Beyond Beans and Rice

Dress-up south-of-the-border fare: Can it fill the void?

FOLKS OFTEN COMPLAIN about the lack of good Mexican food in this town, but because El Portal aims at presenting this cuisine as an upscale experience, downtown's newest Mexican restaurant doesn't necessarily address their concerns. You can get fabulous black beans and great margaritas there, sure, but co-owners Joe Valencia and chef Pedro Aguilar haven't created the kind of everyday, casual taqueria that most folks are whining about when they're whining about the Mexican food void. You won't find chips and salsa at your table and there are no outsized burritos on the menu. Guacamole ($6.75), on the other hand, is in. In fact, it's prepared tableside. Watching your server spoon out two halves of an avocado and combine it with plenty of lime, cilantro, tomato, onion, and sea salt, you might be reminded of the tableside dishes at El Gaucho, where Valencia earned tenure as a bartender. You might also be reminded of Morton's, where Aguilar was executive chef and where servers engage in that odd, performance art–like show and tell of the entire menu. Seeing the carne de Aztecs ($34.95) among the 12 entrees offered, we were likewise reminded of the chef's former employer. We ordered it, in part, to see what Aguilar would do outside of the Chicago steakhouse format. Portal's filet mignon is a flawless cut seared and charred to perfection, but unfortunately, that's the best part of that story. The smoked poblano and chocolate reduction sauce that dresses the steak is overly mild and uninteresting, and the mashed potato cake underneath should have been crisp, made with shredded potato instead of served mashed and formless. Doing his rounds in the dining room as we were trying this dish, Valencia told us that in designing the menu, he knew early on that he wanted to pair chocolate with his filet. One wonders, then, why he doesn't push his chef to create a richer, smokier sauce. VALENCIA AND AGUILAR stand the best chance of pleasing Mexican food fanatics with their smaller plates. If the main dishes don't catch your eye—or if you're weary of paying $15.95 for fish tacos, or just plain weary of yet another side of mango and black bean salsa— consider making a meal with a few dishes from the menu's first two sections. Among the small plates and starters, the savory pastry-pocket empanadas ($7.95) and shrimp, clam, or crab cocktail ($9.95) are good choices. Filled with queso fresco, a crumbly, mild Hispanic cheese, the empanadas are satisfying and simple, but the black beans and avocado cream on the side really make the dish. Aguilar makes his beans with epazote, a Latin American herb also used with corn and fish. Epazote gives the black beans a wonderfully bitter and acidic component; the avocado cream finishes the plate with deep, rich smoothness. (It's too bad about its somewhat unsightly gray/brown color, however.) And although the albacore-stuffed jalapeños ($8.95) are nothing more than pickled peppers stuffed with tuna salad, we certainly enjoyed their slow heat and salty brine. In the soups and salads section, the Cuban black bean soup ($6.50) also utilizes epazote and queso fresco, but here I would have preferred cotija, a Mexican aged cheese that's saltier and more exciting than queso fresco. On my second visit to El Portal, I had the soup along with a corn-meal crusted squid salad ($8.95), which was made simply with mixed greens and lime-vinaigrette dressing. Although it was slightly overdressed, the salad was fresh, light, and generous. For dessert on that second visit, I opted for the cinnamon and sugar fry-bread ($5.95), served with coconut ice cream, chocolate sauce, and mangos. Not only is that a lot of flavor on one plate, it's a lot of food on one plate. Three scoops of coconut ice cream are halfway to melting by the time the just-fried fry bread is in front of you; the chocolate just confuses things and the mango feels incidental. I would have liked the doughnut-like confection better if it were served simply: plain and warm. IN CONCEPT, El Portal reminds me of Alexandria's on Second, where Southern food is placed in an upscale frame. Like Alexandria's, El Portal's space is rather large and somewhat strangely positioned in the city (the latter is in the netherland between Seattle Center and Belltown), and I've never seen it even half-full. In both rooms, service can be overattentive due to a lack of anything better to do. Additionally, both restaurants serve great drinks and might be better positioned as bars with food instead of upscale restaurants with drinks. Only time will tell if diners will cotton to the idea of bigger ticket camarones (shrimp) a la Diabla; in the meantime, I'm sure we'll continue hearing the rather unfounded complaint that there just aren't enough good, cheap Mexican joints in town. El Portal, 522 Wall St., 206-264-1422. BELLTOWN. 5 p.m.–1a.m. Mon.–Sat.

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