Mexican in Seattle

Eating Mexican food in Seattle can require a lot of mental compromise. Purists will find little comfort in most of the Mexican (or, scarier, “Southwestern”) food available here, which tends to be heavily influenced by several cultures, one of which may or may not be that of Mexico. Sometimes this fascination with fusion means your enchiladas arrive encased in a solid wrapper of Monterey Jack cheese, topped with a dollop of creamy guacamole; sometimes it means your “nachos” are really chile-encrusted plantains topped with queso fresca and served with a side of cilantro-chipotle aﯬi.

Amid all that cultural clashing, thank god there’s Chile Pepper. For those of us in exile from the sunny Southwest, the little white house in Wallingford (1427 N. 45th, 545-1790) represents an oasis of sanity in the vast desert of hyperfusion that spans most of Seattle’s Mexican menus. With the best, most darkly complex pork and enchiladas mole in Seattle (with none of the pasty, chocolate-frosting flavor that mars so many moles), unforgettable chiles rellenos, and citrusy ceviche, and some of the feistiest, most chile-infused salsa ever, Chile Pepper rightly deserves to be packed every night. So why is it always empty?

Maybe because everyone’s at Galerias, an upscale Mexican place (611 Broadway E., 322-5757) that recently reopened in the old Minnie’s location on Broadway. Everything at Galerias—from the metal-plated menus to the plates to the two-fisted margaritas—is heavy. Except the food, which—although not exactly heavenly—does soar above its humble origins. Rice and beans, the staple sides of the Tex-Mex combo platter, are lovingly executed, as are the complex roasted tomato-pepper sauce (available on four kinds of enchiladas) and the beguiling empanadas con ostiones ahumados, masa turnovers stuffed densely with rich smoked oysters. Coconut-battered fried prawns also won’t disappoint. But the saut饤 prawns and cactus tasted like their lovely chile ancho sauce had been dumped on as an afterthought, and the margaritas—beloved though they may be by many—are oversweet and watery.

Not far away, El Gallito (1700 20th, 329-8088) serves reliable, somewhat costly renditions of Mexican standbys, including fiery salsa, stimulating guacamole, and, of course, the omnipresent combo plate, which can include everything from small, delicately battered (and very cheesy) chiles rellenos to big, beefy burritos to traditional tamales. The spicy prawns, while a bit pricey, come drowning in an incongruous but oddly irresistible Thai-style chile sauce; but the mole enchiladas suffer, like so many in Seattle, from chocolate overload.