Stimulating eating

Some hot stuff at La Viagra.


8607 14th S., 762-9308 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. daily AE, DC, MC, V / beer and wine IT'S FASCINATING, trying to talk about a male potency drug through a language barrier. "La Viagra—what does it mean?" I asked, stupidly. "Mean?" repeated the server. He threw his head back and laughed. "It means, you know—unas tabletas—eh?" He nudged the man at the table. "He knows what it means, eh?" Boisterous laughter. "You know, vitamins? Proteins?" (I wish I could convey the gentleman's gestures here.) "They come from marina, from the sea." So Viagra means Viagra the world over. And apparently, to owner Salvador Hernandez's mind anyway, the seafood that dominates the menu at La Viagra Marina amounts to nature's own version. Though natural reticence prevents me from either affirming or disputing this claim, let me hasten to report that the experience at this colorful South Park restaurant is stimulating in all sorts of ways. I mean, Dios mio, the salsa! It's bright, bracing, chunky cilantro perfection on crispy homemade chips—which, by the way, aren't bad themselves and are in bottomless supply. Then there's also cheap pupusas ($2.25 each), bland Salvadoran cornmeal pancakes, which at La Viagra can be stuffed with loroco (a Salvadoran herb), chicharr�I> (fried pork rinds), chicken, or cheese. But I'm getting ahead of myself—the cultural experience that is La Viagra Marina begins long before any of the food arrives. First one encounters South Park, a neighborhood most Seattleites have only recently heard of, if at all, and far fewer have been to. Tucked between the Duwamish, White Center, and the city limits, it's one of the many south-end communities currently morphing from industrial to urban residential—in this case by way of the barrio. Thirty-seven percent of South Park's residents are Latino, and though the neighborhood encompasses all sorts of ethnicities, the street-side flavor is largely Mexican. This is due in no small part to the efforts of Hernandez, a Mexican from the state of Jalisco who 10 years ago opened Mexi-Mart, a take-out taco and pupusa stand, at 14th and Cloverdale. As the years passed, he started other Mexico- flavored businesses around it, creating a Latino locus for the neighborhood. Last year he added La Viagra, the climax of his endeavors and the neighborhood's unofficial meeting place. Its green serape-lined booths are frequently filled with patrons eating heartily and speaking Spanish. (A few of the waiters, it should be mentioned, speak no English, which is by turns supremely authentic and a practical pain in the butt.) The walls are painted with vibrant murals, and the place appears every inch a hole-in-the-wall—faint bleach smell, greasy saltshakers, you know the signs—until you read the menu. With meals ranging from $6 to $17, these aren't hole-in-the-wall prices. And so the question: Is the food worth it? THE ANSWER? Depends on the food. Some of the dishes knock your calcetines off, like the shrimp ceviche ($10.99); it's the most exhilarating version of this marinated dish I've ever had, the chiles and lime employed with absolute assurance. (It's also available with fish over a corn tortilla for $3 for a cheap, light lunch.) Another smash is the crab, shrimp, octopus, and clam soup ($11.99), a huge bowl of which could feed two or three. The peppery red broth is lively and complex, and the fish, though it could stand less cooking, is generously purveyed (though no crab crackers are provided—aaaargh!). Another seafood specialty, a plate of saut饤 marinated scallops ($16.99), features crunchy vegetables, canned mushrooms (yipes!), and tiny scallops in a lightly citrusy garlic wash, making an imperfect but tangy skillet supper. In the land-food category, a big brimming bowl of goat meat in its own juices ($8.99) is stupendous. Quit your cringing, Anglos—this classic dish features potroast-moist meat, just dying to flop off the bones. A huge super carne asada burrito ($5.25) is likewise super, stuffed to bulging with lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, onions, and luscious marinated meat. Alas, though much of both the seafood and meat was great, not all of either could be counted on. Flautas con crema ($5.99), three rolled-up corn tortillas filled with meat and deep-fried, were dry and lackluster on one visit. With them, as with all dinners, came unremarkable refried beans, Mexican rice, and terrific corn tortillas. A platter of fried halibut, or filete empanizado ($9.99) possessed excellent flavor but an unfortunately overcooked texture. Garlic-saut饤 shrimp ($10.99) was most disappointing—it's a dish a seafood joint ought to have down, but this one was badly blown with a ton too much butter. The parts were great—peppers and onions saut饤 with the shrimp—but the execution was sadly ham-handed. Foibles notwithstanding, La Viagra Marina is well worth a visit. It's hit-or-miss, yes, but the hits are amazing, and you'll feel like you've flown to Puerta Vallarta or Lima or, at least, San Francisco's Mission District for the evening. When's the last time you felt that way in Seattle?

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