Mexican And More -- Casa U-Betcha Serves Up `Soul Food With A Mexican Accent'

EVERYTHING AT CASA U-Betcha, right from its exploded-dye-vat colorful start, seemed so wildly improbable. From the flat-black floor on up.

There was the name itself: self-mocking, genre-mocking, a hyphenated thumb-to-the-nose taunt at its cuisine of origin, an acknowledgment of all the ersatz Mexican food excesses conjured by corporate gringos for fun and profits. Food fad on the fast track. Turn up the volumes, please.

And yet ...

Despite the garish colors ...

Despite the thump of hard rock from the nonstop bar ...

Despite the image of foody frivolity ...

It was from the beginning a very serious restaurant. And over time became even more so. Casa U-Betcha, under the leadership of owner Jeff Steichen and the superb kitchen creations of its head chef, Lisa Esposito, wrought food art from what in thousands of other hands had become a continent-wide cliche.

They crafted their art under the garish guise of what seemed to be nothing more than a zany ongoing party fueled by exotic tequilas and opposite-gender-shopping singles. Those of us who pulled back from the din to look carefully at the dinners, however, saw something quite astonishing emerging: Some of the most imaginative, artful Mexican-American food in Seattle was being fashioned in what, on the surface, looked like a teeming nightclub in sore need of a sedative.

"This is no ordinary plate of orange glop," Seattle radio personality Jim Althoff said recently, peering down at one of Lisa Esposito's dinners.

It was not.

The reasons why it was not are worth tracing.

It should have been apparent that when Steichen opened Casa U-Betcha three years ago, the menu had strong ties to a restaurant more than a thousand miles away - Mark Miller's Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe.

Shortly after the opening, Miller himself came to the Casa - partly to sell his 1989 Coyote Cafe cookbook (from Ten Speed Press, and well worth owning), and partly to spread the gospel of a new approach to traditional Southwest cookery.

The Casa kitchen was hearing his gospels (homilies on hominy?) and doing likewise. Or at least trying to. In the beginning, there were struggles. Miller's extraordinary variations on themes by ancient Aztecs wasn't (and isn't) easy to duplicate night after night in any restaurant. (Miller himself complained to me about nightly deficiencies from his OWN Santa Fe kitchen, which doesn't impart joy to the hot line.) It's a tricky overlay of ornate California cuisine on Southwest staples.

What Lisa Esposito did with that original concept was to go back to the origins of the cookery itself - not to Miller and Bay Area visionaries like Alice Waters, who got Miller started - but back to Mexico and its provinces.

Instead of studying with a transplanted master in the New Mexican high country, she went to old Mexico, to Oaxaca and Diana Southwood Kennedy.

Kennedy is a British-born cultural scholar, cook and author of several definitive studies of the authentic regional cooking of Mexico. She regularly hosts classes in Oaxaca for serious students of the cuisine. Esposito was - and is - one of them. Every couple of seasons, she packs up, heads south, reconnects with off-track Mexico and with Kennedy (whose work was considered so significant by the Mexican government that she was awarded the country's highest civilian honor, The Order of the Aztec Eagle).

Basically, Mexican cooking is salt-of-the-earth simple. Esposito calls it "soul food with a Mexican accent. It has the raw and simple fundamental flavors of the earth itself."

In its essences, it is corn and beans and rice and chiles, fruits and vegetables, and, when available, a little meat or poultry or fish.It is a complete diet made up of some of the Earth's cheapest foods.

However, for anyone intrigued by the possibilities of art in food, it is as close as you can get (short of a bowl of rice) to a waiting, willing neutral canvas crying out for culinary brush strokes.

So there was Lisa Esposito, with a bachelor of fine arts (in painting and studio art) in her pocket, wondering why she was working in a New York City advertising agency studio "when all I wanted to be doing was cooking for a living. I had grown up in an Italian-American family, where food and the preparation of food, especially by my grandmothers, was an essential part of life, and I had to ask myself: `Why CAN'T I do this?' "

She left New York, her hometown, and went back to Denver, where she had gotten her BFA from the University of Denver, and had worked part-time jobs in restaurants. Within two weeks, she had a job.

She went to work as a cook at a place called Cactus. "It was a Southwest menu kind of spot. I started out as a tapas (Spanish-style appetizers) and salsa cook. Then I moved on to another Mexican-oriented place, Gringo's.

"During that time, I was traveling back and forth between Colorado and New Mexico, spending time mostly in Las Cruces, Taos and Santa Fe."

She then moved to a more upscale dinner house in Denver, Cliff Young's, where the head chef was Rob Grant, who had worked with Mark Miller in Santa Fe. Grant would later be recruited by Steichen to set up his Seattle restaurant.

"When Casa U-Betcha opened, Rob brought me to Seattle as his sous chef," she said.

Two years ago, Grant left and Esposito took over the kitchen and began to adapt what was an already complex, intricate menu into something largely her own.

"Of the present menu, 18 of the items are mine," she said. "And more are being added. I see the restaurant as an arena for the freedom of flavors. It is primarily regional Mexican cuisine, of course, with a touch of Caribbean, but incorporating fresh Northwest ingredients, like Salmon Merida ($13.95), with wild mushrooms and salmon with achiote and citrus. We wrap it in banana leaves, which gives it an earthy, smoky flavor, and charbroil it."

This, clearly, is not Number 17, Two Enchiladas with Taco, Tamale, Rice and Beans under One Pound of Melted Orange Cheese.

Instead there is Pollo en Mole Rojo de Oaxaca ($12.95), boneless chicken breast served with a red mole sauce, with chayote, carrots and onions, griddled corn cakes and marinated, grilled fresh vegetables. And Barbecued Camarones Pacifico, marinated grilled giant prawns served with a soy-serrano-ginger barbecue sauce that is finished with tomatoes, green onions and a splash of Mexican Pacifico beer. It comes with rice and wedges of quesadilla Espagnole, flour tortillas that enclose grilled mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, loads of garlic, Spanish olives, jack and cheddar cheeses, the whole affair sputtering under a scoop of sour cream ($13.95).

Now and then, her Italian origins coincide with her Mexican regimen, and a superb dish, like Lamb Shanks en Mole, emerges. The semi-bitter chocolate and herb sauces of Oaxaca joining forces with one of the oldest peasant dishes of pastoral Italian hillsides.

Esposito is one of several emerging young women chefs in the city whose innovations, dedication and trust in primacy of ingredient quality are making Seattle a focus of increasing national attention.

Even if it occasionally appears to be thriving in a hard-drinking hangout flirting with the edge of socially redeeming values.

On the other hand, you could order from a list of 14 of the most superior Tequilas in creation, talk much too loud and stuff yourself with chips. Nobody will notice.

Casa U-Betcha, 2212 First Ave. Lunch $6 to $11 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Dinner ($9 to $15) 5 to 11 p.m. nightly. Full bar. Lounge open until 1:30 a.m. nightly. Major credit cards. Nonsmoking area. Catering available. Reservations: 441-1026.

(Copyright 1992, John Hinterberger. All rights reserved.)

John Hinterberger's food columns and restaurant reviews appear Sundays in Pacific and Fridays in Tempo. Barry Wong is a Seattle Times photographer.