The lounge at Tango seems inordinately crowded for 6:00 p.m. on a Wednesday. The high-backed wooden booths are all full, and the bar is dotted with people. It's a cute and varied crowd—two older ladies talking intently, a girl with Bettie Page bangs, and a tattooed guy with a Mohawk of floppy dreads. These latter two appear to be enjoying the Between the Sheets, a $5 cocktail special involving brandy and lime juice served in a martini glass with a sugared rim.
They look happy, as does everyone. Maybe it's the happy-hour menu. Five-dollar mojitos and tapas—like spiced pulled pork with papas fritas, or boquerones with grilled red onion, tomato, and arugula—have that effect on people. And everything else is agreeable. Tango, perched between Capitol Hill and downtown, is upscale without being pushy or slick about it. Ridiculously perfect evening light slants through the venetian blinds.
The bargain tapas, we decide, can wait. Summer only lasts so long, and it seems idiotic to pass up a sampler of exotic kinds of ceviche (three for $18, four for $24, or five for $30) from the regular menu. Negotiations over what to choose from the page-long list are intense. Each ceviche sounds enticing, or at least alluringly bizarre (like the Northwest escabeche made with pickled herring and "carrot flowers"). My weird, weird friend, who happily eats bunny and Bambi, has some sort of hang-up about how adorable octopi are, and the ones in the ceviche mixta are unfortunately described as "baby," so that's out. Finally we each make two selections.
The portions of ceviche are big, and it all looks fantastic on a giant, opalescent amber glass plate. A good-looking pile of crab meat bisected by a single plantain chip demands immediate attention. On the menu, it's described as containing "coconut water," which makes it sound oddly wet, but it's moist and sweet and salty, with a little habañero hel-LO! at the end of each bite. Tiny cubes of pineapple outlining the pile join in nicely. It's hands-down the best thing on the plate. "Surf 'n' Turf" is also beautiful, consisting of two fat rolls of thin-sliced rare-marinated beef with peppery arugula and tomato inside, drizzled with lobster oil. Buttery meat wrapped around crunchy salad equals unexpected greatness.
A heap of tequila and vanilla–cured salmon looks glossy and gorgeous, but it's a some-assembly-required experience. If you don't carefully spear some cucumber and red onion, it's just like lox—good, silky lox, but without detectable tequila or vanilla—and randomly deployed wasabi peas explode into granules in your mouth. As for the scallop ceviche, some bites are sweet, some fishy—not ideal when it comes to scallops.
In total, though, it's an excellent summer supper—as pretty as sushi, less expensive, and more novel.
On Mondays at Tango (1100 Pike St, 583-0382), all bottles of wine are half-price.