Restaurant Review

Review: Copal, the Beautiful, Wood-Fired Taqueria In Bar Sajor's Old Space

It's the year's most savvy switch-up.

By Allecia Vermillion July 11, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Copal’s roast chicken with tortillas and a quesadilla filled with smoked pumpkin.

In Bar Sajor, Matt Dillon created a two-story temple of pastoral purity on the Occidental Mall, with enough zinc bar tops and natural-edge hemlock tables to launch a thousand kitchen-design Pinterest boards. Now this space is home to Copal, where coconut bikini slushies churn in a machine by the front door—overt, beachy proof that Dillon’s mostly a silent partner these days.

When Dillon concluded last winter that he’d rather close Sajor than temper his vision, this most iconoclastic chef asked himself an unfamiliar question: What food brings in a high volume of customers? This query was especially tricky given the fanatically primitive kitchen he’d installed for Sajor—oven and grill powered exclusively by fire, absolutely nothing powered by gas.

Reconcept is the watchword of this unsteady year, where so many Seattle restaurants shifted from ambitious to accessible. No place has pulled off this code switch with more elan than the resulting wood-fired taqueria. Dillon installed chef Taber Turpin and added operating partners Chris Rice and Emma Schwartzman, both legitimate practitioners of the surfing life in Mexico (and, in additional water-facing bona fides, spent two seasons operating a floating hot dog grill called Summer Dog on Lake Union). Team Copal is design savvy; add graphic black-and-white tiles, paint banquettes the color of a meticulously tended resort pool and, boom—one chef’s country dream house becomes another’s equatorial beach party.

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A little paint gives the former Bar Sajor a relaxed new vibe.

The kitchen that once served smoked yogurt and rye crisps is now command central for plates you’d love to eat seaside. Copal’s staff avoids using the term Mexican food, or words like guacamole—verbiage that might make diners think fajita platters and bottomless baskets of chips (can’t have those without a fryer). In lieu of guac, you spread lime-drizzled smashed avocado on flour tortillas and garnish with crunchy radish and crumbles of queso fresco. True, the vacation vibe has its ups and downs. A few dishes—aguachile, watermelon salad—come off overly watery, and flimsy napkins from tabletop dispensers end up wadded in unsightly piles. But there’s genius in simple plates like grilled spring onions, sweet bulbs and charred stalks dressed only with sea salt and lime zest. The drinks’ vivid hues don’t mean they’re overly sweet. 

One word nobody shies away from here is taco, with good reason: Turpin marshals the kitchen—plus years of experience at his old Olive Way walk-up, Taco Gringos—to make three destinationworthy versions every day. Barbacoa is juicy; mole de xico trades Oaxaca’s chocolaty mole for a brighter, deeply spiced variation made with pecans, almonds, and pine nuts. Rotating vegetarian offerings of roasted poblanos with seasonal flourishes like morels, asparagus, or chayote squash wow even hardcore carnivores.

Dishes span Latin America, particularly its queso-based arts. After sampling grilled Salvadoran cheese and a quesadilla of smoky pumpkin, I nearly spent the rest of my life without knowing Copal’s queso del horno…and the marvels that occur when spicy longaniza, mashed chicharrones, and a dash of cider vinegar meet bubbling hot cheese. The star of the few entrees on offer is spice-rubbed brisket, tender and resting in bone marrow salsa that almost resembles pho broth; a massive slab of smoked and grilled pineapple is mere garnish, yet the most triumphant thing that’s happened to a pineapple since Dole Whip. 

Dillon once described his decision to open an avant garde kitchen in a historic neighborhood mostly turned over to sports bars as “a conversation I was having with my city.” That conversation continues still, over cocktails the color of a Baja sunset.

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