For brunch, West Seattle's universally lauded restaurant, Spring Hill, serves a "special saimin" with pork belly and fish cake, an elegantly constructed version of a Honolulu lunch counter favorite. The similarly up-market Fresh Bistro by Herban Feast (also coincidentally in West Seattle) serves a spruced-up version of the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, made with braised pork belly and foie gras mayonnaise. Setting aside the question of whether pork belly, as an ingredient, has jumped the shark (or whether the phrase, "jump the shark," has itself jumped the shark), it seems that street food is coming in off the street and landing on some fancy plates.
Food normally found in deli cases, corner diners, trucks and carts, is increasingly showing up in fancy, sit-down restaurants. In Fremont, the new restaurant Revel built its menu on the theme of Asian street food — dishes like dumplings, noodles, and porridge, all with delicate gourmet touches (and some with pork belly, of course).
This generation of chefs seems to be a well-traveled one. Christine Keff of Flying Fish found her culinary muse in southeast Asia; Shaun McCrain, chef at the Book Bindery, spent his 20s in Paris. They and others have fond memories of meals eaten with hands on the street of some foreign country where street food is more the norm — let's face it, street food is more a Third World thing, born out of density, necessity, a lack of fussiness, and a certain amount of deprivation, things that Seattle has less of than, say, Hanoi.
Some of those imprinted memories of a falafel or some meat on a stick or a bowl of noodles and bits will make it onto a restaurant menu somewhere. To oversimplify, that is how much art is created: A common object or expression is interpreted by someone with formal training and the backing of patrons with money and art is born. That pretty much describes bebop jazz, the paintings of Paul Gauguin, and that $12 bowl of saimin at Spring Hill.
The most "street" of street foods, the Mexican taco, recently got its gentrification upgrade last month when Poquitos opened on Capitol Hill. Poquitos is a sort of upscale taqueria that serves a relatively simple menu of traditional favorites like tacos, tamales, enchiladas, tortas, and soups, but in a setting and a manner that is befitting of a $10 cocktail, which Poquitos also has.
Poquitos strives to fill a niche somewhere between, say, Barrio and Rancho Bravo, which happens to be one block away. Rancho Bravo, a very popular restaurant that began as a truck parked in Wallingford next to the Dick's Drive-In, serves a similar menu fast-food style from a counter, calling out numbers when orders are ready.
Poquitos was brought to life by the owners of Bastille in Ballard, Deming Maclise and James Weimann, who, prior to opening Poquitos, traveled extensively in the state of Puebla, Mexico, and became enamored of the region. They imported thousands of hand-painted tiles from Puebla to use all over the dining room, which features a giant, circular bar.
Rancho Bravo serves its tacos on paper plates, which must be held carefully, fingers spread wide, lest the plate collapses. Customers pour salsa into clear plastic cups and sit down in red and white chairs that hint at the space's former occupants — KFC.
The owners of Poquitos salvaged and had custom-built ornate lanterns and ironwork, creating a beaux-arts, Spanish-colonial, romanticized vision of old Mexico just as they created a romanticized vision of Paris at Bastille.
Rancho Bravo has lights and is kind of a hazy, romanticized version of a date you think you went on in middle school at the corner mall.
Poquitos is a masterpiece of restaurant design, more than 3,000-square feet of dark metal and glowing lights and colorful tiles. Within a few weeks, it will open its patio for dining, complete with two fire pits, heated seats and a tile floor with radiant heating, the kind installed in high-end bathrooms. While you can eat delicious Mexican food at restaurants in White Center or Burien, those aren't the places most grown-ups want to go when they get dressed up.
At Rancho Bravo, chicken is chicken, beef is beef, pork is just pork. At Poquitos, they serve Mad Hatcher free-range chicken, Painted Hills beef, Carlton Farms pork, Martinez Farms lamb, and Quilceda Farms goat, making a point of its sourcing.
Poquitos is one of the few upscale restaurants to serve goat (braised in an iron skillet with fingerling potatoes for $17) and maybe the only one to serve grasshoppers, which it toasts in a pan whole with lime juice and salt. (It's not on the menu but they will serve it when it's available.) Instead of serving factory-made corn tortillas, Poquitos makes its own, thicker and chewier than generic corn tortillas.
The most intriguing feature of Poquitos is the yet-to-be opened takeout counter, which will open once the kitchen (run by a Mexican-American chef from California, Manny Arce) is up to speed. The takeout counter will stay open until 2 a.m., putting some of the street back in the food in the one neighborhood in Seattle where late-night street food might actually work.
Once Poquitos opens its takeout counter, it will compete directly with Rancho Bravo down the street. The Rancho Bravo taco is a delicious but simple creature, chopped meat atop a factory tortilla, sprinkled with chopped onion and cilantro, for about $2. Succulent and fatty in a good way, improvement is difficult to find.
The Poquitos taco (three for $11) is the result of a bit more breeding, with shredded meat, slightly coiled, dripping with the juices it was cooked in; the onions are grilled, rings intact, coupled with a whole sprig of cilantro. The pork (al pastor) is grilled with chunks of pineapple. An over-battered strip of snapper comes in the fish taco (Rancho Bravo does not bread fish for its fish taco). And then there are Poquitos' meatless tacos (roasted yam, roasted mushroom), which challenge the very definition of a taco.
Scary meat (tongue, head, organs) is the hallmark of a Mexican street taco, used as the vehicle for the lesser cuts of a pig or cow. The marinated scraps get thrown onto a griddle, chopped and stuffed into a tortilla, where the magic happens. The fat and the garnishes do half of the work.
At Poquitos, the meat is distinctly lean, plainly flavored, served on white dinnerware, harvested from animals that grazed blissfully on local grasses or grains … or at least we think so.
Rancho Bravo is open one hour later on weekends, offers tripe and tongue in its tacos, and has that rare amenity on Capitol Hill, a parking lot, making it a little easier to get your street food.
The next street food to come in from the cold? Word on the street is that chef Eric Banh of Monsoon is opening a café — a Vietnamese version of Café Presse, perhaps? — near Seattle University, where it will serve pastries and pho.
If you go: Poquitos, 1000 E. Pike St., Seattle, 206-453-4216 , www.vivapoquitos.com; open daily 3 p.m.-2 a.m.. Rancho Bravo, 1001 E. Pine St., 206-322-9399; open Sunday-Tuesday, 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday 10:30 a.m.-midnight, Friday-Saturday 10:30 a.m.-3 a.m.
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