Poquitos on Capitol Hill offers a diverse menu of both familiar and lesser-known Mexican dishes in an attractive, sprawling corner space with large windows, tortilla-makers in the display kitchen and two bars.
If James Weimann and Deming Maclise hadn’t become restaurateurs they might be winning Oscars for set decoration. Their carefully curated Ballard brasserie, Bastille, perfectly expresses Parisian joie de vivre. Now they’ve become conquistadors, planting a Mexican flag on Capitol Hill and transforming a century-old timber-and-brick building at the corner of 10th Avenue and East Pike into a Spanish colonial gem.
It’s called Poquitos, which translates as “a little bit,” but there’s nothing little or low-key about it. The high-ceilinged, sprawling corner space has large windows all around, tortilla-makers in the display kitchen and two bars — one on a sheltered, heated patio that features a pair of fire pits.
As is typical with Weimann and Maclise, they researched the décor firsthand, scavenging for authentic vintage elements and salvaging architectural oddments. Thousands of orange and blue Talavera ceramic tiles cover the walls, providing rich contrast to lustrous black wood and scrolling ironwork. Votives are everywhere; alas not always lit.
The menu resulted from careful study as well. You’ll find the familiar (tacos, enchiladas, chile rellenos) and the less so (Goat Birria). Rather than focus on a particular region of Mexico, executive chef Manny Arce explores several. He sources certain indispensable ingredients from Mexico, but he shops for protein and produce closer to home.
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This is a plus. Grilled wild salmon, for example, frequently fills fish tacos, topped by sassy pickled cabbage. The inky Oaxacan mole negro smothering chicken enchiladas is a brooding, bittersweet sauce of such operatic intensity it could easily have overpowered a lesser bird than one raised by Mad Hatcher Farm in Ephrata.
Goat hails from Snohomish County’s Quilceda Farms. For Goat Birria, the meat is braised with tomatoes that temper its slight gaminess. Moist, limp and delicious, it smolders with guajillo chili heat, and shares a small iron skillet with roasted fingerling potatoes, a nice variation on the black beans and Spanish rice that come with most other dinner entrees.
The beans were smoky but under-seasoned and the rice was mushy on one visit; both improved on another. Likewise, the house-made tortillas were rubbery one night, soft, almost fluffy another. I did not repeat my one stab at dessert: greasy, overcooked churros with hardened caramel sauce.
Those missteps aside, Poquitos gets a lot right. You’ll pay for salsa and chips, but $2.95 isn’t much for a pair of radically different dips: the green one sharp with tomatillo; the red one strikingly floral.
Radishes and pickled shallots add interest to a piquant ceviche chunky with albacore and creamy with avocado. Vegetable escabeche contributes tart crunch to torta ahogada, a soft bun sumptuously stuffed with pork carnitas and served “drowned” in an exhilarating pond of tomatoes and chilies de arbol.
Pork picadillo fills dainty chile rellenos (cheese is an option, too). I loved the kick of cinnamon, the crunch of almonds and the sweetness of raisins playing against the savory meat.
Guacamole is memorable with or without the addition of bacon lardons (a sometime option) mixed into the lime-splashed mash of ripe avocado, onion and jalapeño. Grilled corn is sensational. The smoky, off-the-cob kernels are bright with lime and chili piquin (bird peppers), drizzled with crema and sprinkled with cotija.
Heed the menu’s warning to order chipotle prawns at your own risk. One bite gave me the hiccups. On the second bite, I caught the nuance of the searing red sauce. Then my mouth went numb. Have a glass of horchata at the ready to extinguish the fire; a margarita just won’t do the job.
The house margarita veers to the sweet; I prefer the “purist” version with lime and a touch of agave. Inventive tequila cocktails include the Alabanza for Manhattan-mavens, made with Carpano Antica and mole bitters. The savory Ditchweed, garnished with a fat, jalapeño-stuffed olive, tastes alluringly of cilantro and coriander.
Relatively peaceful by day, Poquitos is dim and loud after dark. At peak times, people commandeer tables in the seat-yourself bar and lounge areas before they are even cleared. The efficient, high-energy staff just rolls with it. It’s a fiesta and a lot of fun.
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