There is something distinctly soothing about Agua Verde, and when I'm here I feel like I'm on vacation. The place's resort-town sensibilities feel thousands of miles away from my First Hill studio: brightly painted tropical colors; scrubbed floorboards; hand-scrawled signs; a modest kitchen where busy, laughing cooks work in shorts; photos posted in the hallway of friends, babies, grinning staff members. Being here makes me wistful for places I have not yet discovered, but that are somehow familiar thanks to postcards or Travel and Leisure.
It's located at the base of a slight slope where Boat Street, Brooklyn Avenue, and Portage Bay converge. If the sun is out, the water will be shimmering behind this cottage-like restaurant that, along with offering yam tacos and mango margaritas and hominy stew, also rents out kayaks by the hour.
On approach, it's likely you'll see a line out the door. The air will smell like roasted poblano chilies and grilled fish and fresh-cut lime, and you will hear laughter and chatter and the clack of plates on wooden tables. If you're near the deck, you might also hear the scrape of kayaks on gravel as they're pushed out onto the lake, or the footsteps of kids running between docked boats.
Agua Verde's owners dub themselves "gringos with a dream." They had the Sea of Cortez in mind when their café was conceived, and their menu of simple, fresh food--tacos (meats, fish, and vegetables), empanadas, sandwiches, quesadillas, salads, nightly specials, and sublime desserts (I still think about that quivering chocolate flan)--recalls the cuisines of Baja, Oaxaca, Tampico, and salt-sprayed Mexican beach towns... places where it is entirely acceptable to spend an entire day without shoes.
The food is as festive and charming as the décor, with dishes that scoff at stereotype. Provolone can be found on the same list as crumbled cotija or Monterey Jack. Mashed potatoes are embellished with chili powder, and black beans are playfully smashed (sides, $1.95). Classic chicken mole negro ($10.95) is offered, but so is carne asada with plum sauce ($11.95) or Cornish game hen draped with rosy prickly pear and grapefruit. You could be safe and stick to traditional Caesar salad ($2.75/$5.25) or pico de gallo sauce; but consider the exciting, smoky-sweet corn and cactus salad instead, or a crock of pineapple-jicama salsa (both $1.95), in which fresh pineapple, sharp scallions, bits of red pepper, cilantro, and tart citrus juices commingle with the clean taste of crisp jicama.
The humble taco de bacalao--salted black cod--is fried in a coconut tempura beer batter (three tacos per order, $4.95, includes chips and house salsa), while charbroiled chicken tacos are mixed with cranberry slaw, and barbequed lamb tacos get a blanket of cilantro and onions. Other choices include spicy catfish, marinated flank steak, portobellos with guajillo chilies, or sautéed yams.
Despite some gourmet tendencies, try anything here and you'll recognize the unmistakable imprints of honest street food: You can taste slight traces of the grill, and flavors are clear and uncomplicated, proving the ingredients' integrity. Scallop ceviche ($6.95) is perfect in a simple lime and salsa bath; and empanada de flor de calabaza ($5.50)--filled with a velvety purée of squash blossoms, Oaxacan cheese, jalapeños, zucchini, and pungent epazote--is unlike anything I've ever tasted, rich and verdant with sharp tangs and spicy bites.
But my favorite is still the grilled halibut taco--delicious fish that's been squirted with lime, seasoned with dried chilies, and served with soft tortillas, shredded cabbage, and a creamy avocado sauce. I recently enjoyed one while sitting on a park bench behind the café, getting sauce on my face and making a terrible mess. It was nice to be outside, feeling the sun on my shoulders. While I watched a lone duck extract something out of Portage Bay, I sipped on agua de jamaica ($1.50), a juice made from hibiscus flowers. It was sweet and cold, and it tasted like summer.