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Originally published Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 7:03 PM

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Restaurant review

The party's on at Kirkland's Milagro Cantina

Milagro Cantina in Kirkland offers an inviting atmosphere and some standout Mexican food.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Ensalada de Nopalitos $9
Ceviche of shrimp
and mahi mahi $13
Enchilada de pollo $15
Sea Bass a la Veracruzana $23
Lamb shank with mole rojo $24

Milagro Cantina3 stars


148 Lake St. S., Kirkland


Reservations: Recommended.

Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.

Prices: $$$ (tacos and small plates $4-$15, $18-$38).

Drinks: Beer, wine, cocktails, extensive tequila list.

Parking: Free in lot behind the restaurant; metered and nonmetered on street.

Sound: Very loud.

Who should go: Fun for celebrations, comfortable for large groups and families, even conducive to romance.

Credit cards: Visa, MC, Amex.

Access: No obstacles.

By 6:30 on a Saturday night, the party's in full swing at Kirkland's flashy three-month-old Mexican restaurant, Milagro Cantina.

A foursome hovers at the entrance to the packed bar and lounge (seating capacity 60), where bottles perch in the dark outstretched branches of a "Tequila Tree" attached to the pale stone wall. Eyeing the boisterous crowd nursing fruity, chili-stoked margarita cocktails, lavender- perfumed mojitos and martinis made with Tito's pot-stilled Texas vodka, they weigh the unlikelihood of snagging a booth or a table any time soon.

In the candle-rimmed dining room, I slide into a leather chair at a dark walnut table. Nearby a fountain of petrified-wood simultaneously burbles and shoots flames. A galaxy of jewel-toned lanterns twinkles overhead.

On a less hectic weekday night, a charming waiter showed off the fire-lit private dining room (a/v equipped for business meetings), and the semi-secluded 10-seat chef's table, a jagged black walnut slab above which glows a glass donkey piñata. "No expense was spared," he confided, stating the obvious.

He came to work here after a long stint at Bellevue's Bis on Main, as did executive chef Chris Peterson. His menu roams familiar South-of-the-Border terrain — tacos and enchiladas, ceviche and chiles rellenos, rice and beans — but with the same panache that informs the décor. Milagro is more Barrio than Bimbo's.

A pair of salsas comes gratis, but you must ask. Make sure you do. A bowl of pickled vegetables complements both the mild green tomatillo and the searing, smoky red sauce. "Tres guacamoles" (not gratis) come variously and happily tricked out, either with garlic and chili, mango and pine nuts, or pomegranate and almonds. No mundane tortilla chips here: a wire basket holds brittle tostadas seasoned with chili powder, spices and salt.

Hand-pressed corn tortillas, soft and pliable, make tacos and enchiladas especially appealing. Tacos come in seven varieties, among them a saucy pork with pineapple (al pastor); tender, rich beef with avocado (barbacoa); and rotisserie-cooked chicken dressed thrillingly with radish and a dark red salsa of mulatto and cascabel chilies.

Chicken enchiladas come with smoky, tequila-spiked pinto beans and red rice dotted with carrots and peas, but tacos come solo. Just $4 each (a dollar less during happy hour), count on two to fill you up, especially if you add a side of beans (pinto or black) or rice. (Try the cactus, pepper and cilantro-flecked green rice for a rare treat).

Green rice accompanies butter-soft pan-roasted Pacific sea bass encircled with a sauce of Serrano chilies and tomatoes briny with capers and green olives. It's one of the "large plates" that allow Peterson to flex his fine-dining muscles.

Braised lamb shank is another. A meaty bone of Mesozoic dimensions surfs an ocean of Oaxacan red mole. It rests, alas, on slightly undercooked white rice, but the flesh is properly weak and the complex sauce, by turns bitter and sweet, suggests chocolate, cinnamon and clove, with an almost floral finish.

Large plates also include a couple of overwrought combos so common on Mexican menus. I don't see the point of crowding shrimp-and-crab-stuffed chiles rellenos (plenty of seafood but a bit too much potato filler), lobster enchilada (scant lobster but a rich sauce), plus a taco of your choice along with rice and beans together on one plate. All are available individually, which to my mind is a much better way to enjoy them.

Some of my favorite dishes are vegetarian. Sopes de milagro, a trio of oven-crisped masa cups, goes unabashedly earthy with a filling of mushrooms, onion, goat cheese and huitlacoche crema. Chipotle crema amplifies the smoky char of Ensalada de Nopalitos, a warm, chopped, roasted vegetable salad mixing cactus (nopalitos), zucchini, shiitake, corn and Fresno chilies.

Everyone seems to want churros for dessert. Hot and light under a veil of cinnamon sugar, they are certainly preferable to gummy mango flan. But if your lips still tingle from those tostadas, you'd be better off with sorbet from Olympic Mountain — or maybe another margarita.

Providence Cicero:

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