Fandango
2313 First Ave, 441-1188

Mon-Sun 5 pm-11 pm,

La Familia dinner Sun 5-10 pm.

What's better than a bottomless cup of coffee? A bottomless plate of mussels steamed in a buttery broth that's been spiced up with the smoky heat of Oaxacan chiles, that's what.

While many restaurants have been pushing the small-plate agenda, for the past year Fandango (the younger sibling of Flying Fish) has been pushing big plates. Platters, even. Every Sunday night it offers up a 10-dish "La Familia" menu, basically a sit-down, all-you-can-eat buffet for $25. Such family-style dining had a rush in the '90s, only to be subdued by more cheffy presentations: towering food pressed into molds, and sauces squeezed and drizzled about. It's too bad, since, as any lover of Chinese food knows, there's much fun to be had passing food around the table, gorging on favorites and leaving less interesting options alone.

Born in the year 2000, Fandango is a boom restaurant par excellence, high-concept and heavily marketed--it even has a television commercial! Judging by décor alone, its hyper-citrus colors and Carmen Miranda insignia promise little more than a recitation of already familiar Latin flavors. In truth, owner Christine Keff and her chefs pay near-scholarly attention to Latin American ingredients, particularly those of Mexico, where they travel regularly for inspiration.

Those flavors are still decontextualized on the menu, hopping from Brazil to Argentina to the Yucatán, and back through the Pacific Northwest. Still, Fandango is one of the few places in town where you can taste cuitlacoche (corn fungus) or even a broad range of regional chiles, some smoky, some scorching, and some mellow as a sunset. The same range applies to their huge tequila list (not included, I should note, in the price of a La Familia meal).

A couple of Sundays ago, my husband Andrew and I adopted our friend Jenny for the evening and ate family style. Maybe the restaurant happened to be understaffed, or maybe we were written off because we'd ordered the cheap meal, but awkward timing was the small price we paid for the otherwise generous meal. As we slumped in our giant tangerine-colored booth, the first round of dishes arrived--the aforementioned mussels and a snappy chopped Caesar salad--before our cocktails. (When my pisco sour [$6.95] did show up, capped with egg-white foam, it was creamy and refreshing, but a little confusing to sip along with salad.) An expansive break between courses allowed Jenny to tell a long and winding cyber-stalking story.

Then all at once, two servers arrived with their arms full, and our sprawling table was suddenly covered in plates. Yucatán-style chicken, our waiter explained somewhat apologetically, takes a while to cook. No wonder: My drumstick was as big as Foghorn Leghorn's, superbly juicy and edged with smudges of carbon. Alongside it came a plateful of shrimp bucking with an orange-chile sauce and a platter of pork hunks coated in adobo, the fundamental Mexican blend of chiles, herbs, and cumin that makes chili taste like chili. Of course there were good rice and beans, silky refried ones with an herby back-note of cilantro or maybe epazote. There was no need for refills--we were all well fed--but the mere availability of seconds was reassuring.

"You only have one choice to make tonight," said our waiter: smooth coconut tapioca pudding or a brazen chocolate ganache tart with a Brazil nut crust? Sometimes milquetoast is best, and the mild goodness of the tapioca was especially soothing after such a big dinner.

Fandango's La Familia menu is, for the most part, unchanging, which means that summer vegetables like corn (in a slurpy, creamy poblano chile sauce) and grilled zucchini were both trying hard to be more exciting than they were. It would be nice to have a little change on the menu, both to adapt to the seasons and, as Jenny says, to provide "something green and bracing" to offset the rich entrées. In fact, in a perfect world, the La Familia dinner would change regularly and would be a chance to explore different regional cuisines: Michoacán one week, Bahia the next.

But I am taking a mile from a generous inch. As a promotion goes, the La Familia menu is moderately priced and exceptionally tasty, and at least six times more convincing than a television commercial.

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