The margaritas are strong, and the décor has the jaw-dropping panache you'd expect from serial restaurateurs James Weimann and Deming Maclise. But the food is more uneven than at Poquitos' Capitol Hill location.
On a rainy Saturday night in mid-November, a high-school football game was breaking at Pop Keeney Stadium and thousands of people flooded onto Bothell Way right at dinner time. Mushrooming Bothell has restaurants aplenty to absorb a hungry mob, among them the 180-seat Mexican restaurant Poquitos.
Its 5,000-square-foot vastness isn’t immediately apparent because the restaurant is a maze of rooms, alcoves, nooks and alleys. (At one busy junction near the kitchen door, there is a mirror to prevent collisions.) Plus, there is so much to take in. Not an inch of space is left unadorned. A spinoff of the original that debuted in 2011 on Capitol Hill, Poquitos is furnished in the signature style of serial restaurateurs James Weimann and Deming Maclise. Splashy but never garish, each one evokes a strong sense of place, whether it’s Mexico, France (Bastille), Scotland (Macleod’s), Italy (Stoneburner), Germany (Rhein Haus) or America (Beer Star).
I was glad I’d made a reservation that Saturday night. From where I sat, at a window booth near the grand carved archway to the main dining room, I could see part of the lower dining room and bar. Waiters appeared to be handling the full house with calm assurance, though food runners appeared a little frantic. We soon had drinks and snacks in front of us. The potent house margarita comes in a pint glass with a splash of triple sec. A version made with Herradura Silver tequila was particularly smooth. Non-imbibers might try the virgin piña colada or agua fresca in flavors that include horchata, hibiscus and a rotating seasonal selection, currently a tart blend of pomegranate and orange.
The tortilla chips are warm, crisp and salty. I liked them best with the distinctive, vivid trio of salsas: tomato-jalapeño, tomatillo-serrano and guajillo-tomatillo. The chips are fried in rice oil, which purportedly makes them healthier. Not sure this matters much when you are dragging them through queso — molten cheese with a mild jalapeño kick — or guacamole reinforced with garlic, onion, tomato, chilies and a lot of salt. It’s not a guac for purists (like me) who want to taste the avocado.
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Erratic seasoning beset some dishes and that surprised me since executive chef Manny Arce, who’s garnered much praise over the years at the original Poquitos, supervises both restaurants. Chef de cuisine Tony Jutt handles day-to-day operations here.
The kitchen does right by chile rellenos, chile verde and enchiladas. Queso and a sweet, smoky tomato sauce smothered the battered and fried poblanos in the chile rellenos plumped with chicken tinga, chorizo and potato. I appreciated the vibrant cilantro presence in chile verde, made with supple, lager-braised pulled pork, as much as the tangy tomatillo sauce blanketing chicken enchiladas (cheese is an option, too).
Soft, fragrant corn tortillas accompany those dishes. Poquitos used to make their own in Seattle. A local company makes them now, along with the flour tortillas that are folded into quesadillas filled with Monterey Jack and Asadero cheeses. The quesadilla gets toasty and crisp on the griddle, like a grilled cheese sandwich. Try it with roasted butternut and delicata squash added to the gooey middle, and salsa macha, a garlicky purée of nuts and seeds, drizzled on top.
The cheese quesadilla, already substantial for an antojito (appetizer), comes with a side of black beans and rice, as many of the larger plates do. Sometimes the rice was perky; sometimes tired. The beans were inconsistent, too: either too salty, utterly bland or seasoned just right. Shards of mahi mahi, marinated in pineapple juice and chipotle chilies, were carefully grilled but so salty they made the fish tacos inedible. Carne asada had no seasoning issues but the chewy wagyu chuck steak didn’t provide enough bang for its 27 bucks, and the chorizo-laced pinto beans with it were undercooked.
Shrimp ceviche contained so much cucumber, radish and red onion it seemed more of a salad than ceviche, but it was delightfully crunchy and vivid with lime. Lime also gave a lift to an otherwise ho-hum tortilla soup.
If you’ve left room for dessert, the orange-scented flan with cardamom-pumpkin seed brittle and the pecan tart spiked with aged tequila are treats not to be missed.
I found the food here less dependable in execution than Poquitos in Seattle, but both restaurants are equally gorgeous with a look that borrows heavily from the style of Spanish colonial Mexico: colorful Talavera tiles, curlicued metalwork and carved woodwork worthy of a cathedral — the bar back was, in fact, part of one. Weimann and Maclise are accomplished scavengers. The chandeliers are from San Antonio’s Riverwalk and the oak floor boards are reclaimed from a 130-year-old Pennsylvania barn. Not all the décor is recycled: A Puyallup company, Blackrock Industries, created the glowing, light box silhouettes of desert scenes that sit high up along the walls.
Weimann and Maclise have lately been in expansion mode. This year they opened a fourth Rhein Haus in Leavenworth and a second Beer Star in Tacoma. Last month a new concept, Seaplane, landed in Kenmore. It’s a casual pizza-and-pasta spot with chef Jason Stoneburner overseeing the kitchen. The company said in an email that it has no more projects on the immediate horizon. “We’re looking forward to dedicating our time and energy into our existing restaurants in 2019.” I’m glad to hear it. Poquitos could use closer attention.
18505 Bothell Way N.E., Bothell
Hours: dinner 4-10 p.m. daily; happy hour 3-6 p.m. daily; late-night menu 10-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday; brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Prices: $$$ (snacks and starters $4-$14, soups and salads $7-$13, taco plates and entrees $11-$27)
Drinks: full bar; original cocktails; tequila flights; local and Mexican beers on tap; South American, Spanish and Northwest wines
Service: snappy, attentive
Parking: limited free parking on site; more free parking available at nearby City Hall garage
Sound: loud when full
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles