Family-friendly Mexican-American restaurant – and Beacon Hill’s only gay bar – back
by Mark Van Streefkerk
The Baja Bistro is back. For nearly 25 years, it was North Beacon Hill’s oldest neighborhood Mexican restaurant – and eventually became its one and only gay bar. But Baja was forced to shut down last summer during the pandemic. Now they have secured a new location: the ground floor of the new Colina apartments. “The ball is rolling,” said owner Oscar Castro.
He hopes the restaurant will officially reopen in December. “We are delighted to be back,” said Castro. “It’s been a difficult year and a half for everyone. We can’t wait to get back to the new normal. We look forward to reuniting with our friends and clients and starting this new adventure together.
The new location, at Colina West to be exact, is just south of the Beacon Hill light rail station. It is also even closer to the cafe and community center of Castro’s brother, Luis Rodriguez, The Station cafe. Baja will share the ground floor with CheBogz – the first brick and mortar of the Filipino food truck of the same name, operated by Trixia and Paula, sisters of the Paraiso family. The Paraiso also owned Kusina Filipina, another cornerstone of the Beacon Hill community who was relocated in 2017.
The new space is easily twice the size of the original approximately 1,000 square foot Baja site. The new bar will overlook the corner of South McClellan Street and Beacon Avenue South, across from Hilltop Red Apple Market and the cat corner of Perihelion Brewery. Not only will the new restaurant be bigger, but the menu is also expanding.
“We’re going to have more seafood… We’re going to have grilled fish, we’re going to have shrimp… maybe add mussels and clams,” Castro said, but claimed the restaurant would keep the regional focus on the cuisine of Baja California. and recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother.
Brothers Oscar and Luis founded Baja Bistro in 1994, then Java Love, Beacon’s first specialty cafe that also served popular Mexican dishes. Ten years after starting the business, the adjoining space became available and Baja expanded, expanding its kitchen and adding a small bar. In the morning Baja served Stumptown coffee and breakfast favorites like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and pancakes. In the afternoon and evening, fish tacos, enchiladas, and tortas were the main attractions, along with their specialty margaritas. Local drag queen Atasha Manilla has put on a drag show every Wednesday night for the past few years.
In 2010, Luis and his wife, Leona Moore-Rodriguez, opened The Station, a community and social justice-focused cafe, and Castro focused on the restaurant. Baja was an unpretentious and inclusive space with reasonably priced food. Luis, Leona, their children and other family and friends often gathered with Oscar in Baja to share meals. Many of their relatives have worked at either location, Baja Bistro or The Station (or both), over the years.
When the pandemic forced Baja to close its doors last summer, many neighbors and concerned customers contacted Castro. “People who were sad that we closed and were curious about what was going on,” he recalls.
The truth is, Castro had been considering moving the restaurant for a few years, but the pandemic had a way to speed up the process. The small space could only accommodate two or three people while maintaining safe social distancing, but “We weren’t really prepared for that,” Castro said, and Baja had to shut down.
Tim Abell, director of Pacific Housing Northwest, was a regular customer in Baja and had previously discussed with Castro the possibility of moving into Colina Apartments once the project was approved. Angela Castañeda, director of the Beacon Business Alliance, also helped connect Baja and CheBogz with significant resources and support. “She’s our friend,” Castro said of Castañeda. “She’s the one who got me through it all. She was the one who put me in touch with the right people.
The new space is always a “shell”. Baja is to build a kitchen, bar, dining room and restroom. Construction plans have been approved by the Ministry of Health, but still need to be approved by the Building and Construction Bureau before construction can begin. Castro hopes to start construction in the next few weeks.
Loyal customers are already enthusiastic about the return of Baja, the preservation of a neighborhood institution. It also underscores the valuable anti-displacement work carried out by community organizations, like-minded developers, and family-run restaurants who are struggling to stay and cling to the dream of coming back if they have to relocate.
“Most people don’t know it, but Beacon Hill doesn’t have Starbucks or McDonald’s at all,” Castro said. “His [just] mom-and-pop small businesses, and that’s something to be proud of and hopefully we’ll continue to do so. “
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based freelance journalist and writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes on specialty coffee, LGBTQ + topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter.
?? Featured Image: Oscar Castro, owner of Baja Bistro, in front of his future restaurant location at Colina West on Beacon Hill. (Photo: Mark Van Streefkerk)
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