On a Hill flooded with new food and drink, Broadway Market’s La Puerta struggles

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.

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38 thoughts on “On a Hill flooded with new food and drink, Broadway Market’s La Puerta struggles

  1. We use to go at least once a week when you were on Pike. Then – outta sight – outta mind – did not go back as often, sorry.

  2. It must be extremely difficult to give up on a business that you have put heart&soul into for 25 years, even if it’s losing money every month. It seems that the “writing is on the wall’ for LaPuerta.

    My heart goes out to Ms. Castro.

  3. La Puerta has its work cut out for them in this spot, where no restaurant has really flourished for years. After the ridiculous balkanization done to Broadway Market several years ago, it only made it worse. Totally killed off any foot traffic that would notice the restaurant. You can’t even see the place from the street unless you already know it’s there. Any restaurant would struggle there. It doesn’t help that Broadway is already super-saturated with Mexican restaurants, even though most aren’t any good.

  4. I love Mexican food, and if it werent for my weight and wallet, I’d eat at La Puerta way more often. In the summer it’s lovely to drink margaritas out on the patio and eat something fresh and spicy. I’ve always liked it’s funny location and it’s decor.

    I wish in situations like this the building landlords could do a discounted rent and assist a struggling business in better advertising. I mean, after seeing places fold for inability to pay rent, so many are empty for just ages nowadays. Isn’t some rent better than none at all? Or is that too simplistic?

    As I find myself doing so often these days, I guess I’ll make a few more trips to La Puerta before that little bit of fun is gone. I hope things work out for Ms. Castro- I always liked your restuarant!

  5. I remember going to this place a few times when it was still on Pike, but I had just assumed it closed when Quinn’s moved in. I didn’t even know there were restaurants at Broadway Market. Maybe they needed a little more marketing?

  6. I used to eat at the old location since it was the only mexican close to where I worked. From time to time my friends would go to the Broadway market. We love the location, it’s great to sit out on the patio during summer. But the biggest thing that keeps me away is the good is, for the most part, without much flavor or spice. The mole doesn’t have any smokey flavor or chile bite. I know it’s Seattle and we can’t take anything above 1 star in spices at Mexican restaurants, but they could still add more herbs or spices to the dishes. Comparing it to Peso’s in lower QA, it’s like night and day. Peso’s dishes cost about the same ~$10 but the food is creative, spicy, flavorful. Even Rositas in Greenlake, which is a more ‘traditional’ mexican place has food with more flavor. I want to love La Puerta, I really do. If you want to try and save it, shake up the menu Seniotita Castro, por favor. Take some risks. Add some more herbs. Get some hatch green chiles http://hatchnmgreenchile.com/ . Make rellenos in egg white batter, not wrapping egg around it like a burrito. I grew up in New Mexico and while I never expect to find the same kind of food up here, Mexican restaurants can still spice things up. As Emril says, kick it up a notch! Not being on street level hurts, which is why you gotta get people in the door other ways. A creative menu might make people want to go out of their way.

  7. It seems any food/drink property that is situated off the street struggles. Perhaps not in every case but I see a theme here.

    The stuff on top of castle, this on top of QFC and the stuff on top of the other QFC (Harvard Market) has turned over more than a few times. There are other examples I’m sure.

    I can’t speak for everyone in the neighborhood but often my friends and I will leave the house for food or beverages without a specific destination in mind. We’ll just walk along pike/pine/broadway until we arrive at something we can all agree on. But like the first commenter says, “outta sight – outta mind”

  8. It’s hard to see a business struggle, you know there are people’s livelihoods and dreams at stake. But I’ve tried to give this place a chance. There’s been a Mexican restaurant in that Broadway Market spot for years and I used to happily eat there regularly, then the menu started changing and as my favorite items disappeared so did the quality of the food. The last few times I ate there I didn’t like the food and then the very last meal was inedible. I wish they could turn it around, I’d eat there much more often. Now I just eat my Mexican food across the street.

  9. I’m of the camp that had no idea it had relocated and reopened. I’m also of the camp that had no idea there was a restaurant in there.

    In regards to the new location, that ‘mall’ is just awful. I hate going to that QFC (it’s a mess of a maze where nothing is found where you’d expect it to be). Urban Outfitters seems dated and other than knowing Golds Gym is there, I have no idea at all what else is even there. I walk by the building 2 to 3 times a day, but rarely go in. The facade of it is uninviting and there is no marketing for it. I honestly had no idea there was a restaurant upstairs.

    That said, I did used to go to the old location of the restaurant, but we all knew (I assumed everyone knew) it was cheap and not that great (Americanized Mexican food ala Azteca is what I compared it to). But it was all there was on Capitol Hill at the time for Mexican food. Even with the move, I don’t think I’d continue to go because there are better options now. Rancho Bravo, being full of flavor AND a huge amount of food for under 8.00 bucks or so being my first choice now.

