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Cool beans

Published on: December 30, 2013

I wouldn't have thought to take my kids into the Austin Cantina in Ballard -- because, you know, cantina. (I apparently never read restaurant reviews.) It's a tiny storefront restaurant on 24th, smokers from the next-door tavern are always hanging out on the sidewalk, and really. Anything with "cantina" in the name sounds like "over 21" to my Northwest ears.

However. A friend and I went there for dinner at 5:30 on a Friday night recently, and found ourselves seated a few tables away from a lovely family with a couple of blood-orange margaritas in front of the parents and a pair of daughters quietly coloring while they waited for their food. On another visit (this time with The Kids), there was a stroller parked outside and several tots inside, gumming corn chips.

It's the type of joint every neighborhood should have -- homey, charming Tex-Mex decor, not a big night out but a fuel stop when you're not feeling especially spendy but still want some decent food (Ingredients are organic, beef is grass-fed, portions are not uncontrolled or drowned in cheese). There are high chairs and a little box o' toys for the kiddos.

Go early, especially on weekends -- tiny room, few tables -- or better yet, visit on a slower weeknight. Order the plaintain empandas -- they're slightly sweet and doughy, and my 7-year-old lurved them. There's no kid menu, but you can get plain rice and beans, a generous bowl of seasonal veggies, or quesadillas for them while you dive into a basket of perfectly-cooked onion rings dusted with spices or one of those not-too-sweet margaritas. The sweet banana pudding is topped with a puff of meringue, which the kids battled for with their spoons.

The owner's kids go to a nearby elementary school, he told my friend and me, and he gets a stream of customers from local parents in the know. And with good reason.

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