When a new Mexican restaurant opens in town, I feel my hopeful, earnest side start to emerge like so many spring buds slowly protruding from the earth. It’s the secret side of the prickly restaurant critic, the one that truly wishes for a meal she can bestow effusive, flowery praise on.
But more often than not, when it comes to Mexican, I end up dying a little inside.
The thing about Mexican food in Seattle is that no one has perfected it yet. There are some good things and some really bad things at almost every place I can think of—nothing so terrible to put me off dining out on Mexican food completely, but nothing that makes me swoon, either.
Gracia (5313 Ballard Ave. N.W., 268-0217, graciaseattle.com) is no exception, though I’d choose it over several other places. The space is great: roomy and not overly Mexican in decor. There’s pretty tin along the bottom of the bar and a wall of white and blue tile work. Air plants grace the otherwise bare walls.
The food is helmed by chef Chester Gerl (formerly of Matt’s in the Market), who recently returned from New York City, where he helped restaurateur Marc Meyer open a Mexican restaurant. His focus here is on things like housemade masa: They grind the blue corn for it, which yields a dark-brown tortilla with an almost buckwheat-like flavor. Mini-ones—huarachitos—loaded up with duck carnitas, a spicy salsa roja, crema, and lettuce make for a few perfect bites. I was weary when I saw them coming, the lettuce and crema seeming to tower over everything else. Yet the flavor of the duck is pronounced and the spice assertive. They come from the antojitos (little cravings) part of the menu, as does a disappointing queso fundido that, despite the addition of mushrooms and charred chiles, simply tastes like melted cheese over bad nachos you might have at a bowling alley. Had I subbed out the mushrooms for green chorizo, perhaps it would have tasted like something.
There are just two choices in the seafood section of the menu, and the ensalada de pulpa we ordered was unexpectedly delicious and interesting. Though it’s said to be prepared in the “Veracruz” style, I actually found it to be less one-note than many Veracruz preparations. Though the signature capers and olives are there, their tangy salinity doesn’t obscure the large, tender chunks of octopus served essentially in a kind of pico de gallo sauce with healthy-sized pieces of avocado.
Unfortunately, the tacos (five options at $8 a pair) aren’t spectacular. The classic Yucatán dish, cochinita pibil—pork slow-roasted with achiote seeds and sour orange juice—has that requisite citrus note, as well as a jolt from the habanero and tang from the pickled onions. It’s fine, but something—I can’t quite put my finger on it—is lacking. The barbacoa—roasted lamb with a Oaxacan salsa made from pasilla peppers—suffers from lackluster flavor, the meat specifically. It’s as if they assume the zesty salsa can do all the heavy lifting, leaving the lamb itself woefully underseasoned. At least it’s tender.
For dessert, we went with something more on the savory side: a whole roasted, lightly charred plantain served with queso fresco.It’s not going to please everyone, particularly those with a real sweet tooth, but it is authentic. However, the plantain, in this particular iteration, needs a tiny bit more ripening—which would bring out more of its natural sugar and balance the sweet and savory properly.
I will come back, though, for the huarachitos—and hopefully for other dishes of equal quality.