On a hill above Amazon, South Lake Union's latest Mexican restaurant occasionally feels caught—like Seattle itself—in between two worlds.
First opened 1926, the single- story structure in which it's housed has since been dwarfed by encroaching apartments and office towers. Other upstarts on Fairview Avenue North have plenty to offer in terms of square footage, but none hold a candle in terms of street cred or experience: this retro brick warehouse has operated continuously as a restaurant since 1943.
"We're stewards of something that's a part of history," says Matt Greenup, one of four partners in El Grito. "That was exciting, especially in this neighborhood, where history's getting knocked down every day." Greenup is part of the ownership team behind nearby restaurant Re:public, along with Rory McCormick and Hannes Schindler, as well as Dan Olsby, formerly of the Parlor and Pesos. Each owns a stake in this new venture.
They bring an overlapping Venn diagram of experience to their second South Lake Union restaurant, though nothing could prepare them for the challenge of bringing the neglected building into step with current codes. "We basically ripped everything off, down to the floors and the bare walls," Greenup says, calling the renovations "mildly stressful" because nobody wanted to do "injustice" to the space.
Ceilings and walls were sandblasted to remove the paint, uncovering brick walls and exposed beams, while booths were ripped away to make way for sleek hardwood seating and stools. Above all, the team took care to restore the building's original windows, some of which had been boarded up or blocked by earlier tenants, most recently an Indian restaurant named the Royal Palace. Sunny paint and strings of well-placed party lights lend a perpetually festive vibe.
The menu delivers Mexican classics with a focus on comfort food, courtesy of Re:public's head chef and a sous chef hailing directly from Mexico. This includes chicken tinga, pulled chicken tossed with savory-sweet tomato and chipotle sauces and Mexican cacti, which is carefully de-pricked, grilled, and presented as a vegetarian option for tacos or quesadillas. On a recent visit, our server likened the cactus to okra, with a love-it-or-hate-it texture that did manage to put off my dining partner. Regardless, we agreed that the deliciously strong Cadillac margarita, served in a tall glass for only $13, could lead to danger were it not for the rather generous portions, including a juicy pile of carne asada, chicken tinga quesadillas, and avocado-heavy ceviche (dishes range from $6 to $18). The cacti theme also extends to the bar, where a prickly pear margarita is made using actual cactus flowers.
"It's scary to take on Mexican food sometimes," says Greenup, explaining that the cuisine tends to attract a passionate following. "There's a lot of food trucks [in the neighborhood], but that's a different option. You don't get to sit down, you don't get a margarita." He hopes that El Grito appeals to both old and new Seattle, with a rotation of afternoon and late-night happy hours, a well-priced Mexican menu chock-full of tradition, homemade chips for $3, and proven crowd-pleasers like nachos. Judging from the lively dinner rush one recent Thursday that came long after the rest of SLU had headed home, these guys may be onto something.