Really good Mexican restaurants—by which I mean restaurants attending carefully to Mexico’s regional cuisines—genuinely move me, given the astounding success one can enjoy running a bad one.
Lately for reasons of fate I’ve been to a slew of bad ones, loaded with happy people growing happier, in the way that tequila reliably enables. But let’s not call them bad ones, shall we, because there’s a time and a place for bland guacamole and Lip Smacker margaritas and undulating carpets of gilded cheese—all legitimately enjoyable under the right conditions. (Exhibit A: Mama’s Mexican Kitchen, may she rest in peace and may her walls never speak.) Problem is, those bad ones aren’t always readily discernible from the good—especially in a place like Capitol Hill.
Some of the neighborhood’s astonishing glut of newish Mexican joints are seriously impressive—I’m looking at you, Tacos Chukis and La Cocina Oaxaqueña. Others are so beautifully designed, so jammed with appreciative Lip Smacker/cheese carpet lovers, they just seem impressive.
And then there’s Chávez.
Fifteen years ago, the 21-year-old Gabriel Chávez followed family from Mexico to Seattle, whose surrounding mountains recalled his native Durango. He got a job washing dishes at Boat Street Cafe, where Renee Erickson gave him his first cooking lessons outside the ones his mom delivered every time she made her famous chile en nogada. He moved up to line cook at Serafina, then sous, then hopped over to Cantinetta, all the while providing staff meals of his hometown moles and posoles and tacos. “The staff gave me compliments,” Chávez admits modestly. Before long his Cantinetta bosses, Trevor Greenwood and Wade Moller, gave him a restaurant.
The whitewashed box with the roll-up garage doors opens breezily onto 12th Avenue, but it’s a few blocks north of the Pike/Pine frenzy, and therefore degrees more chill than Barrio, say, or the hyperactive Poquitos. Slackers from the ’90s, now Amazon execs—the men all post-hipster close-cropped haircuts, the women all loose-belted chic with artistic shoes—are here in force, adding further polish to a place whose subdued tile work and plain pine accents already brought aesthetic restraint.
Chávez’s classy brevity reinforces this. The bar along the south wall features an abridged list of mescals and tempranillos. The menu—just small-plate antojitos, eight varieties of taco, and two entree plates—bucks the uncurated excess that marks so many Mexican menus, thereby communicating connoisseurship.
And so it’s no surprise when you order the snapper ceviche that it arrives firm and bracing and bright, alive with aromatics and lime—simple bliss to eat. Durango is landlocked but only three hours from Mazatlán, so ceviche is available there on every corner. Chávez’s menu features fish in a few other preparations—as a main dish of snapper wrapped in banana leaf, as a mahi mahi taco crowned with slaw and chipotle cream, as a fat shrimp taco bursting with chilies and citrus—and only one we tried was flawed: a banana leaf tamale with not nearly enough of its tasty crab and langostino filling.
Chávez learned to make these in the mountains near his home, using the lobsterlike shellfish, langostinos, from a local river. Indeed much of the winning nature of this enterprise derives from the folksy provenance of its dishes, and the nostalgia they hold for the chef. Chávez grew up eating carne deshebrada tacos made of braised short ribs with roasted tomatoes and onions and dried peppers, then served with a dollop of the mousselike aguacate (avocado) and tomatillo sauce that’s native to the region. They are sweet and very meaty—a taco in the hand has about the size and heft of a tennis ball—and intricately flavorful, served three to an order.
The silken aguacate sauce should not be confused with the mighty guacamole Chávez serves in a few versions (including his grandmother’s, rajas, with roasted poblanos). Another is spangled with pork belly cracklings, which is actually, oddly, not as purely delectable as the traditional version—a plain marriage of avocado and pico de gallo, explosively flavorful and served in a dish atop a flat crispy corn cake called a totopo.
Totopo, about as visually appealing as drywall, takes about seven seconds to become the superstar of happy hour: a sturdy, earthen, plate-size corn chip with distilled corn flavor (somewhere between popcorn and corn nuts) intensified further thanks to salt and bits of char. Dredged through guacamole or one of Chávez’s complex salsas, totopo brings the indigenous peoples and arid mesas of central Mexico straight to the cocktail tables of Capitol Hill. Chávez actually imports them from Oaxaca.
The kitchen is a small one: an open corner you’ll see on your way to the restroom. Its size kiboshes the bigger, more complex menu Chávez sometimes dreams of creating. (A sweet corn puree swirled with roasted poblano oil and festooned with huitlacoche, bits of the funky corn mold Mexicans savor like truffles, got me dreaming right along with him: Could this be the chef to bring Seattle its first multicourse Mexican restaurant?) On the other hand, get through the totopo and a few tacos and the salsas and guac and terrific yellow and blue corn chips—here more like curly strips—and profound may be your need for no more food.
Except for Chávez’s mom’s chile en nogada—that you mustn’t leave without trying. When he was a kid, his mom and other relatives competed to produce the best version of this dish, which hails from a region further south in Mexico but avails itself well of Durango’s abundance of fruits and nuts. A poblano chile is roasted and peeled, then stuffed with a mix of ground pork and beef with pine nuts, capers, walnuts, apples, pears, and candied cactus, then (in season) garnished with pomegranates. Bursting with fruit and crunch, suspended between savory and sweet, lavished with a rich walnut cream—this aromatic creation is one for the ages.
Believe me or don’t—but after you’ve been to that mountaintop, an ice cream sandwich built on moist, crispy churros will just be too much. At a certain kind of Mexican restaurant, you might just nurse another marg until you felt like, urp, dessert. At this one—by any measure one of the finest Mexican restaurants in Seattle—you’ll simply return for it, again and again.