Angelica Villasenor wanted a business that could employ her family. Out of this dream, D’ La Santa was born on the north slope of Capitol Hill.
When you open a restaurant, having a big family helps, as Angelica Villasenor can tell you. She and her extended family scraped together just enough to sign a lease in November 2016 for a storefront at 10th Avenue and East Miller on the north slope of Capitol Hill that has seen many restaurants come and go. It took them almost a year to open D’ La Santa, however. The space, vacant since Abay Ethiopian closed in 2015, needed major work. Family and friends pitched in labor and funds to replace the floors, outfit the kitchen and furnish the dining room. One daughter postponed her wedding. Another put off buying a car.
Like her father, who ran a Mexican restaurant in Kent for a decade to provide jobs for his seven children, Villasenor wanted a business that could employ her family. She wanted to cook her mother’s recipes and have their restaurant reflect real Mexican culture, not the stereotypical one. She visited relatives in Guadalajara, where she grew up, and bought beautiful things to furnish the restaurant: illuminated mirrors and metal crosses for the dining-room walls; flower-trimmed terra cotta tableware; and large goblets made of hollowed gourds that perch on metal tripods, vessels for D’La Santa’s excellent margarita.
While in Guadalajara, Villasenor chanced upon a woman who worked with driftwood. She commissioned a tree that she paid for in installments. She shipped everything she bought to relatives in Tijuana, where her son-in-law loaded up a truck with a trailer attached and drove it all north, stopping in California to pick up the used tables and chairs she had purchased online.
D’ La Santa ★★
2359 10th Ave. E., Seattle
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday
Prices: $$/$$$$ (appetizers $4.99-$10.99; antojitos $10.75-$22.99; asados $14.99-$44.99)
Drinks: beer; wine; limited cocktails and spirits (service bar only)
Service: they treat you like family
Parking: free in lot behind building or on street
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
The driftwood tree stands in the middle of D’ La Santa’s dining room, hung with basket lanterns. It not only creates a magical milieu, the intricately entwined branches of its trunk and canopy also symbolize the pluck, fortitude and teamwork that ushered this restaurant into existence. Though Villasenor is the chief cook, spokesperson and driving force behind D’ La Santa, she is backed by many members of her immediate and extended family. Her husband, Manuel Iriarte, and family friend Lupita Hernandez also cook. Her brother, Germán Villasenor, mans the gas-fired grill. The polite young waiter is family, too. When our group ordered a few appetizers and antojitos to precede the Parrillada, a massive mixed grill, he gently expressed concern that it would be too much food. He was right. I took home abundant leftovers.
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Several of the antojitos (“little whims”) are hearty enough to be a meal. Chile en nogada stuffs a large poblano pepper with minced meats (beef, chicken, bacon and ham), nuts, apples and plantains. It’s served at room temperature under a creamy, slightly sweet white sauce studded with pomegranate seeds that complements the savory-sweet filling. Cochinita pibil, pork that marinates for days and cooks in the oven for hours, was a wee bit dry but well lubricated by a warmly spiced, sour-orange sauce.
Caramelo, an open-faced chile relleno taco, features a mild Anaheim pepper filled with your choice of meat and melted asadero cheese in a flour tortilla. The quesadilla offers the same choice of meats, but I would steer you instead toward the charred poblano peppers shrouded in a corn-flecked cream sauce, especially if you are moving on to one of the grilled meat platters.
The Parrillada is a good way to sample the wares. It’s suggested for three but ample enough for four. Its various elements, which are also offered separately, include supple, robustly seasoned carne asada and less limber short ribs. The beef is all prime grade or better, Villasenor says. I don’t doubt that but both are so boldly seasoned and so thinly cut — the short ribs across the bones, flanken-style — that you wouldn’t necessarily guess it. The mild, garlicky pork sausages taste more like linguica than chorizo. Pollo asado, flattened, fruit-juice-marinated chicken breasts, are moist and fragrant. The feast includes grilled cactus and blistered jalapeños, honey-sweetened corn-on-the-cob, pinto beans, salsa rojo and queso, a mix of molten cheeses that includes mozzarella, which makes it more stringy than melty.
Mozzarella and Parmesan combine with cotija cheese to make chicharrons de queso — basically cheese cracklings. Topped with guacamole, they become “crispitos,” an appetizer not to miss. Guacamole is made fresh to order and tastes like it. It, too, contains a little cotija, plus scallion. Order a bowl and it comes with a few tortilla chips; you’ll get a few more if you ask. They aren’t being stingy. In Mexico, guacamole isn’t eaten with chips, Villasenor says. It’s put with other food. Still if you list it as an appetizer, plenty of chips only seems appropriate. As for the delectable roasted marrow bone (tuetano), I was happy enough to eat it all by itself with a spoon.
Before you order anything, a gratis tray of accompaniments arrives: pickled and raw onion, radish rounds, chopped cilantro, salsa verde, pico de gallo. It’s a generous bit of hospitality, but both times we barely depleted ours. A salsa bar or cart might reduce the waste.
Tacos and desserts are weak spots. “Tacoarte” — a build-your-own set of taco fillings with warm tortillas on the side — makes a nice presentation for two. But the crumbled meats were all disappointingly dry and excessively salty, especially the al pastor. Generally, black beans and pinto beans were also too salty, while refried beans were bland. After one saline onslaught, the whipped-cream-topped tres leches cake was refreshing. Flan was overcooked — too firm on the bottom, too loose on top — and fried plantains could have used something more than just a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk.
Villasenor hopes one day to cook al pastor “the real way” — roasting the sliced pork on a vertical rotisserie, called a trompo. She’s looking into permits for a wood-fired grill. She wants to make her own tortillas, add a bar to the dining room and a deck for outdoor dining. Her wish list is long. The family has some kinks to work out at D’ La Santa, but I’d put my money on Villasenor getting what she wants.