Open now just more than three months in the Old Ballard Avenue spot that used to hold veggie thai restaurant Jahnjay (now on Market), Gracia has already been pulling in the praise for its central and southern Mexican-inspired cuisine. I recently stopped in and snagged a seat at the late-afternoon bustling bar, to sample the fare and the drinks, and here are three impressions from the visit.
The Drinks: As the menu says, the core cocktail list features agave’d versions of classics – meaning, subbing in tequila or mezcal for the base spirits. It feels like it could throw things off, but the opposite is actually true. If you like, for example, a Negroni, one which subs in Gran Centenario Plata tequila for gin, you’ll discover the same herbal kick from the Campari and sweet vermouth, but with a layer of smoke that’s different, but delicious. I think the change up shines brightest in Gracia's “Gibson,” which unveils a jalapeno and serrano pepper-infused tequila in for the traditional gin. Those hints of heat with its house lime cordial equals a perfect balance of fire and citrus. You’ll also find an assortment of wine on the menu, beer on draft (four) and in bottles (seven), and a housemade Aguas Frescas for those skipping the booze. Also, when talking to the friendly bartenders, I heard about other infusions infusing, including a ginger lemongrass mezcal and a chipotle mezcal, so watch for those.
The Food: The legend of Gracia’s house-ground masa made from heirloom Mexican corn (a process that’s not an easy one) is already growing. It’s only in tasting the end result, though, that you really understand the “why” behind doing it. For example, the tortillas used in the quesadillas are amazing, rich, earthy and flavorful and with just a hint of a chew, much more a part of the dish rather than just a conveyance as in many stops – and the filling of wood-roasted onion, squash blossom, epazote, mushrooms and queso de Oaxaca paired beautifully with those tortillas. You’ll find an array of inspired dishes on the menu from chef Chester Gerl, including snacks, tacos, seafood and entrees such as the Mero a la Veracruzana (a halibut with olives, capers, tomatoes, roasted poblanos and arroz rojo), plus specials like a Carne Asada torta with pickled jalapenos.
The Space: Overall, Gracia has a more classic feel – it’s not overstuffed with accoutrements, and the large chandelier at the back adds to the feel, as does the slow-moving ceiling fan. You’ll find around 12 seats at the bar, with a couple two-top bar tables, some bar stools right in front of the open kitchen (highlighted by blue-and-white tile walls) for those who want to get close to the cooks, and a lineup of booths and tables outside the bar area along the wall as well as two tables right up against the front windows for those who want to watch the street action. I suggest, naturally, grabbing a seat at the bar if you can, where you can gaze at the sparkling shelves full of tequilas, mezcals and other spirits and liqueurs, chat with the friendly shakers, and taste your way through the drink and food choices.