Come for a chile relleno, stay for the fabulousness — every Wednesday night, magic happens on Beacon Hill where you’d least expect it.
The summer evening sun slants through the windows of Baja Bistro, setting the butter-yellow walls aglow. A couple on a date get their plates at one of the tiny room’s eight tables, a burrito for him, chile relleno for her. An older gentleman eats chips and salsa solo. Two men and a woman drink margaritas; a group of guys in the corner looks to be a birthday party.
Then the sound system blares to life — think “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” extra-loud — and Atasha Manila bursts out of the dishwashing nook and bursts into lip-syncing song. She wears a tutu covered in dozens, possibly hundreds, of dangling Hello Kitties with a matching bustier, an outfit of her own design that took her two weeks to make. She’s also got a big red bedazzled bow around her waist like she’s a present, multiple strands of pearls, and a lavender wig.
The crowd — insofar as Baja Bistro can fit a crowd — goes wild.
Atasha Manila at Baja Bistro
Wednesdays 7-10 p.m.
2414 Beacon Ave. S., Seattle, 206-323-0953 or on Facebook
Atasha Manila the drag queen got her start just across the street at Beacon Hill favorite Inay’s. She now identifies as “a proud trans woman,” real-life name Atasha Alfajora. Back then, she was known — and already loved — as Louie Alfajora, living in the neighborhood since age 14, eventually working behind the counter at nearby Despi Delite Bakery and serving Filipino food at Inay’s. The journey began with asking Inay’s owner Ernesto Rios a simple enough question: Would it be OK to wear makeup to work waiting tables?
“Uncle Ernie,” Atasha says — he’s not really her uncle, everybody just calls him that — “said, ‘Sure, whatever.’ And then all of a sudden I started singing and lip-syncing, until he said, ‘Why don’t you just perform?’ ”
The words come in a rush, then stop for a beat. “And he bought me my first drag clothes,” she says solemnly. She’s still so grateful.
Then, after five years of the fabulousness of Atasha Manila rushing plates of lumpia and adobo around Inay’s in 6-inch heels between numbers every Friday night, the rent got raised and Uncle Ernie decided it was time to retire. Inay’s shut down in January. Atasha’s fond of saying “The higher the heels, the closer to Jesus” — she’s Christian — and when God closed the door to Inay’s, Baja Bistro’s swung open for her.
Adjoining Baja’s sunny little dining room is its equally minuscule bar, barely bigger than the giant rainbow flag hanging above the door. Pretty much any of the patrons will tell you the story of how it became Beacon Hill’s only gay bar, starting with one gay bartender who’d call all his friends to come hang out, continuing with the full endorsement of owner Oscar Castro, and becoming what’s essentially a gay Cheers, open to all, happily appended to a popular family Mexican restaurant.
After Inay’s closed, Atasha was at Baja one day, as was Castro. A friend jokingly said, “I heard Atasha will be performing here every Wednesday now!” And Castro said that it was true, on the spot. “I broke into tears,” Atasha says.
Every show involves at least a half-dozen different costumes. Atasha performs one song in the bar, then one in the restaurant, stops to tease people (“Hi Andy, you wanna go Netflix and chill?!”), and sometimes stalks magnificently up and down the sidewalk. Then she disappears to change, in a flurry of sequins and heels and tulle and lace. Clothes are discarded in a heap on the floor — no time to hang them up now. She puts on a lavish kimono or a gauzy full-length floral dress, a flowing platinum or pixie-cut blond wig, always the highest high heels.
Meanwhile, she’s assessing tonight’s crowd. “You have to feel the vibe … ” she says. “If they’re not feeling it, you got to change it up” — she snaps — “change it up,” snaps again, “change it up,” snap, “change it up!” — a final snap and a big smile.
Her repertoire goes from disco to Disney; she’ll do a number from “Frozen” or “The Little Mermaid” if kids happen to be in the house. Jazz, too: “I love Shirley Bassey, I love Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald,” she notes. She can lip-sync “Air Mail Special” from behind a bar with a burrito being carried by like nobody’s business.
Atasha doesn’t wait tables at Baja Bistro. “I miss it,” she claims, “I do, but going to the kitchen and then serving food and getting orders — no, it’s too much work for a drag queen … especially walking in heels.”
Back at the restaurant, Atasha works her magic, to riotous applause. A guy at a three-top says he had no idea about the show — he’s here because Baja sponsors his league volleyball team, the Serve Aces (like “cervezas,” get it?) — but now he and his friends are definitely staying for more. On the bar side, there’s a near-capacity crowd of about a dozen, plus a dog named Sammie. A woman laughs at her surprise when her boyfriend first brought her here: “I didn’t think he was a bigot or anything, but I didn’t expect his local to be a full-on gay bar!” When they walked in, everyone greeted him in unison: “John!”
Atasha loves the Baja Bistro community, and she loves that all kinds of people come to see the show. She’ll go out of her way to make a straight couple “feel really, really awkward. It’s my shtick. They love it.” Everyone, she says, is “very supportive … Drag queens have the guts to do whatever we want to do. We’re not holding back. And everybody’s a part of it.”
Everybody’s especially a part of it in the intimate setting of Baja Bistro, where Atasha might end up literally in your lap. “Sometimes it’s so intimate, you can’t even walk around,” she says. She tries; she knows everybody wants to see, head to toe.
“They want to see it, they want to see what you can bring, they want to be entertained, they want to have fun, they want to eat, and enjoy, and fill the night with laughter.
“And drink, of course,” she laughs. “Because the more you drink, the better I look.”