  10. to hear about Ms. Castro’s struggles. Unfortunately, I have to agree with the commenters that don’t care for La Puerta’s food. I went there once several years ago, and the place was quite empty. The service was excellent but the food failed to make any kind of impression. I’ve thought about trying them out again from time to time, but with so many other good restaurants on the Hill, it’s very difficult to justify spending the time and money on a return visit and risk further disappointment.

  11. When I moved up here from CA in the late 90’s, I found it tough to find good Mexican food. I tried La Puerta once and stayed away after that. “Bland” is an apt description. I think the owner did okay at her old location because rents were low, there was zero competition, and Seattleites didn’t understand how good Mexican food could be. My heart goes out to the owner though…lots of business owners are taking it in the shorts these days.

  12. It used to be the best.
    I used to bring people to the place on Pike because I told them it was the closest I could get to my dad’s cooking in Seattle. After eating at the new location a few times, I found that wasn’t the case and hadn’t really been back.

  13. AGREED!!!!!!! I’m from southern CA too. When I moved here 6 years ago and asked around about best Mexican restaurant… Many Seattleites said this restaurant is the best so I tried it… It is not good as the Mexican restaurants I experienced in both California and Oregon. At same time, I understand many Seattleites who grew up here and don’t travel much haven’t experienced what real Mexican food supposed to taste like. I wish more Mexicans who are great with cooking coming to Seattle and open more Mexican restaurants so many Seattleites can get an opportunities to try it and fall in love with it just like many people from somewhere else. :)

  14. I remember when Hamburger Mary’s tried it there and when Torerro’s was in there. Neither was busy. The out of sight out of mind comment really is spot-on IMHO. It’s harder now that there’s no escalator ending almost at their entrance.

    Putting the QFC IN the Market really F—ed any upstairs business up, besides Gold’s. It’s sad.

  15. Everything goes tits up in that space. Hamburger Mary’s, some other Mexican restaurant. It’s just not a good spot with how the market is constructed now with QFC having taken over what used to be an open atrium. People used to go up to that floor when there were theaters up there but now that is a Golds Gym and the workout crowd is more into protein shakes than Mexican meals. Sad to see this place going away but it sounds like she has had a good run and at 75 should enjoy her golden years.

  16. When they were over on Pike, we used to go there all the time. It was more difficult to get upstairs to see them, and I know they were taking a beating from the Mexican buffet across the street —
    When all the small businesses go, we’ll deserve what we’re left with. See you at Qdoba ..

  17. Like others, I’d forgotten that they had moved rather than closing down a few years ago. I know the current space has always had a lot of turnover, but there used to be a lot of foot traffic on the 2nd floor when the Broadway Market had more smaller shops. Now that’s it a behemoth QFC I don’t even know how to get to the 2nd floor – the stairs I used to use were removed. Plus, that QFC is so annoying that I completely avoid Broadway Market, whereas I used to shop there a lot.

    I’m very sorry to hear this, though. What a heartbreak.

  18. We hardly ever eat at La Puerta because the atmosphere is so much better across the street at La Cocina. La Puerta feels a bit too much like a mall food court to me.

  19. I’m going to agree with a lot of the commenters here… the service is always nice at La Puerta, but the food is kind of boring. La Cocina across the street is dull as dirt, too, so I never go there, either. If I want something interesting, I can get it at Taco Gringos or Rancho Bravo — they happen to be really cheap, but I don’t mind paying for good, interesting south-of-california food. The pupusas place next to Table 219 is fun, too. Oh, and The Saint. There is a ton of interesting South American-type stuff around.

    PS: Speaking of the upstairs part of QFC… I read recently that the owner/magnate of Gold’s Gym (Robert Rowling) is a rancid supporter of right-wing causes, like Karl Rove’s Crossroads program. When my membership expires in May, I won’t be renewing. Kind of too bad, because their remodel is finally making the place better.

  20. My partner and I have been going to this restaurant for nine years. Originally it was Torerro’s and prior to the remodel, they did a pretty good business. During the remodel, business plummeted. We stayed faithful and still went there 3-4 times a month, which the manager greatly appreciated (shots of tequila!). They expected business would pick back up after the remodel. I didn’t. I am certain the main reason is there was less direct access to the second floor post remodel, and the whole character of the building was radically altered. Eventually, after a valiant effort, Torrero’s pulled out and La Puerta moved in. Regrettably, business stayed stagnant for them too. We’ve noticed over the last three months, signs of reducing costs in ways that will contribute to the problems. For example, the margaritas now seem to be tequila-free.

    I’m sorry to see La Puerta failing and would miss them if they close.

  21. The age of the mall is OVER.

    So sad to see that the owner of this restaurant chose this route – with no visibility from the street. Vacancies at malls nationally are at record highs, and NO new shopping malls are being planned anywhere in the US. More typically, malls are tearing down and trying to re-make themselves in the image of indoor/outdoor spaces, University Village is a successful example, Lynnwood Mall is an unsuccessful example. Too bad this restaurant is a casualty, but malls are increasingly just for teenagers.

