6711 Greenwood Ave N, 706-4889
Mon–Fri 11 am–2 am, Sat–Sun 2 pm–2 am
La Botana Restaurante Mexicano
8552 Greenwood Ave N, 706-5392
Daily 10 am–10 pm
Santa Fe Cafe
5910 Phinney Ave N, 783-9755
Daily 5–10 pm, also Sat–Sun 11 am–2:30 pm
Ah, the margarita—summer's finest cocktail... It turns out that the Phinney Ridge/Greenwood Avenue area is a hub for restaurants serving margaritas and the chili-spiked food that loves them, and so I took it upon myself to investigate.
Named after the legendary goat vampire, El Chupacabra is something of a Bimbo's west; it indulges in the same kind of wacky Mexican baroque décor as the Capitol Hill standby. Plus they've got a deck. You probably won't go to the Chup just for the food, but that doesn't mean I don't recommend it. You should go instead for the kick-in-the-pants margaritas served in tall tumblers (don't even ask for a blended drink here). You'll stick around for a round of pool and the awesome jukebox, crammed with L.A. punk, Hank Williams, and local bands. Just watch out for the chatty drunk at the bar who makes you lose your train of thought as you make your selections.
Normally, I advise friends to follow the pork at a Mexican restaurant, but at Chupacabra the burritos ($6.50), filled with dryish carnitas, are just kind of boring. Same goes for the beef carne asada. Surprisingly, it's the chicken that stands out here: It's super-tender and stewed in a slow burning chipotle sauce. Put that chicken in a torta ($5.50), which is essentially a double wide hot-dog bun spread with avocado, and you've got yourself a tasty, squashy mess that goes well with the New York Dolls.
There's no pool table, no jukebox, no ironic Mexi-kitsch at La Botana, further up the way on Greenwood Avenue. Instead, be prepared for bright lights and plenty of ranchero oom-pah on the stereo. But the tortas ($4.95) here are even better than the Chup's (the margaritas, incidentally, are wackier, in flavors like kiwi and guanabana). With one whiff of the piggy air at La Botana, I knew it was a place for pork, and I went for cochinita pibil, long simmered pork seasoned with tangy achiote. Botana's torta is a triumph of texture as well as flavor—the bun toasted on the griddle, the tender meat crisp in certain pieces where it hit the griddle, and smooth slices of avocado and crunchy onion interrupting the sloppy glory of it all. The husband had nice huevos rancheros ($6.75)—with authentically oinky refried beans. I mean to go back sometime for their fancier dinner entrées—chicken in chocolate sauce, seafood in mojo de ajo—but it will be hard not to order another torta.
At the decidedly swankier Santa Fe Cafe, I get a top-shelf margarita with a little bit of Chambord in it. It tastes smooth, but the husband takes issue, "I don't know, I like it when a margarita tastes like getting drunk, like at the Chupa-cabra." He has a point. Mar-garitas should not be too smooth; otherwise you might as well have a Cosmopolitan.
For a New Mexican restaurant, Santa Fe Cafe deserves huge bonus points for its utter restraint in décor. The walls are not, thank god, adobe colored, and the joint is Kokopelli free. Its menu vacillates between straightforward New Mexican classics like chile stew, tamales, enchiladas, hominy; and a few nuevo Southwestern improvisations like blue corn crepes, and a chile relleno tart. For this evening at least, we steer away from the fancy stuff and stick to giant combo platters bathed in chile.
My Santa Fe native friend, a purist and proud of it, guides us through the menu with a few caveats. The green sauce here at the cafe, she explains, wastes the chiles they ship in from New Mexico with too much garlic, and god forbid, tomatoes. I get her point, but I get more exercised about the dull, round tortilla chips that they serve with the otherwise scrumptious chile con queso dip ($7)—up the street, after all, La Botana serves delicious warm chips, and for free. Santa Fe's red chile sauce, however, is unqualified yum—smooth and thick with a sweet, bricky taste. It floods my combo plate ($15.25) of blue corn enchilada, snappy posole made with blue and white corn, and carne adovada, the New Mexican take on carnitas. I feel a little surge of jealousy because my New Mexpert does me one better and orders her red chili enchilada plate ($14.50) with a runny fried egg on top.
But fried egg or not, it was not a bad night in Seattle's pseudo-Southwest. ■