At home in a vast, beautiful space in the new Weyerhaeuser Building, Zocálo offers tasty sage-and-pineapple margaritas and house-made green chorizo, plus a mole cake for dessert. Other dishes, though, are inconsistent.
On the way to Pioneer Square for lunch one day, people were lined up outside Il Corvo on James Street, at Sprout in the Smith Tower and at longtime lunch stalwart Tat’s Deli. No line spilled into Occidental Park at my destination, though there was a lively crowd inside 3-month-old Zocálo. It may be only a matter of time for this handsome 200-seater to burst at the seams, too, given the area’s burgeoning growth and the boundless popularity of Mexican food, but Zocálo will need to play a more consistent game to score points in this neighborhood.
There’s no shortage of south-of-the-border sustenance: Casco Antiguo and Copal are nearby, and there’s often a taco truck in the park. Zocálo’s evolving menu aspires to “modern Mexican,” but I’d characterize it as Mex-American. The food is prettily plated and frequently good, but not always carefully executed.
Executive chef Jeffrey Hunter recently added tacos to the roster, “to get those unsure in the door.” Along with chips, salsa and guacamole (all very good here), people do expect tacos, it seems, wherever margaritas are served — and, it’s worth noting, Zocálo makes a terrific sage-and-pineapple version rimmed with chile salt. But the tacos I had were filled with stringy, greasy, tough brisket and not much else, making me glad I’d also ordered a pickle plate (an array of pineapple, jalapeño, onion, cauliflower and hard-cooked egg), as well as a side of guacamole amped with onion and jalapeño.
224 Occidental Ave. S., Seattle
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; happy hour 4-6:30 p.m. daily
Prices: $$ (starters $5-$14; entrees $10-$22)
Drinks: full bar; large selection of tequila and mezcal; classic and original cocktails; local and Mexican beers on tap; limited wine list
Service: consistently perky, but professionalism varies
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Sound: very loud when full
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Much better than those brisket tacos were gorditas and huaraches, both available with meat or vegetables. Gorditas are only on the lunch menu. Chicken tinga (shredded meat simmered with chilies and tomatoes) and queso fresco oozed deliciously from the crusty masa shell of the one I had. Formerly five bucks each, they now come in a pair with salad for $13. I suggest sharing.
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I loved the huarache with pork al pastor, a lightly griddled plank of masa topped pizzalike with crisp-edged shards of spit-roasted pork, chili-stoked pineapple and avocado. (At lunch, you can get a whole plate of pork al pastor as an entree. Do it.)
I’ll bet the house-made green chorizo — spicy, herby, garlicky sausage braced with sherry vinegar — is as good in a taco, gordita or huarache as it is crumbed over a fried egg smothered in crema and served over springy, fragrant corn tortillas. (The restaurant makes fresh tortillas using masa made by La Mexicana in White Center.) Equally good red chorizo is steamed with purple clams, imparting their smoke and spice to the plump local shellfish.
Rockfish is done ceviche-style. Marinated with citrus and chile, the fish is piquant and buttery-soft, unlike the Aquachile prawns — excruciatingly tart and toughened by too much lime. The kitchen tends to overdo acidity. The bright, light, green chicken pozole tilted a little too sour; so did pinto beans. Salad dressings skew extremely sharp. An exception was a beautifully balanced, blossom-strewn watermelon salad composed of vivid compressed fruit, queso crumbles, sweet onion and frisée.
There are several worthy meatless options on the menu, but roasted cauliflower with bland “broccoli mole” isn’t one of them. I’m happy to know the kitchen is rethinking the cut of meat for the carne asada. It’s currently made with a New York strip that lacked juiciness or flavor despite its fat cap; two dull sauces didn’t help. Avoid the chicken Milanese torta. A curious entry on a Mexican menu to begin with, the open-face sandwich held greasy, cornmeal-breaded chicken cutlets that tasted as if they’d been fried in very tired oil.
End your meal on a happy note with an excellent churro, or the soft, warm chocolate mole cake that comes with mezcal-marinated Bing cherries and whipped sour cream.
Though I had a conflicted relationship with the food, I fell hard for the setting. This vast corner space in the Weyerhaeuser Building could have been soulless. Instead co-owners Joe Bisacca, CEO of Elysian Brewing, and his longtime friend, Greg Smith, whose company, Urban Visions, developed the building, have created a stimulating environment filled with art and color. Yes, noise reverberates between the high ceiling and the high-gloss concrete floor, but every square foot is a visual joy.
Diffused lighting emanates from fixtures designed by M. Culbert Home Furnishings. A chandelier made of keys that dangle from a wire sphere hangs in one corner. Several illuminated “trees” are constructed with wire trunks supporting canopies of fluttering “leaves” that are pages torn from old books. Even the unisex restroom is stunning, with several private WCs paralleling four communal stone sinks mounted on a lacquered slab of live-edge wood.
The smart interior design fosters intimacy and furthers conviviality. The 60-foot curved bar has a patina-mottled copper top and three huge TV screens positioned above it. A media-equipped backroom can be closed off for privacy. Seating includes three large, semicircular booths and several long tables ideal for happy hour or gameday carousing.
Smaller tables are grouped in two cozy dining areas adjacent to broad windows that overlook Occidental Park, so reminiscent of a European piazza with its plane trees and sun-dappled cobblestones. One warm evening, music wafted in through the restaurant’s open windows. There was dancing in the park, too. An alert seagull patrolled on foot, like a squat, feathered beat cop eyeing the mix of tourists and locals. A woman sat smoking on one outstretched leg of Hai Ying Wu’s Fallen Firefighters Memorial. Eventually she dropped her cigarette butt on the ground and entered Zocálo.