Everybody has their favorite — and family-run Fogón’s story is especially relevant now, writes columnist Bethany Jean Clement.
Capitol Hill has upscale Mexican restaurants — Poquitos with its 14,000 handmade tiles, Barrio with its wall of flickering candles, the newer, critically acclaimed Chavez. Cheap street-style tacos, good ones, may be had at places like Rancho Bravo, housed in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken, or Tacos Chukis, squirreled away upstairs in a building on Broadway. Less cheap street-style tacos, made with carefully sourced ingredients, are on offer from Neon Taco inside the dim, graffitied Nacho Borracho.
By my best count, there are now 17 Mexican restaurants on Capitol Hill. This is the Seattle neighborhood that I grew up in, and where, after leaving and coming back several times, I’m still lucky enough to live among the shiny new buildings and people (thanks to a lovely, softhearted landlady).
My favorite neighborhood Mexican restaurant isn’t the “foodie”-est or the lowest-brow — it’s in the middle, the one that feels, to me, just right. I find myself there every few weeks with a chile relleno and a margarita in front of me. You can actually taste the chile, fresh and vegetal; its batter is light, and it’s filled with firm, tasty queso fresco instead of oozing Monterey Jack. The margarita is served in a little stemmed coupe, and they leave you the silver shaker, beading with cold, with lots more inside. I like to sit at the busy bar, where a soundtrack of Mexican pop accompanies sports on the TVs (right now, usually football, American or un-).
Fogón Cocina Mexicana
600 E. Pine St. 206-320-7777fogonseattle.com
It’s called Fogón Cocina Mexicana. When summertime comes, it’ll have its fifth birthday. Co-owner Noel Cortez says they got a really good deal on the space before the current boom; Capitol Hill real estate was not at a premium. “When we first came in,” he says, “beyond our place, there was really no reason to go further down on Pine unless you were going downtown.”
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“It was rough at the beginning,” Cortez says. He was working full time at his brother’s restaurant, Mi Tierra in Woodinville, then off-hours and days off on Capitol Hill; Fogón co-owner José Ambriz, his nephew, had to hold down the fort. Business was slow. “It took some time and some headaches and frustration,” Cortez says. “The first year, we struggled a bit to even pay our bills.”
But, Cortez says, “We had a foundation of people that we brought along.”
After emigrating from Michoacán some 40 years ago, Cortez’s parents eventually attained legal status through working on dairy farms in the Monroe area. He calls the results of last week’s election “surreal.” He says he’s worried, and expresses hope that implications for U.S. immigration policy “won’t be as bad as one may think.”
Cortez grew up milking cows, too, as did all his 11 siblings. The family managed to open a small restaurant in Monroe. “The way we started that place, it was quite something else,” he says. “We started almost from nothing, without knowing how to do anything.” The seating was lawn chairs; for the menu, “We brought up one of my aunts, and all the recipes were hers.” Cortez estimates the clientele was about 80 to 90 percent Mexican, calling the food “very, very authentic … before its time.” A year and a half in, the restaurant was doing “really well,” but proved to be too much work, so they sold it.
Cortez’s brother now runs two Mi Tierras (“my land”), in Monroe and Woodinville. “I’ve never really had a real boss — it’s always been family,” he says. He started as a busser at the Monroe branch, moving up to become a server, a manager. His parents run a little grocery called Pueblo Viejo in Monroe, and the tortillas for Fogón’s chips and the bread for its tortas are made there. His father makes Fogón’s tamales.
Family and friends pulled together to get Fogón going. Cortez’s brother was an investor. Another nephew and niece work there now, along with another niece’s boyfriend (“like family,” Cortez says). Staff turnover has been low — chef Rodrigo Mora (“a great person”) has been there since day one.
Every year since Fogón opened, Cortez and Ambriz have also chosen to participate in Dining Out for Life at the gold level — donating a full 50 percent of a day’s net sales to Lifelong and other AIDS service organizations. It really helped get the word out at the beginning, Cortez says. Now they’re doing so well, they don’t need to do it, but they still do. “It’s a good cause,” Cortez says simply.
Cortez and Ambriz gave back to their employees this past September, too, closing the restaurant for three days to take a bunch of the crew to Vegas. (Those who didn’t go got paid for those days anyway.) They rented a big house, where a lot of them stayed. “It felt really good to be able to do that,” Cortez says. “We like to have a good time.”
At Fogón, you can feel that. It’s almost always busy now, but a screaming-deal happy hour and daily drink specials carry on. Cortez says he always wanted it to be a neighborhood place, and he’s done such a good job, now the regulars sometimes have to wait. They do; he says some people who live upstairs come in five times a week, in sweats for dinner alongside dressed-up bachelorette parties.
“Anybody and everybody feels really comfortable walking in the door, and that’s what I want,” he says. While the atmosphere, with floral-carved wooden panels and a wall of silvery crosses, is a step above a family Mexican restaurant, “I don’t consider us fancy,” Cortez says. “Mexican food, to me, can never really be fancy — it’s just comfort food, for me at least. Because I grew up with it, I know how it is, and that’s how I feel we are: just comfortable and not super-expensive. And it’s tasty, flavorful and simple. Simple ingredients.” You can watch Fogón’s tortillas being handmade while you wait for a table, and when you taste them, they are superlative.
“Fogón” means stove, a wood-fired, old-fashioned one, used in the kitchen for cooking. Your favorite Mexican restaurant doesn’t have to be mine — in fact, selfishly, I’d rather it wasn’t. It just has to feel somehow like home.