Hecho, the Mexican restaurant that replaced Carmelita on Phinney Ridge, has a wonderfully come-hither mood. Candlelit after dark to great shadowy effect, it’s adorned with the requisite ceramic tiles and scrolling metalwork. The tables are hand hewed, the painted masonry artfully weathered and worn.
The bar is well-stocked with tequila and mezcal. It’s better tended lately. Original cocktails complement fine margaritas (upgrade to El Capitan for one that’s a little drier). For those who prefer their drinks brown and burly, there are two on tap: Campari meets rye in the Mojave Desert; the mezcal-based Playa Vieja is a smoky, bittersweet day at the beach.
Hecho has a solid pedigree. The owners are executive chef Shannon Wilkinson, the chef behind Little Water Cantina, and two neighborhood guys, Chris Navarra and Chris Gerke, who know a thing or three about running a bar and restaurant. Their ventures, separately and together, include Martino’s, Ridge Pizza, Nickerson Street Saloon and a slew of German pubs, including Prost! across the street.
Though you’ll find South of the Border standards like tacos, flautas and carne asada on the menu, Hecho, like Little Water, ventures outside the typical rice-and-beans box.
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The rice here is fluffy white and speckled with lentils; the beans are black, highly seasoned and creamy smooth. The lime-lit guacamole contains cotija cheese and bacon. (Vegetarians won’t welcome those smoky lardons, but I did.)
Meat-free options are actually few, but among them are amazing Brussels sprouts. Coated with soy-salsa negra and crunchy with fried shallots, they are a hot, salty, bitter, sweet romp.
Salsa and chips are complimentary only during happy hour, $3.50 otherwise. Roasted serrano pepper gives just enough kick to the salsa’s blend of tomato and tomatillo. The chips — sometimes lightly curled and puffed, other times thick and heavy — start out as supple, fragrant tortillas. Made in house, they make tacos a must.
Tacos variously stuffed with veggies, meat or fish come in threes (or singly at happy hour, for $3 each). I’m partial to the tender lengua (braised beef tongue) nesting in finely shredded cabbage lashed with salsa verde, pico de gallo and pickled jalapeño. A taco filled with eggplant bulgogi and kimchee was interesting for two bites, then painfully salty.
Fried fish tacos, with sweet membrillo (quince paste) countering jalapeño tartar and salsa verde, were better than a grilled fish taco (Alaskan true cod rubbed with achiote) that smelled strongly fishy. The daily ceviche, on the other hand, showcased sublimely fresh albacore, but just two lime-splashed slices buried under jicama, cilantro and jalapeño seemed meager for $12.
For about the same price, you can fill up on flautas. The rolled, deep-fried flour tortillas paunchy with chicken and cheese had a crunchy-creamy allure. Add rice and beans to the flautas (or any of the taco plates) for $5 and make it a meal.
Among the larger “plates,” carne asada is terrific. A precisely grilled skirt steak is sliced and arranged on a platform of white corn tostadas. In addition to rice, beans and a dab of guacamole, it comes with greens (kale mainly) braised with ham hocks and liberally laced with traces of the salty meat.
Slow-cooked meats are another good choice. Cochinita pibil — tender, spicy pork with a citrus twang — packs a tamale accented with pickled onions and pungent salsa verde. Torta ahogada pairs pork carnitas with guacamole in a sandwich served halved with its cut sides down in a pool of chile-laced tomato sauce. It was good, but would have been better on a crustier roll.
Turkey-stuffed enfrijoladas recently joined the menu. Avocado crema trailed across its expanse of black-bean sauce covering folded corn tortillas filled with braised, chile-sparked dark meat. (Enfrijoladas replaced elegant shrimp-and-crab enchiladas that I hope will make a comeback.)
Borrego, delicious braised lamb with chorizo, guajillo salsa and a salad-y topper of fresh tomatoes and herbs, ceded its spot on the menu to caldo de Borrego, a pozole-like soup of lamb and garbanzo beans in a broth made of chicken feet and pork. Wilkinson describes it as a spicy, smoky, meal-in-a-bowl. It’s on my must-try list for a frigid winter day.
Providence Cicero is the Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at email@example.com