  22. Vinny,
    The info about the big owner of Gold’s Gym is very old news that came out last year. I discussed with with the management of this Golds at the time. Basically, there are two major divisions of the Corp that runs or has an interest in all the Gold’s. This Gold’s is part of the other division that the right-wing CEO (or whatever he is) has no interest in. Ask the Gold’s manager about it for more info. At the time Gold’s made a statement about all this:

    “It is important to note that most Gold’s Gyms around the country are independently owned and operated by franchisees. They are hard working small business owners who embrace and accept members from all walks of life. We hope that our friends and long time members of the LBGT community understand that our sole purpose as an organization is to help people reach their fitness goals. Tens of thousands of dedicated employees go to work every day across the country for this very reason. They will continue to do so for the LGBT community and all of the other diverse communities we serve.”

    (sorry to hijack the thread, but it’s important not to punish other businesses in the Mkt, it’s hard enough to make a go of it there)

  23. There could be success at this space if it were remodeled to be like Earl’s on Robson Street, Vancouver BC. It is a 2nd story restaurant space on a busy walking street, and is usually packed. granted, Vancouver’s West End has more density than Capitol Hill, but I don’t think the space has to be hopeless.

  24. Earl’s on Top is still around?!? I remember going there over 20 years ago when I was under 21. They were a popular destination partly because BC’s drinking age was 19 and no one ever carded anyway.

  25. You know what? I agree with the first post in this thread. When the Puerta had to move, the little taqueria on the second floor of the Alley had just closed … if they had moved in there, it was a smaller space and they could have made it work .. NB, there is another taqueria up there now — don’t neglect it!

  26. Up until last night, I didn’t realize it was an independent. Was confusing it with the Torrerro’s that had been in that spot. So after reading this, decided to visit this restaurant again last night. Second time I’ve been there and must say I rather enjoyed it. The mole was on the sweet side but good, salsa had just enough spicy, beer was cold, service prompt…and the place was totally empty! It was late, just before closing, but we were the only customers in there. I’d been in before around the time the World Cup started. Had breakfast on the patio, which was a great way to go. Seems emphasizing that summer outdoor dining could be real helpful.

    Thought last night that maybe having some kind of entertainment, salsa dancing, or the like could also help, but there is no way to access the place in the evenings. Case in point, we left a little after 10 and and were pretty much locked in! All of the doors were locked. Luckily we could still get on the elevator, so we took that down to the parking garage and walked out there.

    I would go back, just hope they can stick around long enough to get that opportunity. But the location, that’s an uphill battle.

  27. This is depressing. It seems like the location is the main issue here. Any chance it can move to a new, more visible spot? I had zero idea a Mexican restaurant even existed there.

  28. …but on the other, I:

    A.) Am not aware of them ever having special promotions.
    B.) Never see any signs of marketing (collateral, ads on local blogs, coupons, etc).
    C.) Don’t ever see their community involvement.
    D.) Haven’t seen any sort of Pride participation–especially when the very street they’re on is closed and swarming with hungry visitors (however I do notice that La Cocina goes all out w/ giant balloons and banners).
    E.) Can’t tell if their outdoor space is ever being utilized. Who doesn’t LOVE outdoor dining in the summer months?

    Running a restaurant requires much more than food preparation. Maybe I’m missing it, but I don’t see how they’re making much of an effort to stay afloat–or trying anything different or unique.

    What would be neat is if the building were remodeled so that the second tier is utilized as either an outdoor promenade or pedestrian walkway. I’d notice businesses on the top tier much more frequently.

  29. I’m going to agree with “on the other hand”‘as well on every bullet point.

    Another clientele to cater to is the “family” crowd. Free slices of avocado and a small plastic cup with milk and a little straw for the little ones upon being seated. Coupon the QFC receipts-“Kids Eat Free. Lots of extra napkins. Etc. Lots of us need a family-friendly place to eat and then can get some grocery shopping done at QFC–which will validate parking.

    Make some savvy business moves and you can save it. Don’t give up!

  30. We ate at La Puerta almost weekly when they were on Pike. The staff all recognized us; we took our son out to eat there when he was just a few days old. It was always our go-to restaurant. The move to Broadway was frustrating and we’ve missed La Puerta. We’ve dined in their new location a few times, but it’s not nearly as convenient to us as the old one was/

    Quinn’s? I’ve eaten there once. I’m glad they’re doing well, but unfortunately it’s not a place I’m comfortable taking a 4 year old (and I’m sure many of you are relieved by that!)

    Our new go-to Mexican restaurant is El Gallito at 20th & Madison. Same family feeling and authenticity that La Puerta used to have, and much closer to our home.

    We will definitely mourn for La Puerta and Ms. Castro.

  31. La Puerta used to be one of my favorite restaurants, particularly at its old location. If this is so, I am sorry to see La Puerta go. I have had less reason to eat out over the last few years, but the location in the Broadway Market seemed less inviting. On the other hand, the restaurant has/had a certain authenticity that some of the other Mexican restaurants seem to lack.