An old friend of mine got married last week in Cleveland, Ohio, and I was a bridesmaid. It was a huge, happy, Irish-Catholic affair. It was also three exhausting days of buttercream cake, steak 'n' potatoes, and bland cheese sandwiches from room service. I wore a lot of pink, and ate a lot of starch. I came home with a slightly larger ass and an even larger commitment phobia, desperately craving colorful, spicy foods.

Dulces Latin Bistro, a comfortably upscale Madrona joint owned by husband-and-wife team Carlos Kainz and Julie Guerrero, quickly came to mind. With its Latin-Euro menu featuring haute Mexican classics (chiles rellenos are stuffed here with Montrachet and manchego), Dulces achieves a graceful balance between white-linen Nuevo Latino cuisine and down-home helpings of simpler meat-and-cheese combos. Lime-cilantro ceviche (part of the Trio of Tostaditas, $8.75) or shrimp tamale ravioli ($18.95) with poblano peppers, mozzarella, roasted corn, and garlic cream sauce are perfectly at ease on exec chef Guerrero's seasonal menu alongside humble favorites like pozole, traditional Mexican pork stew with hominy ($18.95), or carne asada with black beans ($19.95).

All right, full disclosure: I was initially introduced to Dulces by a fabulous woman (PUBLICIST) at a recent intimate dinner party (PRESS JUNKET) attended by some very nice folks (LOCAL FOOD MEDIA). But I honestly loved the food. That night, I swore to my dinner date (a.k.a. My Gay Husband) that I would return, if only for the brochetas de filete--described as "mouth-watering Nebraska corn-fed beef skewered with red peppers and onions, brushed on the grill with Cascabel chili sauce."

I did return, anonymously and at full price, with a different dining companion, who is neither gay nor my husband, but who is, like the brochetas de filete, also corn-fed and from Nebraska. We attacked the red-pepper ravioli ($7.95) appetizer, and after a few tastes of those soft pillows stuffed with smooth chorizo-sausage purée, mozzarella, and ricotta--each bite dragged across a puddle of cilantro-tomatillo cream sauce--my anxieties about weddings and starches and long-term commitment began to fade. That ravioli was certainly not concerned with commitment: From the chorizo's richness to the tomatillos' tartness, this dish flirts briefly with several bold flavors, keeping things interesting.

Chilled cucumber soup (soup or salad accompanies entrées) with bursts of basil tasted so pure and clean, I almost smeared it across my face to clear out my pores. I am super-allergic to shrimp, so I could only wistfully watch as Nebraska polished off his prawns a la diabla ($7.95), sautéed in butter with dried chilies and orange zest; vivid splotches of chili oil and big, scary prawns taunted me from across the table. (Dear God: Why do I gotta be allergic to shrimp? Why not beets, or nonoxynol-9?)

I lusted after that skewered beef ($22.95) and paella--a traditional heap of chicken, fin fish, Spanish chorizo, clams, mussels, and calamari, all atop saffron rice ($21.50)--but in the end, this girl always gives in to pork. Nebraska gave high praise to his chicken enchiladas ($18.95) baked with a gorgeous tomatillo-avocado sauce, while I happily got lost in the carnitas de puerco ($19.50), a deeply satisfying serving of pork shoulder, patiently slow-cooked until it instantly falls apart in your mouth, bolstered by a gentle adobo sauce, grilled mango slices, rice, and steamed yellow squash. Those warm mangos-- sweet, moist, and slippery on the tongue--were the perfect counterpart for the more aggressively seasoned pork. I took my time, enjoying the fruit's slick softness against the supple texture of simmered meat.

Despite generous dinner portions, take my advice and succumb to gluttony and Guerrero's sugary hooks. I almost needed a cigarette after some cajeta ($6), a dense caramel and chocolate tart. I wish my everyday life could be like the dessert tray at Dulces: all of the possible options, on lovely display, beautifully garnished and carefully explained in detail by a polite Latino gentleman.

Dulces Latin Bistro
1430 34th Ave (Madrona), 322-5453.
Tues-Sat 5-10 pm.

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