When Bar Sajor shuttered last summer, diners mourned the loss of Matt Dillon’s pioneering Pioneer Square restaurant, which dazzled with its Pacific Northwest woodfired delights—and its equally admirable Middle Eastern-skewed interior.
Fans, however, will be giddy about its latest incarnation, Copal (323 Occidental Ave. S, 682-1117), of which Dillon is co-owner. Named after the resin of an ancient tree that originated in Mexico, this latest venture brings Chef Taber Turpin, formerly of Capitol Hill takeout window Taco Gringos, to the white-brick-and-tile woodfired oven. There, he presides over a Latin-American-influenced menu that surprises and satisfies.
Sure, they do tacos: three street-size variations, including barbacoa, mole and poblano, for $4 a pop. The poblano is the standout, with the peppers diced alongside nopales (a species of cactus), squash and peas. But that’s where the usual suspects end. Instead, you’ll find dishes like aguachile, which is ceviche’s quiet, refreshing cousin—a kind of cool Mexican soup made of cucumber juice, serrano pepper, lemon, and lime, in which float delicate shrimp, rings of radish, a heap of cilantro, and crunchy corn nuts. Load up the saltines served on the side for a terrific snack, and slurp up the broth afterward. If you’re choosing between this and the beautifully composed watermelon salad with jicama, cucumber, mint and olive oil, go with the former—at least this time of the year. The watermelon, sadly, was bland, but one can easily envision this being a knockout come summer.
Another vegetarian taco features grilled thick slices of Salvadorean cheese, similar to Greek halloumi, soaked in water to bring out the salt, then quickly seared and served with tortillas and a piquant tomatillo sauce. The salty, earthy tang of this unripened cheese is a startlingly delicious star here.
When it comes to meat, Copal has truly perfected the art of the braise. The beef and pineapple is at once hearty and bright, and teeth are unnecessary to unlock the savory succulence of the meat that’s glazed lightly with a chipotle-spiced bone marrow salsa (but they’re handy when tearing into the caramelized giant slices of tart grilled pineapple that accompany it). Use the basket of tiny tortillas to build a taco and fuse the myriad flavors and textures. For a less decadent but equally impressive meat option, the rotisserie chicken (available as a half or whole size) is marinated (bone-on) with lime and cumin and served with crisp, lightly pickled cabbage, used as a topping but good enough to munch on its own. Again, make a taco of it all and douse it with the aji verde, a green Peruvian chile sauce.
It’s the little touches—the cabbage, the unique salsas, the unusual cheeses, the margarita with just a touch of orange blossom water—that bear the mark of Dillon and that carry this restaurant soaring over others of its ilk. Speaking of liquor, there are also two slushy machines, but these don’t spit out the usual cloyingly sweet concoctions. The Coconut Bikini Slushy instead marries coconut and rum with lime and orange liqueur, the citrus providing the prefect punch to an otherwise tropical cliché. The Fresa Freeze Slushy wasn’t quite ready, but I’m intrigued by its description: blanco, strawberry, Campari, and lemon. It’s a tease to the approaching season.
The interior, too, is thoroughly unique, with a striking black-and-white tiled bar and sophisticated south of the border ambience by way of cooling aqua-green splashes and colorful, delicate paper flowers that are artfully arranged, not fiesta-bright and ubiquitous. They cozy up next to real greenery: a welcoming cactus at the entrance, potted plants throughout and vines gently trailing down the concrete geometric accent wall. A mural above the open kitchen features a stalking, hungry tiger and a parade of fanciful feathered birds. All of this against a predominant white backdrop and ultra-blonde wood flooring achieves a balancing act of restraint and liveliness, a mirror of the menu.
Finally, my friend and I debated what the dessert menu might yield, as we were certain, given the rest of the meal, that it would be unusual and fabulous. In fact, the server informed us that dessert hadn’t been figured out yet, except for one item: a smoked banana milkshake. We ordered it, of course, and then wondered why they’d even bother adding anything else. We took it to go, taking turns sipping it as the early evening sunshine broke through a light mist of rain that made us, for a moment, feel like we were walking the streets of a quiet Mexican town or maybe a Cuban alley. It was the weather in part, but more likely the magic of the kitchen and its ability to transport you a continent away.