If the counter person at Bongos Cafe (6501 Aurora Ave N, 420-8548, bongosseattle.com) is sick of answering questions about the closing of Paseo, he sure doesn't show it. In my visit, he fielded two separate volleys of Paseo-related questions from customers (yes, business at Bongos has increased since they closed; no, nobody's sure what happened with them, although there's a lot of gossip) with good cheer and understanding. But he's quick to bring your attention back to the menu, which is exactly where it belongs.
Bongos serves delicious Caribbean food with zero pretensions, and the restaurant, tucked into a triangular plot of land on Aurora, just off Green Lake, is practically a theme-park ride. It's a repurposed 76 station made into a Caribbean playground, with the help of a splash of colorful paint and a thorough reimagining of the space. The best part, obviously, is the sandpit where the gas pumps used to be; even on the dreariest Northwest winter day, the patio furniture and bright plastic shovels and buckets give the restaurant a playful, beachy vibe. Inside, the ceiling is covered in burlap coffee sacks and strings of lights, and aqua highlights liven up what should be, by all rights, a deadly dull building.
I'll leave it to you to determine whether Bongos matches or bests Paseo's place in your heart, but I'll fight you if you try to tell me the food is anything short of great. I had the 1 a.m. sandwich ($7.99), a sloppy rectangle of citrus-braised pork layered beneath thin slices of sweet ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and a mustard aioli served on a toasted roll. Yes, it's a mess, but it's a beautiful, tangy mess that leaves your hands smelling of smoked pork and fresh bread. Other items on Bongo's menu look enticing—they've got a ropa vieja sandwich and ground beef-and-chorizo burgers, not to mention a whole array of plates costing about $10—but the 1 a.m. is a great place to start.
The side to get at Bongos is the maduros ($3.99). These deep-fried sweet plantains aren't the least bit oily—they're fluffy and light on the inside—and the sweet crema dipping sauce somehow helps the dish avoid dessert territory by bringing out savory grace notes in the fried fruit. They're a better, more complex side order than french fries, complementing the sweet and citrus tones of the sandwich.
Bongos is engrossing without feeling inauthentic, cheap without being shoddy, and high-concept without the cloying self-consciousness. After I finished my sandwich, I braved the frigid cold to go sit on the fake beach, plant my feet in the sand, and stare at Bongos' storefront while sipping on my iced tea as the traffic roared down Aurora on the other side of the fence. Everyone needs a vacation now and again.