Chef Gabriel Chavez brings elevated versions of his home country’s cuisine to Capitol Hill.
Gabriel Chavez was 21 when he arrived in Seattle with his family from Durango, Mexico, in 1999. He began working his way up through some of the city’s better kitchens — none of them Mexican.
He rose from dishwasher to cook at the original Boat Street Café, learning French techniques along the way. Then it was on to the Italian restaurants Serafina and Cantinetta. His staff meals, mined from his childhood memories, so impressed Cantinetta’s owners they offered him a starring role.
Be glad they did.
1734 12th Ave., Seattle
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (weekend brunch coming later this fall)
Prices: $$ (antojitos $8-$15; tacos $13-$15)
Drinks: original cocktails; tequila and mezcal; house-made sangria and sangrita; local draft beers; wines from Washington and Spain
Service: sweet, sassy, urbane
Parking: on street (good luck)
Sound: very loud, unless you are near the front or on the sidewalk
Who should go: not for the refried-beans crowd
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Chavez, the restaurant that bears his family name, opened early this year a few blocks removed from the Pike-Pine pandemonium on Capitol Hill. Do not expect plates padded with beans and rice, or buried under cheese. Here you’ll enjoy some of the most refined Mexican fare in town.
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The menu opens with an array of elegant antojitos (small plates), moving on to various tacos, flavor bombs abundantly endowed with meat, fish or vegetables, “the way we like them in Durango,” explained Chavez in a phone interview.
Tacos heaped high with care desebrada (shredded beef short ribs draped in silky green chile and avocado salsa) and borrego (aromatic braised lamb accented with chilaca pepper and tomato) are both superb. But so are fish tacos loaded with mahi-mahi, shredded cabbage and smoky chipotle crema.
Tacos come three to an order on corn tortillas just sturdy enough to handle the generous fillings. The kitchen is too small for the restaurant to make their own (Chavez’s next goal), but the ones he sources from Everett remind him of home.
Many of the dishes here have their roots in the food Chavez grew up eating. His mother even stops by one or two times a week to make sure he’s doing things right.
The recipe for chile en nogada comes from her. A savory-sweet mince of pork, beef, fruit and nuts stuffs a peeled poblano chile. Draped in frothy walnut crema, dotted with red pomegranate seeds and ringed with green-chile oil, it looks like a Christmas gift. (Don’t worry, Señora Chavez, he’s nailing it.)
A woman he met in the mountains back home taught him to steam tamales in banana leaves, rather than corn husks. She would fill hers with caiques, a crustacean that resembles crawfish. Here he uses langoustines and crabmeat, tucking the seafood into fluffy masa and serving it with a searing, sumptuous poblano cream on the side.
A pair of plump pork cheeks arrive smothered in a mole that walks a fine line between bitter and sweet. Bedded on pickled cactus strips (nopals), the meat is so soft it hardly needs chewing.
Chavez resisted serving chips and salsa. In Mexico, he says, they don’t come to the table automatically, only by request. In the end he came up with three very different salsas. His favorite — and mine — is the smoky, smooth-textured “Diabla She Devil,” made with roasted jalapeños.
Salsa and chips $4
Guacamole with totopo $8
Langostino & crab tamal $13
Chile en nogada $14
Carne desebrada tacos $14 for three
Salsas come with blue corn and yellow corn tortilla chips. Guacamole is served with totopos. The large, round corn flatbread is made in Oaxaca, Mexico. Brushed with oil, sprinkled with salt and warmed on the grill, it shatters into shards ready to be spackled with the rough mash of ripe avocado, lime and sea salt. Roasted corn, poblano chile and chicharrón are available as add-ins.
Plantain chips and a sweet totopo, made with a touch of coconut, accompany snapper ceviche that was briskly refreshing for a few bites, but ultimately too salty.
Sweet fried plantains (maduros) turn up for dessert, surrounding a scoop of bittersweet chocolate ice cream, sort of a Mexican banana split. Crisp churros are piped into rounds and fashioned into vanilla ice cream sandwiches drizzled to dazzling effect with thick, syrupy caramelized goat milk (leche de cajeta).
Chavez is a pretty place, filled with pretty people — even the staff looks dressed for a fashion photo shoot. The garage-door front opens to the sidewalk, where flaming patio heaters promise to extend outdoor dining as deep into fall as possible.
The interior is whitewashed stucco minimally rimmed with ceramic tiles. Lamp light illuminates the room after dark, making it almost romantic, if you don’t mind shouting across the table to the object of your desire.
The rough pine tables are stained a sun-faded blue; the ladder-back chairs have woven straw seats that seem designed to keep anyone from sitting too long. But people do, quaffing serrano-infused mezcal margaritas or shots of tequila chased with house-made sangrita.
Brunch is coming soon, because Chavez really loves breakfast. He says to expect lots of fresh pastries, huevos of all kinds and migas like his grandma used to make.