If you’re fortunate enough to have a waterfront cabin to which you can retreat for a week or so each summer, your getaway plans probably include such admirable tasks as fixing the dock, trimming the hedges, painting the porch, and finally tackling the collected works of Dostoyevsky.
But no matter how much time you block out for vacation, the season usually ends much as it began: The dock has a few rotting planks, the shrubbery is overgrown, the screened-in porch’s back wall is peeling, and all you have to show for hours spent reading is a stack of gossipy magazines, their pages wrinkled and bloated with beach water. It’s tough to muster motivation with a liquor cabinet and a swimming hole within easy reach.
That seems to be the trouble at Little Water Cantina, the sassy Mexican joint in Eastlake that boasts this summer’s most-happening patio. The new restaurant has a significant swath of property along the edge of Lake Union, and diners are willing to endure hour-plus waits to secure a spot at one of the communal wooden picnic tables situated perpendicularly to the calming view of sailors and rowers at play. Trimmed with a scrum of spindly, spiny flowering plants, the 2,000-square-foot concrete deck has an alluring resort feel, especially when the clouds dissipate.
For guests who find themselves at Little Water on a chilly, hazy evening, the best seat is at the bar, where Ryan Minch is in charge of the cocktail program. Minch has put together a smart list of Latin-influenced drinks, although he doesn’t mind when guests with less baroque tastes deviate from it. If an $11 margarita made with aged tequila sounds extravagant, a standard $7 margarita is expertly made with fresh lime juice and served without a sneer.
But there’s incentive to stray beyond the standbys. A dusky Manhattan variation, made with tequila, Cherry Heering, and chocolate bitters, is distinguished by a warm, sweet spice. While perhaps a mite too cheerless for summertime quaffing, the cocktail would be just the drink to sip while seated in a leather wingback chair.
Equally impressive, and far more appropriate for the season, is a scurvy-banishing concoction of cachaça, Serrano peppers, lime juice, pineapple juice, and mint leaves. The bracing Spicy Fogo—served, as are all Little Water’s cocktails, in a pretty globular tumbler—is a perky companion for patio sunning. Same goes for the house agua fresca, a sheer, non-alcoholic watermelon drink with a citrus lilt.
Only the most photosensitive curmudgeon could find fault with a cocktail-drinking session on Little Water’s sun-drenched patio. What’s wrong with the restaurant is what lies between the bar and the back deck.
Perhaps reasoning that patrons are lulled into complacency by the setting and strong drink, Little Water’s staffers don’t bother with details like proffering repeatedly requested glasses of water or cooking proteins to the correct temperature. Promised tortillas never arrive, and sandwiches are served on stale bread. When my party of four asked for small plates to supplement a spread of various appetizers, our server plopped three entrée-sized plates on our table.
I found Little Water’s habitual carelessness aggravating. Owners Laura and Shannon Wilkinson, who’s served as sole chef since Cameo McRoberts left the restaurant last month, must find it demoralizing. The husband-and-wife team invested a tremendous amount of foresight in the project, designing the interior to comply with LEED-CI Platinum standards (that’s the “green benchmark” for commercial spaces) and committing to outsourcing nothing but its ice cream.
And the Wilkinsons didn’t just hang a sombrero on the wall and call it a día: Decor elements include empty tequila bottles that they salvaged from dumpsters and hundreds of scribbled mid–20th century Mexican postcards sent home by wide-eyed American travelers. The room is as attractive as the menu is inventive, with its wild boar and halibut cheeks. While the touted Pacific Northwest component of Little Water’s cuisine is muted, what’s listed is bound to intrigue any sophisticated eater looking for an excuse to order another Spicy Fogo. “Turkey leg enchilada with hazelnut mole” has the same effect on an epicurean as the phrase “birthday party” has on a child, setting the imagination whirring.
But the staff’s negligence spoils all the fun. The apathy starts at the front door, where it’s unclear whether or not the restaurant employs a host. There isn’t a host stand, and if there are people in the vicinity—a rarity if the weather’s good—they’re likely to also be befuddled customers. Both times I visited for dinner I had to clarify the situation with a bartender, who indicated a hostess would arrive eventually.
Oddly, Little Water doesn’t offer chips and salsa. The orthodox starter is a silky guacamole, rich with tart green tomatoes. I might have preferred the guacamole to have been served with something crisper than fried tortilla strips to counterbalance the puréed dip’s softness, but the dish was still pleasant, and one of a few unmarred by back-of-the-house bumbling.
I’m guessing the final step of every recipe at Little Water, the one which usually instructs cooks to “season to taste,” would be “shrug.” Nearly every plate bears the signature of someone who couldn’t be bothered—sometimes in extraordinarily unappetizing fashion.
The couple who spephared my communal table the night after Independence Day heeded our server’s advice to try the tacos featuring meat from a holiday pig roast. When they poked their fingers in the dry pork, they extracted a partially coiled 8-inch-long trussing string stained with hog grease.
“Sorry about that,” the server said, removing the plate and leaving the string behind.
While other oversights weren’t so blatant, they still vexed. Fish cheeks are so tender that 19th-century mariners would volunteer for cod-cake duty just to get first crack at them. Cooked correctly, they should be as pliant as scallops. But Little Water’s salty halibut cheeks, plated with a pile of freshly shorn grilled corn and a few stained-glass-like panes of crisp fried kale, were so tough they required vigorous back-and-forth carving with a butter knife.
A steak served over a mound of smoky campfire beans also seemed calculated to test an eater’s hardihood. Although ordered medium-rare, the beef didn’t have a speck of pink, and the accompanying bouquet of asparagus spears was badly burnt.
Overcooking is the most common problem at Little Water, afflicting a straightforward shrimp cocktail and a trio of pulled-pork tostadas. But it’s not the only evidence of incompetence. Proportioning is frequently out of whack, so the rockfish tacos have a measly amount of fish but a crushing volume of crisp purple slaw. And enchiladas featuring dark turkey meat are so overwhelmed by a thin sauce that the dish is hard to handle without a spoon or a straw.
Little Water had a few minor successes over the course of my meals there. An empanada, stuffed with velvety sweet potatoes as sweet as Karo syrup, was cleanly fried. It came paired with a lovely vinegar-based hot sauce that made the absence of salsa from the menu doubly puzzling. A picnic-ready grilled chicken was a hit at my table, as was a mélange of pickled radishes, carrots, peppers, and turmeric-yellow cauliflower florets.
The escabeche is a great bar snack, ideal for enjoying with an exquisite cocktail on Little Water’s patio. The view really is stellar, even if the restaurant isn’t.
Halibut cheeks $19
Fish taco $15