LAKE STEVENS â€” This town just got a new Mexican-style restaurant.
No, not that type of Mexican restaurant.
At Franciscoâ€™s Kitchen & Cantina, you wonâ€™t find blazing-hot plates of melted-cheese-over-something, alongside a pile of reddish rice and a blob of refried beans (with chips and salsa beforehand).
Nope, this is not another â€śfamily Mexican restaurantâ€ť â€” which is just as well, since itâ€™s probably a bit too pricey for a lot of families. More about that in a moment.
Online, Franciscoâ€™s bills itself as serving â€śMexican-style Northwest fare in an upscale casual dining environment.â€ť
They arenâ€™t blowing smoke about the upscale part.
The restaurantâ€™s located in stem-to-stern remodeled digs in the heart of downtown Lake Stevens â€” in other words, the part of town near the lake, not out on the Highway 9 asteroid belt.
Both inside and out, thereâ€™s no sign of the pizza parlor that formerly occupied the building. For the interior color palette, the designer chose an attractive, very-2018 mix of dark wood and white surfaces. Itâ€™s like stepping into an â€śafterâ€ť reveal on one of those HGTV remodel shows.
My colleague Sara Bruestle and I recently visited Franciscoâ€™s on one of the first days after the miasma of wildfire smoke finally cleared away, so we chose to breathe the fresh air on the outdoor patio. We were seated at a table near the street, but road noise wasnâ€™t a bother for us. The tables are well-spaced, so youâ€™re not overhearing a neighborâ€™s conversation â€” or even worse, their phone calls. In another break from traditional Mexican eateries, the musical soundtrack was Rihanna, not mariachi.
And, as with the dining room and bar indoors, everything is brand-spanking new.
After looking over the menu, including a list of happy hour offerings, we chose a selection of appetizers and a main course to share. To economize a bit, we ordered our drinks off the $5 happy hour menu. Sara was quite taken with her Cadillac margarita, and I suspect tequila fans would find a lot to like at Franciscoâ€™s well-stocked bar.
We barely had time to wet our whistles before the apps came flying out of the kitchen. The best of the lot was a classic: bacon-wrapped scallops ($12). The six scallops were perfectly cooked â€” in other words, not rubber â€” and the bacon added a nice salty crisp along with bits of caramelized scallop meat.
We also enjoyed the shrimp ceviche ($15) â€” a chunky salsa of small shrimp (not the tiny bay shrimp things), lime with tomato, pickled red onion, cilantro, avocado and Mexican spices served inside a halved pineapple, with tostadas on the side for dipping.
The third appetizer, potato tacos ($9), consisted of three fried corn tortillas filled with mashed potatoes and Mexican cheese and coated with stripes of crema. The server enthusiastically endorsed the tacos, but they left us cold, partly because the crema was still refrigerator-chilly, but also because the potato filling was under seasoned and not hot enough.
â€śTheyâ€™re not as exciting as theyâ€™re supposed to be,â€ť Sara opined.
Next up was our main course: chicken limon ($30), a chicken breast cooked with lemon, herbs, spices and chili flakes, with seasonal vegetables and a potato preparation of your choice on the side. For the latter, we chose a twice-baked potato, which was tasty and comforting, and better than the bland potato tacos. The vegetable was asparagus â€” not exactly seasonal in late August, but perfectly cooked nonetheless.
The chicken breast was tender and juicy, but it was still a chicken breast â€” which means it needed a lot of help from the seasonings. The lemon and sauce provided that. The breast itself was cooked through, but remained almost pillow-soft; the texture was redeemed somewhat by some brown bits from a hot pan or oven.
All of our selections were beautifully presented, which really adds to their appeal.
Next time, weâ€™d think about sampling Franciscoâ€™s taco menu. At about $20 for three tacos, rice and beans, itâ€™s certainly more than youâ€™d pay at the local taco truck. But the flavor combinations sound enticing.
The bill, including happy-hour cocktails but not including a tip, topped $80 â€” an amount that would buy more than enough chow to fill the familyâ€™s bellies at the typical humble Mexican joint. But this is not the place to feed the kids when you donâ€™t feel like cooking. Itâ€™s a grown-up restaurant for a relaxing evening out, which makes it a welcome addition to the Lake Stevens dining scene.
If you go
What: Franciscoâ€™s Kitchen & Cantina
Where: 1915 Hartford Drive, Lake Stevens
When: 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 3 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday
More: 425-512-8587 or www.franciscoskitchenandcantina.com