¡Uff da!

Ballard gets three new Mexican restaurants!

Ballard—OK, Crown Hill—has boasted good, authentic Mexican food for years at Burrito Loco (9211 Holman Rd. N.W., 206-783-0719). Now as part of an influx of new restaurants, three new Mexican eateries have moved in. A Ballard resident myself, I've been too busy chowing down at the new restaurants to stop to write about them, but now I'm putting down my chile relleño—briefly—in order to spread the word. My favorite of the three is La Carta de Oaxaca (5431 Ballard Ave. N.W., 206-782-8722. Open 5 p.m.–midnight Tues.–Sun.). Sharing ownership with Thaiku, the deservingly popular Thai restaurant across the street, La Carta is tiny and highly stylized. Spartan and clean, its white walls covered with framed black-and-white photos of Oaxacan people and scenes, it looks more like an art gallery than a restaurant. But the dishes coming out of the open stainless steel kitchen put any doubt to rest. The menu's short and sweet. Actually, more spicy than sweet—unless we're talking mole negro, the house specialty, served over pork or chicken with rice and tortillas for $8. Standouts are a spicy fish soup ($6) and molotes ($6): three fried tortillas stuffed with potatoes and beef sausage and garnished attractively with guacamole, hot sauce, and Oaxacan cheese. The plates are small but so are the prices, so the menu's great for sampling and sharing, tapas-style. The margaritas are practically perfect, which isn't a surprise, considering the bar shares management with Fu Kun Wu, Thaiku's trendy lounge. La Carta isn't the only margarita in town—or even on the street. Matador (2221 N.W. Market St., 206-297-2855. Open 4 p.m.–2 a.m. Mon.–Fri.; 11 a.m.–2 a.m. Sat.–Sun.), which opened in early January in the former Romantica space on the corner of Ballard Avenue Northwest and Northwest Market, isn't a restaurant with a bar; it's a bar with a restaurant. The drinks are the focus here, both visually and conceptually. (Not surprising—co-owner Nate Opper was a bartender and manager for years at Peso's Mexican Kitchen and Lounge in Queen Anne.) Matador is also very stylized, though it and La Carta couldn't be more different. Matador is Tex-Mex–inspired in design and cuisine. The earthy, gothic-inspired design and construction was all done in seven weeks by owners Opper and Zak Melang and their friends. Check out the inlaid cherry- and maple-wood bar, the antique and handmade light fixtures, and the ornate metal work (by their friend and local metal artist Mark Stevens) adorning the entrance and bar area. Plates of enchiladas with slow-roasted tomatillo sauce ($10.50) and fish, steak, pork, or chicken tacos ($8.50–$9.95) are gigantic. Weekend brunch is popular, too. While La Carta's my favorite of the three for occasional dining, Malena's Taco Shop (2010 N.W. 56th St., 206-789-8207. Open 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Sat.; noon–7 p.m. Sun.) can't be beat for after-work takeout. I always order the rolled tacos ($5, chicken or beef), but I've varied my routine enough to be able to report that the pork tamales ($5.50) and chorizo burrito ($5) are also good. Basic is king here, from the entrées to the rice and beans to the one house salsa. And there's nothing wrong with basic. Malena's isn't as showy as its ambitious Mexican neighbor restaurants, but its tidy ivory curtains, silk flowers, and friendly family service always soothe my after-work nerves. This new Malena's is much bigger than its popular Queen Anne counterpart, so there's room to dine in, but even if you grab your meal to go, be sure to sample the salsa. kmillbauer@seattleweekly.com

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