LA CARTA DE OAXACA
This last visit, we had a quick lunch at La Carta de Oaxaca in northwestern Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Ever since Roberta first mentioned this small, authentic place tucked in among Ballard's edgy bars and boutiques, I'd been dying to go. We grabbed a couple of stools at the counter in front of the beautiful oaxaqueña making tortillas to order. The chips for the creamy guacamole are deep-fried to order too, tossed in the air to cool, then delivered straight to the table still so hot that they burn your fingers.
That night, we head back to the neighborhood to check out a newish tapas bar called Ocho around the corner. It's hard to spot, especially at night and in the rain, because there's no sign. But we do. And from the packed seats at the then-9-day-old establishment, I would say people were having no trouble finding it.
When we walk in, a waitress is standing on a chair, erasing dishes from the blackboard to the groans of the crowd. We step up to the bar and order a crisp vinho verde from Portugal and a lovely manzanilla sherry, little realizing that the real specialties here are the cocktails, the $10 El Tesoro Anejo tequila margaritas and the made-to-order sangria.
The food is simple and rustic -- lipstick-red piquillo peppers topped with Idiazábal cheese, pa amb tomàquet (bread rubbed with tomato), beans with chorizo, tortilla española, diced potatoes and chorizo with a fried egg on top. But it's not dinner.
We have a another round of drinks, including the sangria, and then head off to another new tapas bar across town called Txori that was opened by the team behind the wildly popular Spanish wine bar Harvest Vine.
Txori doesn't take reservations either, but unlike Harvest Vine, it's open all day and not far from downtown.
I love the look of the place -- a long, narrow space with shelves to the ceiling stocked with jars of rice, mushrooms, vinegar, olive oil, stacks of cazuelas (terra-cotta casseroles) and bottles of wine. When someone orders a Rioja or Ribera del Duero, a server climbs a library ladder to fetch it.
Because Txori serves pintxos (San Sebastian-style tapas), we start with a crisp, minerally Txacoli from the same region, the Spanish Basque country. Our server pours it into a thin-sided, stemless glass from 2 feet up, the way they do it in Spain. (It's supposed to aerate the wine.)
The food is flat-out fabulous. The owner comes from San Sebastian, and these are real pintxos -- a chunk of slow-braised pork, caramelized and crispy on the outside, perched on a slice of baguette soaked in tomato. A section of octopus tentacle is secured to a piece of bread with a bamboo toothpick. Piquillo pepper stuffed with morcilla (blood sausage), then battered and fried.
But my favorite has to be the butterfish. Pan-sauteed and finished off in the oven, the palm-sized whole fish is presented in a parsley and garlic sauce. It's simple and delicious.
On my way out, I peer over the counter and realize the two young cooks are turning out all this food with only two electric burners, a griddle and an oven.
That kind of grit and improvisatory spirit is a big part of what makes this new generation of Seattle restaurants so exciting.
Or maybe that's not the word I mean. Satisfying or soulful is more like it.