Potent margaritas plus favorite Mexican dishes and a family-friendly atmosphere make Ethan Stowell's new addition to Stone Way in Fremont a hit. Not every dish is perfect, says critic Providence Cicero, but the place has its charms.
For a while now, the center of the Center of the Universe has been drifting east to Stone Way. Residential apartment buildings have filled in the broad downhill stretch toward Lake Union and the Burke-Gilman Trail, almost every one anchored by a restaurant, cafe or bar. Even along this crowded corridor, Super Bueno stands out, not least because of the big block letters that shout its name in lights.
It opened in May, within a week of Cortina, making it the second mammoth project from Ethan Stowell Restaurants this year. But unlike Cortina and its other pizza-and-pasta siblings, Super Bueno marks the company’s first foray into Mexican cuisine. The restaurant parades across most of the ground floor of the Hayes Apartments with the flamboyant exuberance of a mariachi band. The supercool interior has whitewashed walls, wicker, and warm wood animated by jolts of saturated color: sunrise yellow, sunset orange and Caribbean blue. The dining areas, together with the bar and two sheltered outdoor alcoves, accommodate up to 200. The place fills up, even on weekday evenings. (The restaurant serves lunch, too, but the daytime grab-and-go cafe was recently discontinued. Kidlets can blow off steam in a loft play area.)
Super Bueno is super fun. The margaritas are super potent. They come in three sizes and several flavors, including a slushy. The boutique Mexican menu focuses on tacos and snacks. You’ll find salsas and dips, nachos, ceviche, a quesadilla and a tostada; but no enchiladas, tamales or burritos. A lot of the food is super bueno, though some of it is not so bueno.
Let’s start with the tacos. The minimum order is three for $14. The price goes down as the quantity goes up (five for $21,10 for $40). The three-inch corn tortillas can barely contain the overflowing fillings. There are six choices: four meat, one fish and one “seasonal vegetable.” Lately the featured vegetable has been roasted jackfruit. It was my favorite of the six, mainly because it looked and tasted so much like the pork carnitas, which runs a close second. Third place went to battered, fried cod with tangy coleslaw. Beef tacos tied for fourth: carne asada was tender but dull; the guajillo-braised brisket was livelier, but it was like chewing on twine. Last place goes to the chicken taco. The cubed meat tasted bitter and muddy, needing all the lubrication chipotle aioli could deliver. The same chicken fared better smothered in a quesadilla oozing Oaxacan queso. A dash of Mike Callaghan’s made-in-Seattle hot sauces — habanero, poblano or chipotle — gives any of the tacos and even the quesadilla a boost. Just ask and they’ll bring you all three bottles to try.
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If there is one thing not to miss, it’s the guajillo-salted watermelon with pop rocks, a dish chef Rudolfo Martinez reportedly brought with him from Texas. Those fizzy explosions inside your head add to the giddy delight of crushing the salty, peppery, minty, ice-cold fruit in your mouth. Jicama salad, similarly dosed with guajillo-salt, is equally refreshing, with sweet orange slices to counter the salt-and-pepper crunch. But I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for smashed cucumbers and slivered jackfruit in a coconut milk dressing that had little coconut presence and rather too much “Mexican furikake,” a salty, savory blend of spices and crushed tortilla chips that should probably be used with more restraint. It overwhelmed the cucumbers and did no favors for severely undercooked sliced yams.
Lime-dressed shrimp ceviche comes with a dash of olive oil and enough radish, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and cilantro that it could almost be considered a salad. It had plenty of sweet shrimp, too, halved lengthwise, which made snagging them with a tortilla chip challenging. Warm chips come with the house salsas. All three — smoke-edged tomato, piquant verde and brisk pico — are muy bueno. So is the cheese dip, which perhaps deliberately isn’t called “queso,” since it’s made with ultra-melty white American cheese studded with chopped poblano and green onion. The refried beans benefit from a jolt of Ortega taco sauce. The guacamole is packed into a small jar under a thick layer of pico de gallo, though it could — and should — stand on its own. The presentation is adorable, but the chips don’t quite fit into the mouth of the jar.
Fried chicken wings fell into the not-so-bueno category. So good at other Ethan Stowell restaurants, they were just average here, clipped of their tips, the skin not at all crispy under a mild honey glaze. If it’s chicken you want, have the taquitos, stuffed with poached chicken and green chili, piled with red cabbage slaw and puddled in tomatillo salsa. Pozole was very poor. The stew was loaded with pork and hominy, but the insipid broth had no depth, suggesting the ingredients hadn’t been acquainted with each other very long. (I took most of it home and the flavor slightly improved when reheated days later.)
Give in to the street corn. You’ll notice a lot of it going by. They come on a stick, half a cob rolled in a ridiculous amount of mayo, dusted with chili powder and cotija cheese. I wished the corn had been grilled rather than boiled, but that’s a cavil since I consumed two of three ears. It is almost sweet enough and rich enough to qualify as dessert, which I also ate more than my share of: an exceptional flan paired with roasted pineapple chunks.
The most dependable aspect of Super Bueno was the service. The staff pays attention and so does general manager Alvin Go. He is everywhere, ready with a smile, and possesses peripheral vision any mother of toddlers will envy. He’s the perfect team leader for Fremont’s new happy place.
Super Bueno ★★
3627 Stone Way N., Fremont
Reservations: accepted for parties of 10 or more
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; lunch/brunch Monday-Friday; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m.- 4 p.m.; happy hour 4-6 p.m. daily
Prices: $$ (soup, salads, snacks $6-14; tacos three/$14, five/$21, 10/$40)
Drinks: full bar; margaritas and other mixed drinks, with and without alcohol; local and Mexican beers; red, white and rosé wines; bubbles
Service: cheerful, smart, quick
Parking: on street
Sound: very loud
Credit cards: all major
Access: a few steps from cafe to restaurant and restrooms; wheelchair lift available