Chef Monica Dimas' latest little spot isn't so little — and it's beautiful, and it's really, really good.
First of all, it’s officially “Little Neon Taco,” not “Li’l.” Chef/owner Monica Dimas feels just as dumb as the rest of us saying “li’l.” She says that the early appearance of that unfortunate contraction in the name of her new First Hill place — serving tacos made with handmade corn tortillas, fat tortas, superlative guacamole and more — was just a mistake.
But what’s so little about Little Neon Taco? It’s bigger than the original Neon Taco — it’d be hard to be smaller, since the first one’s a walk-up window available for the aid of those inside the Broadway bar Nacho Borracho. It’s also larger than Dimas’ other spot, Tortas Condesa, another walk-up-only on the curve of Olive Way (big with the staggering-around late-night crowd). Or you may know her name — or just love her food — from her Sunset Fried Chicken Sandwiches, which is also on Capitol Hill, also inside someplace else (Rachel’s Ginger Beer), and also, by definition, little.
Dimas says Little Neon Taco was supposed to be little — the original plans were shoebox-shaped. Then the space next door unexpectedly became available during the build-out. It’s lucky it did, because the resulting restaurant is absolutely lovely. But first…
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The tacos: What’s better than classic tacos from a great taco truck? These tacos, arguably. The handmade corn tortillas achieve both tenderness and sturdiness, and they need the latter to stand up to their fillings. Each one is stuffed plump with a different favorite meat, each rendered especially delicious: Rich, deeply savory carnitas given a slight spicy-heat from green salsa, a sharp contrast from bits of onion and the freshness of cilantro. Chicken mole without any hint of cloying chocolate sauce, instead just-right savory and almost cloud-soft, with pickled onion for a wake-up, cotija and crema for luxury. Picadillo that takes a grade-school-cafeteria ground-beef taco and kicks its ass — spicy from Tapatio, exuding orange grease, meat that really tastes like meat. Pork belly with big, meaty, crispy, fatty slabs of the stuff. There’s also a meaty-great mushroom mix, a rotating breakfast taco and more. They’re $3 or $4 each, and so very worth it.
The tortas: These are sandwiches made with Dimas’ picadillo, chorizo or veggie magic… enough said ($11).
The guacamole: You’ll find pieces of whole avocado that are startlingly large, such that you kind of can’t believe it (then you quickly grab another chip to leverage it out before your friend notices). Dimas makes her guacamole limey-bright. Her recipe is simple, and it is just outstanding ($7, with chips).
The dinner menu: During the day, it’s order at the counter, but evenings bring table service and plates loaded with Painted Hills beef brisket, grilled potatoes, spring onions, tortillas and salsa ($16), or perfectly grilled, smoky-spicy shrimp a la diabla with cumin-seeded rice and big, crispy-light-layered tostadas ($15). And yes, you can still get tacos.
The loveliness: This surprise of a space feels simple and airy and light — the walls are all whitewashed and the ceilings are sky-high. Look more, and you’ll notice all kinds of details, like little cacti on narrow shelves running along the walls, or the bar stools like baskets, or the way the hanging moons of light fixtures have big, geometric moldings marking their connection high above. The mismatched wooden chairs wear hot-pink anklets of paint. It’s all beautiful and thoughtful and understated — the exception to the last being a glorious faux-flora explosion above the doors.
The tranquility here midafternoon is the opposite of a loud Nacho Borracho booth, and really the opposite of scarfing down Tortas Condesa on the sidewalk at midnight. Don’t get me wrong — both of those scenarios are marvelous, in their own way. But I could sit here and eat tacos all day.
Little Neon Taco
Mexican; 1011 Boren Ave. (First Hill), Seattle; facebook.com/littleneontaco