"Oh my god, it's SO GOOD, I'm so glad you ordered that," Anica says. Anica, a server at the brand-new Mexican restaurant El Mestizo on First Hill, turns out to be entirely justified in her enthusiasm about the queso fundido (and also about most everything else). She is an excellent waitperson: unceasingly cheerful, quick with a one-liner, teasingly flirtatious with man and woman alike, yet (seemingly impossibly) never bothersome. She can also read a table like a book. Two cranky older guys at the table next to us are handled with kid gloves: "It's a little too spicy for me, but then I'm a wimp" gets a sincere apology from her, without a (probably very tempting) resounding agreement.
The queso fundido ($7.50), like all the food at El Mestizo, is distant from tasty-if-gloppy Tex-Mex style; it's got mozzarella-like queso Oaxaca melted with mild queso blanco, with housemade chorizo and pieces of poblano pepper. The cheese stretches from the ramekin via your tortilla in anticipation- increasing elastic strings.
About your tortilla: To quote Anica, oh my god, it's SO GOOD. It's slightly thick and slightly spongy, a warm disk of pure corn love that's lightly blistered and brought with its friends in an embroidered cloth tortilla-cozy. If these don't come with your appetizer or your supper at El Mestizo, they'll probably be offered to you anyway; if they aren't, you must ask for some. If you're lucky, partway through your cozyful of tortillas, they'll change to the blue-corn variety, which taste like an even more basic building block of deliciousness, like an ancient, wordless embodiment of good. If you're lucky again, the shy lady tortilla-maker will be physically propelled out to your table, where she'll ask you barely audibly how they are, and you'll express undying gratitude, and then you'll possibly expire from an overdose of adorableness on the spot. A death with an El Mestizo tortilla in hand would be a death without regret.
The ensalada del Mestizo ($8) might have been what the self-described wimp was complaining about. It's some unexciting but fresh lettuce with lots of black beans, corn kernels, crunchy jicama, avocado, and chicken breast (which looks and tastes like bird and lime and grill, not like an extruded block of pale protein), all dressed in a shockingly spicy chipotle dressing. Certain bites of this dressing may make your eyes water; it is the single hottest salad dressing I've ever encountered, and it makes the salad seem healthier (sinus-clearing action with your roughage) and taste great (the feeling like danger, the burn of the senses).
But what is greatest about El Mestizo—besides the tortillas, which you may eat throughout—is the meat. Do you like mole? Mestizo's mole is neither too nutty nor too sweet; it's rich without greasiness, deep like cacao instead of cloying, mysterious with its secret mix of chilies rubbing up against each other. You can get it in enchiladas or spilling over a hojaldra, a puffed pastry shell whose airiness makes a fine foil. But what people are already raving about is Mestizo's pork pibil. Marinated up to 72 hours with annatto and more, then braised patiently in banana leaves, it is smoky and tender and tastes both sweet and tart (but neither to excess). Some pibil plus a Mestizo tortilla: YES. The mixiote, a quarter-ish chicken marinated with subtler spices and also slow-braised, is enjoyable if not as outstanding; same with the lemon-and-garlic sautéed shrimp (notable for being perfectly un-overcooked, with the texture like eating fruit instead of meat). Only one entrée I've tried so far has failed to fully please, the chile en nogada; the pepper was battered and deep-fried without heavy-handedness, but the filling was uninspired, and the pecan cream sauce tasted less like nuts and more like dessert than it should.
The only problem with dinner at El Mestizo is the price. The entrées, which come with ordinary sides in somewhat comically Spartan presentations, are not especially generous, while they range from $12 to $16—and El Mestizo is not a fancy place. It's a shotgun-style room with an open kitchen on one side, a carefully stained but homemade-looking bar/counter, a couple of neon beer signs, plain tile floors, and an acoustic-paneled ceiling. The blown-glass hanging lights, white tablecloths, and shadowbox folk art (look for your table's spirit animal: a crazy butterfly, a doleful sun, an evil-eyed lizard, a slice of watermelon) don't do much in the way of dressing the place up. Nor do you want them to; the food is so good, all you need is a table and chairs and, to be polite, cutlery. (Also, the people are so, so nice. Jose, the owner, might stop to ask sincerely, "Are you happy?" And Ricardo, the serious-looking chef, might offer to clear a plate with a couple more bites on it, then light up in a smile: "I didn't think so!" You'll be checked on within an inch of your life at El Mestizo, and each time you'll feel actually cared for instead of interrupted.) The plates just need to be piled with more food—or cost a few dollars less.
Or you can come for lunch, when El Mestizo transforms into the taqueria that the room feels meant to be. You order at the counter, and the staff's in green T-shirts, and the whole neighborhood's stopping by—doctors in scrubs, construction workers in hard hats, a Fisher-Price version of reality. Tacos are $2.25, and the pico de gallo salsa has just the right caliber of jalapeño, and the carne asada is exceptional: bits of flank steak without too much seasoning, just toothsome and awesome. If the al pastor isn't to your taste (it's real country-style, with unrendered fat striations in the pieces of pork), there's the pibil, or chorizo, or chicken. A burrito—not just good-for-Seattle, but legitimately San-Francisco-Mission-good—comes with a fountain drink for $7.01 (though I'd rather have a dollar off and no pop). You ought to walk along the counter to help with its construction. There's queso fresco, and fresh cilantro, and Mexican crema, and some of those radishes would be unconventional but why not, and "Have you tried our corn salsa?" You really should.