As a second-wave Mexican restaurant, Poquitos exercises the right to charge for chips and salsa. Complain about the vanishing free-chip tradition if you must, but do spend the $3 for the crisp corn chips, cleanly fried in rice oil. The chips are paired with a tangy tomatillo sauce spiked with cilantro and lime, and, most recently, a tomato-based sauce. The new salsa, which apparently aggravated some guests, supplanted a superior, garlicky fraternal twin of the tomatillo dip. When customers ask for salsa, it seems, they want something red. There's also guacamole, advertised as "made to order." It's not mashed tableside, so cilantro and onion specifications are left to the kitchen's discretion. But the "made to order" business isn't for naught: The avocado-rich dip is flamboyantly fresh. Poquitos doesn't linger over fruits and vegetables, but the examples I tried were excellent. A summery starter of grilled corn, shaved from the cob and mingled with crema, Cotija, and lime juice, was an elegant take on elotes. The cubed watermelon in a salad of queso fresco and mint was a shade short of peak ripeness, but the dish tasted outdoorsy and vital. I had no quarrel with the freshness of the ceviche, although the nomenclature struck me as a stretch: The nubbins of fish were buried under so much shredded cabbage that the appetizer should have been categorized as coleslaw. Mannered diners will like the Oaxacan-style tlayuda, a steering wheel–sized canvas of a crackery fried tortilla, patchy with smeared black beans and garnished with lettuce, onions, diced tomatoes, Cotija, crema, and crumbled chorizo. The dish, sometimes compared to a pizza, is essentially a flat taco salad. It's not bad, but if it's cheese and pork you're chasing, there's more deliciousness in a skillet of queso fundido, the classic Mexican chorizo fondue. The messy mix of molten cheese and pig flesh is terrific, especially around its burnt edges. Not every drink on Poquitos' Latin-leaning cocktail menu works: A house punch of sangría, tequila, red wine, port, brandy, and grenadine is closer to Hawaiian Punch than the sophisticated communal drinks, such as the Chatham Artillery and Fish House punches mixologists have lately resurrected. But I loved a cocktail made from jalapeño-infused tequila, muddled pineapple, and lime; its sweetness would be the perfect foil to the saltiness of Poquitos' chicharrones. To eaters not accustomed to pork rinds, the fried bubbles of skin deliver all the joy of gnawing on packaging material. There's plenty of focused swine flavor behind the odd texture, though, as the chicharrones admirably out-pig bacon.  Parties who press on to the entrée section will find a selection of fairly straightforward tacos, a trio of enchiladas—including a wonderful chicken enchilada slathered with a rich, chocolaty mole negro—and half a dozen protein platters. My server expressed concern when I requested the goat. "Have you had goat before?" he ventured. His anxiety hadn't subsided when he picked up my plate, cleaned of the stringy braised meat, saturated with a peppery tomato marinade, and accompanying fingerling potatoes. "It wasn't too gamy?" he asked worriedly. Not at all. But it was missing a shot of heat, a problem that also afflicted a slightly dry rendition of carnitas and shredded brisket tacos. Our server offered us bottled hot sauce to goose the dishes; knowing what Poquitos' kitchen is capable of doing with peppers, I wish we'd been given a housemade solution. Most platters are served with rice and beans, neither of which reaches the standards Poquitos has established with its other dishes. The tomato-touched rice was invariably dry, the stewed black beans badly underseasoned. I hope Poquitos will get its sides right before the summer starts in earnest, since few restaurants are better suited for the season. In the meantime, I'll happily slide my rice and beans aside to make room on my table for carne asada, chipotle prawns, guacamole, queso fundido, and all the other successful dishes that I can now permissibly order again. And again. Price Guide Guacamole $8.95 Queso fundido 8.95 Watermelon salad $6.95 Carne asada $16.95 Chipotle prawns $14.95 Chicken mole enchiladas $11.95 hraskin@seattleweekly.com

 
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