If a few glasses of mezcal don't scrub empathy from your emotional repertoire, please take pity on the diners seated in the back room of Mezcaleria Oaxaca, the vibrant uphill offshoot of Ballard's tremendously popular La Carta de Oaxaca. Removed from the open-kitchen hubbub that consumes the trunk of this T-shaped restaurant, the aft annex houses a counter set with a trio of self-service salsas, a clear barrel of horchata—positioned so closely to the salsas that you'll wonder if you're meant to help yourself—and a water station. Smack in the center of the room is a table big enough to accommodate most wedding rehearsal parties. Tables for two are pressed against the cramped room's perimeter, an afterthought arrangement that forces servers to take orders from five paces and deliver plates over other guests' heads. Enhancing the studio-apartment feel is a silver goat roaster wedged in the back corner, monopolizing precious elbow room.
MEZCALERIA OAXACA 2123 Queen Anne Ave. N., 216-4446, mezcaleriaoaxaca.com. 5-11 p.m. Mon.-Tues.; noon-3 p.m. & 5-11 p.m. Wed.-Thurs; noon-3 p.m. & 5 p.m.-midnight Fri.-Sat.
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The meat that emerges from that roaster, however, has riveted residents of Queen Anne, a neighborhood rarely associated with culinary bravery. Since its opening last fall, Mezcaleria Oaxaca has drawn a steady crowd of eaters equally intent on demonstrating their gustatory bona fides and not straying too far from home. (On my first visit, I spied a Canlis.) They've lapped up the goat with a fervor born of countless meals of mushroom tarts and caramelized carrots, often neglecting to leave any for fellow diners who have the temerity to show up after 7 p.m.
Like them, I wanted to love the barbacoa de cabrito, but I wasn't wowed by my serving of shredded goat. The sweated puddle of grease and chili marinade that encircled the plate was rich with the jagged flavors of fat and heat, but the meat itself was dry and overwhelmed by a slightly stale smokiness, the sort which sticks to clothes after a campfire. The plate's a pie chart of Oaxacan staples, with equal portions of goat, black beans puréed to a pudding consistency, and masa scribbled with red chile sauce. At its edges, there's a lime wedge and a clump of diced white onions to help the goat along.
But Mezcaleria Oaxaca's success isn't contingent upon goat. The restaurant excels at basic dishes which elude lesser kitchens, and the stylish bar's so spunky that it probably wouldn't matter if it didn't. My favorite experience at Mezcaleria Oaxaca didn't involve ambitious meats or the aggravatingly crowded rear dining room: Late on a Saturday night, I had an off-menu quesadilla and a Pacifico at the busy kitchen counter, and couldn't imagine a better venue in which to end the evening. A mezcalería is a showcase for the finest smoky distillates of the maguey plant, of course, but if the Perez family's rendition of the genre is any indication, young Oaxacans must use these joints the way Midwesterners use Denny's. Mezcaleria Oaxaca is a locus of evenhanded hospitality and salty comfort food.
With its sleek bar and honeyed lighting, Mezcaleria Oaxaca's front room looks extraordinarily polished, even though it's furnished with more tchotchkes than auctioneers uncover in abandoned storage lockers. There's a stuffed turkey and leather suitcases in nooks above the bar, and the yellow-slatted walls are covered with shadow boxes, mirrors, and black-and-white photographs of agave, shot from various angles. The riot of dissonant, colorful objects spawns the sensation of being cocooned in a lotería card box.
The cocktail list is short, probably because it takes a strong liqueur or a bushel of supporting ingredients to cut through mezcal's persistent smoke. Mezcaleria Oaxaca makes a lime margarita with mezcal, which serves mostly to persuade drinkers that it's a better idea to take the stuff straight. Every mezcal approved for sale in Washington state is on Mezcaleria Oaxaca's list, and $15 buys a flight of three, giving first-timers the chance to decide whether they belong to the white, dorado (golden), or reposado (aged) camp.
The mezcals are served in traditional footed clay cups, a tangible reminder that the centuries-old drink—which owes its existence to the Moors or a bolt of lightning, depending on which creation story you prefer—is meant to be sipped, not shot. The older, more complex, low-valley mezcals are a bear to match with food; like single-malt scotches, they're best enjoyed with cheese, perhaps in quesadilla form.
Also like single-malts, mezcals vary tremendously according to where they're produced. But there's very little information on the menu to guide a drinker who's craving a mezcal with notes of vanilla and fig. A spirits list doesn't have to be detailed if there's a staffer on hand to explain the differences among various drinks, but that was never the case when I visited Mezcaleria Oaxaca. The servers are perpetually swamped, in proper greasy-spoon fashion, and the lone bartender is usually preoccupied with muddling.
His muddling duties are multiplied by a list of fresh non-alcoholic options, including a limeade and a lemonade that strikes exactly the right balance of tart and sweet. Now that fried chicken is gracing food-magazine covers, it would be terrific if folks started thinking about well-made lemonade: Mezcaleria Oaxaca's version is a model worth copying.
While the lemonade wasn't too sugary, nearly every dish I tried was sweet, possibly a calculated response to the smokiness of the restaurant's signature spirit. A grilled steak was nearly obscured by a heap of stewed tomatoes and onions rife with natural sugars. Shrimp cocktail usually bends toward the far end of the sweet meter in Mexican traditions—a popular online recipe suggests goosing the appetizer with orange soda—but the tomato sauce sharing a stout glass with half a dozen quarter-sized shrimp had an intense candied flavor. A roasting spit harpooned with flaps of glistening pork, framed between a bisected pineapple, looked appealing, but the tacos made from its aggressively marinated meat and fruit tasted like a confection Betty Crocker might have designed for a Mexican dinner party.
Yet for every dish that doesn't hit the mark, there's one that works wonderfully. (Your odds of encountering the latter are pretty good, as this is not a restaurant where a $10 chicken enchilada suffices as a meal.) The pork ribs slathered in a fine-tuned mole negro, earthy and aromatic, are fantastically tender. A seafood stew, brimming with shrimp, bony fish, and a slender crab leg, prickles with chili and brine. The soup can be attacked with a spoon or sopped up with a warm white-corn tortilla, the single best thing at Mezcaleria Oaxaca.
Most meals start with tortilla chips and a swirl of knobby guacamole, but it's almost a shame to fry these specimens. Mezcaleria Oaxaca's tortillas are hand-patted by a crew of masa mavens in potters' smocks, women who've mastered the art of imbuing ground parched corn with plushness and froth. The tortillas have a subtle springtime sweetness and a gratifying chew. The math which led to so many seats in the back dining room may have been faulty, but customers free to do their own figuring will find the counter, corn tortillas, and a cup of mezcal add up to an experience worth having.
Shrimp cocktail $8
Seafood stew $10
Mole negro $10