Less Fancy, More Good
It Turns Out Capitol Hill Did Need Another Mexican Restaurant
Fogón means, roughly, "stove." Google translates an entry from a Spanish dictionary like this: "Stove: Formerly, in the kitchen room where the fire had to cook. In the boilers of steam engines, fuel destined place: have to take coal in the stove to operate the locomotive."
As the name of a restaurant, Fogón connotes warmth and hearth and family—even when the word is in the context of a train, it's an old-timey steam engine. It does not have any brainstorm-betraying, questionable edge, as with naming a restaurant Barrio; nor does it have the Americanized- sounding, diminutive quality of a name like Poquitos. Capitol Hill's Barrio was created by the Heavy Restaurant Group, which also runs the various Purple Cafe and Wine Bars, plus Lot No. 3 in Bellevue; the owners of Poquitos also run Bastille and Macleod's Scottish Pub in Ballard, are opening a beer hall called Von Trapp not far from Poquitos, and are planning another Ballard restaurant called Stoneburner. Barrio is the one with the massive wooden doors and wall of candles; a plate of three tacos there costs $12 to $16. Poquitos is the one with the filigreed metalwork and 14,000 handmade tiles; tacos there are $9.95 to $11.95 and up (the Baja fish tacos are market price).
The owners of Capitol Hill's new Fogón Cocina Mexicana own other restaurants, too: two more Mexican places in Woodinville and Monroe, both called Mi Tierra ("my land"). The owners were born in Mexico—the food at all their places is of the familiar Michoacán style—and Mi Tierra's website advises that it's "a family enterprise with a staff of employees that includes family members and a whole bunch of very good friends."
Fogón's setting has a short, inauspicious history: It is in the ground-floor condo retail space on Pine Street where first Kurrent (spelled with a backwards K, home of "Appeteasers" and a strip of ice running down the bar) and then Kiki Tap & Eatery (subpar Asian-fusion and 16 beers on tap) failed to thrive. The ghosts seem fully dispelled—Fogón is airy and pleasantly contemporary, with lime-green walls and a constellation of punched-tin light fixtures in the entry. There's a wall of silvery folk-art crosses; another wall with pottery, Day of the Dead dolls, and pretty tequila bottles; photos of Mexico; and some good-idea-filament lightbulbs.
The music at Fogón is great, veering from Mexi-techno-pop (played probably too loud for some on a Sunday evening) to slow jams en Español. The service is friendly and considerate in a relaxed, reassuring, and sadly rare way. Everything starts on the right foot with a complimentary tostada, loaded with beans and cabbage and a dot of hot salsa. They'll ask in what order you'd like your food brought out, or whether you'd like your cocktel de camaron (warm, spicy tomato broth loaded with shrimp and avocado, served properly with Saltines, $10.95) divided into two massive glass goblets to share (and then give you more, so as to avoid any appearance of lack of bounty), or whether you'd like more of the corn tortillas being handmade within eyesight by a lady behind sneeze-guarding glass. If you compliment these tortillas—they are so light! Are they made with some special corn? How is she making them so delicious?—your server may not be able to explain, but will look so genuinely pleased, it will make you happy again when you remember it later.
And Fogón's tortillas must be tasted to be believed—they're cushy, somehow pillowy, maybe ready to levitate; they taste almost like cream. You can get them in taco format (three for $7.95 to $10.95; tongue available), and they will also offer to bring them with lots of other dishes (answer: YES, please), and then offer to bring you more when you eat them all (ditto). Fajitas are a very boring thing to order at a Mexican restaurant—but Fogón's tidbits of beef and sautéed vegetables in a savory, slightly tangy sauce made with beer, wine, and tequila (hello! $13.95), wrapped with some bright, limey, slightly spicy guacamole in one of their handmade tortillas, cause excitement.
Pretty much everything at Fogón is extra good: The ingredients taste fresh, the care shines through. The trio of salsas—peppy tomatillo with bits of avocado in it; rich, dark, but not too aggressive roja; uncomplicated, trustworthy pico de gallo—comes with warm, ungreasy, thickish-but-crackly house-made chips ($3.95, and worth it). A chile relleno ($8.95), instead of oozing a pool of Monterrey jack, is stuffed with firmer, lovely—and again, fresher-tasting—queso fresco. Carne asada Milanesa ($12.95) wears a lacey, crispy, dark-brown crust and is tender inside. Chicken mole, with a leg and two thighs ($11.95), isn't the most complex mole ever, but it has subtlety, and it's not too sweet. Dungeness enchiladas ($12.95) seem excessively mild compared to everything else, but then you don't want to overpower the crab.
Portions are big, and when it all tastes this fresh and unheavy, it's easy to get too full, too fast; go slow. The margaritas, made with fresh lime and served in a cocktail glass, with at least two more pours left chilling in the shaker, are very nice. Fogón is really tasty; Fogón feels just right. It might be your new Capitol Hill Mexican place.