The Seattle restaurant honcho adds some smoke and spice to his portfolio.
With the opening of Cantina Leña at the corner of Palace Kitchen and Palace Ballroom (aka Fifth and Lenora) smack in the heart of Tom Douglas-land, Seattle’s most prolific restaurateur checks Mexican off his to-do list.
The December opening was not without hiccups. Neighbors complained of smoke seeping into the apartments upstairs and the restaurant shut down for about a month to fix the ventilation. The solution: Meats are prepped across the street at Palace Kitchen and finished at Cantina Leña.
Large windows on two sides border Cantina Leña’s corner storefront. The interior is a rustic-contemporary mash-up of natural wood, pressed tin, rugged beams and garish Mexican movie posters. Day or night, the menu is the same. At lunch you order at the counter and food is brought to your table; dinner is full service, as is lunch in the bar.
Cantina Leña ★★½
2105 Fifth Ave., Seattle
Reservations: not accepted
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; drinks ’til 11 p.m. daily
Prices: $$ (starter and salads $9-$12; sandwiches and plates $9-$15)
Drinks: full bar; extensive tequila selection; Mexican and local beers; house-made sodas, horchata and aqua fresca
Service: spirited, sometimes scattered
Parking: on street or nearby lots
Sound: festively loud
Who should go: If you’re in the neighborhood, drop in for lunch or grab it to go; stop by after work or before the movies.
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Part of the fun at this fast-paced, Yucatan-inspired kitchen and bar is fueled by the salt-rimmed margaritas and inventive cocktails. Created by bar manager Renee Somerset-Mucha, they put the bar’s large tequila stash to imaginative use.
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You’ll taste more than fruit juice in these ’ritas. Campari tempers the sweetness of a pineapple version, spritzy with cava, the Spanish sparkling wine. Paloma, a tart, on-the-rocks refresher, blends peppery Cabrito blanco tequila and lime with house-made grapefruit soda. (That soda is enjoyable all on its own.)
Chef Brian Walczyk leads the kitchen, as he has previously at Lola, Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen, Brave Horse Tavern and Tanakasan. His food here is recognizably Mexican but unmistakably in the audacious Douglas style. If Palace Kitchen had a Yucatan pop-up night, the menu might look like this.
Meat, fish and vegetables are roasted, smoked or grilled. The chili-heat quotient is calibrated so that you can actually discern the complex undercurrent of flavors.
Achiote-rubbed pork shoulder is a standout dish, but so is chicken roasted with serrano chilies, lime and cilantro. Both meats are spicy, aromatic and subtly smoky. Bits of crispy skin hide among the moist chicken shards. A burst of sour orange and pickled onion counter the rich, pulled pork. Longaniza, a snappy-skinned sausage stuffed with a mix of beef tongue and pork, belongs in the same league.
From the sea comes albacore and yellowtail. The seared tuna blushes pink in the center. It’s paired with zingy “Prosser pepper” crema and a rollicking avocado, radish and jicama relish. Jicama and radish also lend crunch and color to yellowtail ceviche, arranged on a crackling tostada and accented with lime aioli and yuzukosho, a fermented Japanese condiment made with green chilies and salted yuzu rind.
Most of the above items are designated “plates.” Served on blue-and-white painted sheet pans, they come with a warm, foil-wrapped package of exquisitely light and tender corn tortillas (handmade by Maria Orea) and two salsas: a sedate, almost creamy red version made with guajillo and chipotle chilies, and a dynamic, charred green chile salsa exploding with serrano, sour orange and lots of cilantro.
Those salsas, served with fresh tortilla chips, are also on a list of little side dishes you shouldn’t overlook: garlicky pinto beans sautéed to a crisp in olive oil; black beans simmered in a mole-like sauce; and a chopped cucumber and apple salad dusted with chile powder.
Starters, salads and sandwiches round out the short menu. The “three amigos” are a trio of dips: lovely lime-kissed guacamole, salty queso fundido and a surprise hit — a charred eggplant and chipotle puree that tasted like chorizo.
Charred broccoli salad $9
Smoked turkey and ham torta $9
Pork and beef tongue longaniza $10
Yellowtail ceviche $11
Achiote-rubbed pork shoulder $12
Smoke is a flavor wielded particularly well here. It haunts the tomato sauce cushioning a chile relleno, and wafts from a soothing, hot-and-sour ancho chile soup thick with pork and hominy. Pickled pineapple is a brilliant foil for the smoked turkey and ham that stuffs a hefty pressed sandwich slathered with smoked aioli.
Smoke even works its way into a salad, perfuming dollops of creamy cotija cheese that embellishes charred broccoli and radicchio topped with crushed corn nuts. The broccoli was a far more exciting choice than the whole-leaf romaine salad, pretty but underdressed, though much enhanced by the addition of plump prawns sautéed in garlic.
Who can resist a dessert that involves fried dough? Not me. Three sauces — sweet guava-pineapple, spicy ancho chocolate and smoky mescal caramel — distracted somewhat from the fact that the churros, dusted with cinnamon sugar, were too gooey in the middle. Vanilla flan with a side of candied orange peel is a light, elegant alternative. Either goes great with a glass of cava.