Mission
2325 California Ave SW, 937-8220
Dinner 5-10 pm, late-night menu 10 pm-midnight, bar until 2 am every day.

Mission is going to be an unholy success. Overheard conversations at West Seattle's newest hotspot circle around its greatness; at the central bar, near-facsimiles of Belltown party girls squeak, "I LOVE this place," before going on to reminisce about their last trip to Cabo while their menfolk manfully look interested. There's a lot to love: The deep, dim room feels like a private compound, a grand refuge on a still-sunny evening (or a rainy one, for that matter). The décor cleverly plays on '60s Mission ranch style with geometrical wrought iron and an immense flagstone wall; rough lath cutouts highlight the bar. The house margaritas ($6) are quite good (which figures; the owners are from El Camino). The short but appealing Mexican menu is well priced, and the food looks very pretty on the plate.

Pretty is as pretty does, however, and most of the slightly upscale Mexican preparations aren't quite lovable. It's all entirely edible, but there's little to jump up and down about. And service, while well meaning, fails to inspire confidence, creating awkwardness rather than obviating it.

That being said, there are a number of steps you can take to optimize your Mission dining experience. (If you're coming for the bar, you ought to know what to do.)

Make a reservation, and request a tucked-away booth or a table on the balcony. In this way, you can avoid being seated under the extremely blue back wall. A wall this blue is good from afar; up close, it makes the unfortunates near it look like death warmed over.

Order the ceviche ($8). Recently, superfresh halibut (the fish varies) had, extraordinarily, the pillowy texture of scallops. It's excruciatingly, deliciously the tartest ceviche in town and easily the boldest, best thing on the menu.

Also order the very fine (and fairly huge) mushroom-and-cheese quesadilla ($7), made with a divinely flaky flour tortilla.

Ask for salt and a dish of extra lime wedges. With these, you can revive a sadly moribund guacamole ($6)--an entirely worthwhile endeavor because of the cumin-and-chile plantain chips accompanying it. Unlike the usual planks of chewy plantain, these are thin, crisp, and superlative.

Don't be a hater when, for instance, upon your refusal of another margarita, your server says, "You're just chillin'?" Similarly, don't be overly linear about time. You may feel like your entrées are arriving not only while you're still involved with your tapas, but while you're still parking your car. This cannot be true.

Get the tacos ($9/$10), made with corn tortillas created by hand on the premises. This redoubtable practice should be richly rewarded.

If the soundtrack of your visit happens to include an entire Bob Marley CD, do not fixate on this cultural disconnect, trying fruitlessly to link Jamaica, Rastafarianism, etc. with the conquistadores. Relax. Similarly, do not dwell on the light fixtures if variety in such things is liable to bother you.

Consider coming for $1-off margaritas and the late-night menu, served from 10 to midnight every night. The tacos and the quesadilla are here for you, and nothing's more than five bucks. Your expectations are lower, you're spending less, you're happier.

Perhaps expectations are the problem: A glamorous setting like Mission ratchets them up. You want Mexican cuisine at its pinnacle, as rich and complex as it is tasty. Less-than-thrilling flautas ($8) and a misguided ahi dish ($8.50) from the tapas section of the menu seem more forgivable than several of the entrées that disappoint at this level. A chile relleno ($9) aspires to great things, with a commendably unsoggy crust and the encased chile slightly al dente. But the filling is bland; chayote, the tofu of gourds, is soft-fleshed and tasteless, and the cheese is unspectacular. A timid green chile sauce can't make up for it. A cornflake-encrusted fish filet ($12, halibut, on this visit) was greaseless and neither over- nor undercooked; but still, it was just a very good version of fish sticks, served with tomatillo sauce. As a main dish, it got monotonous fast.

Mission is straddling the bar/restaurant fence with aplomb and single-handedly remaking West Seattle nightlife. (Its Cinco de Mayo party will undoubtedly be packed.) It doesn't need food that exceeds expectations to prosper. It'd be nice, though.

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