On a northern plateau of Beacon Hill, in a shambling collection of rooms that could only be transformed into a restaurant worth noticing through great love and skill, sits Baja Bistro, where every day brings a rotation of delights. In the morning and early afternoon, the two small dining areas function as a coffeehouse and Mexican diner, offering Stumptown coffee, a case of pastries, huevos con chorizo, chilaquiles, breakfast tacos, and so forth. At dinnertime, the Mexican menu takes over, and Baja Bistro becomes an adamantly casual outpost for authentic Baja California–style Mexican cuisine (enchiladas, tortas, mole). And starting at 3:00 p.m., in a separate but connected sliver of a room, Baja Bistro's bar is open, offering a happy-hour menu until 7:00 p.m. and drinks all night long—and becoming very, very gay on Wednesdays.
Lording over this world of cafe society, regional Mexican food, neighborhood nightlife, and exemplary gay integration is Oscar Castro, Baja Bistro's ever-present owner. Castro first saw Seattle when he was 8 years old and trekked up from Baja California to see his godparents in the Pacific Northwest. He returned as soon as possible, enrolling in North Seattle Community College after graduating from high school in Mexicali, and his two years at NSCC were followed by two years at the University of Washington. "Seattle is so friendly," says Castro, with a smile that rarely leaves his face. "It really helped me develop."
Developing alongside Castro was his younger brother, with whom he shared an apartment on Capitol Hill. "When my brother turned 14, we couldn't share a bedroom anymore, and we couldn't afford a two-bedroom on the Hill, so we moved to Beacon Hill." Castro loved his new neighborhood, but routinely found himself drawn back to Capitol Hill for one thing: "Quality coffee." In 2004, he corrected the lack by opening the Java Love coffeehouse, situated in the southernmost tip of the half-block that now houses his mini-empire. When space opened next door to Java Love, Castro expanded into Baja Bistro, and found himself creating the type of space he'd fallen in love with when he visited Mexico City: "There's not really a name for it, but it's a communal space where you can get good coffee, breakfast, lunch, dinner, everything."
What Castro brought to the mix: regional cuisine from Baja California, with menu items drawn from Castro's family favorites. "All our recipes are my mom's and grandmother's, with tweaks from the cooks," Castro says. "Everything's created in-house—tortillas, tortilla chips, salsa. Even the margarita mix is fresh-squeezed." The result is simple, humble, family-style Mexican food of a quality that can't be faked.
The Relleno ($11.95, with rice and beans), involves a pasilla pepper stuffed with Oaxaca, cotija, and mozzarella cheese and grilled to a great, smoky charredness before being egg-battered and landing on another planet than every other chile relleno I've ever been served. The Verde Burrito ($7.95) features pork tenderloin cooked long and slow in a tomatillo, onion, and serrano pepper sauce that one diner described as "awesome—not super-spicy, but it's got an amazing depth of flavor, probably from all the melted pork fat." The deep, dark table salsa is a knockout, with a substantial heat that stays anchored to a rich, full flavor. (Among the perfectly good if unremarkable standards you might doctor with that salsa: cheese enchiladas, various tortas, and a shrimp ceviche served home-style with saltines.)
And then there's the bar, an Airstream-trailer-sized room that's functionally gay-friendly whenever its door is open and officially gay every Wednesday. When I ask Castro how this got started, he says, "It can get very straight in here! But four years ago, a friend told me the best way to weed out the wrong kind of people is to put a rainbow flag in the window—and it worked! The whole goal was to have a place where me and my gay friends can hang out without any animosity, where anyone can kiss their boyfriend or girlfriend without trouble." By his estimation, Baja Bistro's clientele is "90 percent neighborhood folks," and even when the bar's raging like Pride weekend, the dining room is bouncing with families and kids and crayons. It's like an entire urban village crammed inside a tour-bus-sized Mexican food truck, and as Castro says, "Everyone's welcome."