Passers-by can’t miss The Saint. Painted turquoise with white trim, the building forms an isosceles triangle with its vertex at the intersection of East Olive Way and Bellevue Avenue, pointing downhill.
Enter at the point low end, and you are in a small, triangular dining area filled with unadorned tables that get shifted around, sometimes by customers, as needed for the size of the party. A staircase, lined with vintage black-and-white photos of steely eyed Mexican bullfighters, leads to the bar (which also has a separate street entrance).
Upstairs, you’ll find more tables corralled under a string of Christmas lights tacked to the low ceiling, and a well-worn pine counter with about six stools. Behind the bar, narrow wooden shelves mounted on nubby masonry walls display dozens of tequila bottles glinting in the light of votive candles: an altar of sorts to agave azul.
The Saint opened on Capitol Hill as a Mexican cantina in 2008. This spring, owner Quentin Ertel found himself in need of a chef. Looking for a recommendation, he called Álvaro Candela, the Mexico City-born chef who had built a cult following doing Monday-night taco pop-ups, first at Vios, then at Sitka & Spruce.
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To Ertel’s surprise, Candela suggested himself for the job. “It was a coup to get Álvaro to come over,” says Ertel.
With Candela’s arrival, The Saint’s menu moved away from rice and beans and became a taqueria focused on Mexican street snacks. Changing direction after six years might sound risky to some, but Ertel said in a phone interview he had few qualms. “I absolutely love Álvaro’s food.”
So do I.
Nuance is not something you find in a lot of Mexican restaurants. Here, it is the hallmark of every dish.
You find it in the subtle chili punch of house-made longaniza (chorizo-like sausage) that mingles with melted “Chihuahua-style cheese” (aka Monterey jack) in a cast-iron skillet of queso fundido. Four small corn tortillas are draped over the skillet’s handle, keeping warm as they wait their turn to enfold the delicious goop.
Chips are fashioned from those same corn tortillas. Quartered and fried, they provide sturdy transport for guacamole. It’s mashed just minutes before coming to the table, its color is verdant, its texture both coarse and creamy, its taste hinting of onion, cilantro and serrano pepper.
Candela doesn’t make the tortillas, but he is sourcing very good ones locally for tacos whose simplicity belies the labor and skill involved.
Pork is marinated and spit-roasted for spicy “al pastor,” or braised with tomato and orange and pulled to soft shreds for “cochinita pibil.” Morsels of salt-cured pork belly (think bacon without the smoke) enhance “alambres de bistec,” grilled skirt steak dabbed with a vibrant salsa roja that starts with oven-roasted tomatoes.
Roasted tomatillo salsa counters unabashedly rich and brawny beef belly (suadero). Fish tacos, packed with shards of garlicky, pan-seared trout, are more delicate, but no less robustly flavored.
Crushed chicharron (fried pork skin) contributes crunch to Campechanos, wherein salt-cured beef meets longaniza in a blaze of glorious smoked-jalapeño salsa. Chicharrones turn up as well in tacos stuffed with charred cactus (nopales), cotija cheese and avocado salsa. Salted radishes, and sometimes sweet raw onion, garnish many of these plates; they are welcome palate cleansers.
If I had to pick a favorite dish, it would be taquitos Chilpancingo bathed in warm tomatillo broth. Sitting at the bar, I fished the crackling, chicken-stuffed taquitos from the bowl with my fingers, lest they get too soggy, and used a big blue spoon to capture the radishes, cabbage and cotija cheese left in the aromatic dregs.
“A lot of people just pick up the bowl and drink the last of it,” said the bartender.
His advice was as sound as his margaritas, which are as good as they come. Some are sweet, some are bitter, some are smoky with mezcal; others are spiked with chili pepper or muddled with seasonal fruits (strawberries with sage at the moment).
The cocktails, like the tacos, are composed with deliberate care, exquisite balance, and fresh, high-quality ingredients.
Álvaro Candela cooking at The Saint. What a perfect match.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com.