The bright walls of La Puerta belie the disappointment. Its move to Broadway has not worked out. Instead, owner Tina Castro says, the last four years have been a slow fade — even as the food and drink scene on Capitol Hill has exploded to the point where CHS reports on a new bar or restaurant planning to open nearly every week. The story of Castro and La Puerta is not quite a counterpoint to the changes on Capitol Hill and the part of E Pike La Puerta called home for more than 20 years but it is a small but remarkable element in the amazing churn and transformations. There was a time when Quinn’s did not exist let alone Poquitos.
It is prime time for happy hour on a recent weekday and the enthusiastically decorated Mexican restaurant has only a scattering of customers. Castro says this is a typical daily scene for her business which has been struggling to make ends meet. With what Castro says is poor visibility from the street view and an overall unstable customer base, especially with the rise of so many new Mexican restaurants in the area, Castro sadly reports that business as been tough over the past few years. In an attempt to keep the restaurant afloat, Castro said she has been forced to cut her kitchen and wait staff down to a minimum and sell many of her possessions including a house in her hometown of Guadalajara. Still unable to generate enough income to meet her monthly lease and utilities bill, Castro says she expects that La Puerta will soon be no more. Even so, she commutes daily to Capitol Hill from her home in Mukilteo to keep La Puerta open.
Castro first came to Seattle from Mexico in 1960 when she was 25 years old at the urging of a cousin who raved about life in the Pacific Northwest. Castro found a job working in the kitchen of the Acapulco restaurant in the Seattle Center where she met her future husband who was working as a busboy. She then went on to work several years each in the kitchens of Azteca and Guadalajara restaurants, learning English so that she could become a waitress. In the 1980s, her friend Rafael asked her to help out with his cafe on East Pike, which eventually became the site of the original La Puerta after the friend moved back to his native Colombia.
After enjoying more than 20 successful years on Pike, Castro said the change came suddenly in 2007. She said she was informed by the building owner that the property had been sold and had two months to move. The old-school Mexican restaurant found itself without a home. Quinn’s, one of the harbingers of the explosion in the bar and restaurant scene on the Hill, had moved in, overhauled and wiped away a restaurant seemingly unprepared for the changes the street was about to undergo.
Castro’s search for a new space brought her to the Broadway Market. Despite rent being double what she had been paying, Castro decided to move in after being convinced that her customers would follow her to the new location and that she would benefit from the shopping mall’s draw.
Five years later, Castro finds herself struggling to make rent payments. She gazes around the second floor space and ponders fifty years in the restaurant business in Seattle. At seventy five years of age and struggling with hearing loss, she doubts she’ll continue to work in restaurants after La Puerta, but smiles at the prospect of spending more time with her five sisters, children, and grandchildren, all of whom live near her home in Mukilteo.
In the meantime, the Broadway Market’s developers have taken on new financial backers and are making preparations for a multi-million dollar overhaul of the shopping center. La Puerta still has a home. But, yet again, change it might not be able to keep up with has come.