Restaurant Review: Ocho

Ocho delivers tapas minus the fuss.
Allison Austin Scheff  |   June 2008   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

There are those who’ll swear up and down that the only thing they care about when it comes to their favorite restaurants is the food. I am not one of those people.

To me, it’s about much more than that. The lighting matters, the warmth of the service matters, the music, where my table is, and how my chair feels—all of these things matter. I guess that’s why I like Ocho so much. The food, an affordable chalkboard menu of two-bite Spanish tapas, is good, sometimes even great. But it’s all the other elements—the laid-back vibe, the shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy and the unapologetically rockin’ local indie soundtrack—that feel just right.

Which is really saying something when you consider that Ocho makes its home in a former Matt’s Hot Dog Shop on Market Street in Ballard. You’d never know it now: The bright neon lights and ketchup ’n’ mustard color scheme have been completely eradicated. In its place: embossed, copper-painted wallpaper, retro amber crackled-glass lamps and mismatched mirrors in gilded frames, which give the small space a groovy, cobbled-together-from-pieces-found-in-the-attic appeal. A built-in banquette of dark wood anchors one wall, allowing groups to squeeze in and maximize table space.

Owners Zach Harjo and girlfriend Gelsey Hanson dreamed up the idea of Ocho during a summer backpacking trip through Spain in 2003. They fell for the quick, cheap, throw-your-napkin-on-the-floor tapas joints in Madrid and San Sebastian, and envisioned a “Ballard” (read: easygoing, unstuffy, fun) version of an authentic Spanish tapas bar, which, in their minds translated to a menu of crowd-pleasing Spanish dishes served in a tiny, crowded space, where they could play the music as loud as they wanted. (Harjo, after all, is also a musician.) The idea was reawakened when the hot dog space became available; in January, just six months after taking over the lease, Ocho opened its doors, and the place has been mobbed ever since.

Which means you’ll have to wait, and if you’re smart, you’ll use the opportunity to down a drink. Harjo, whom Ballard locals may recognize from the nearly four years he spent behind the bar at La Carta de Oaxaca (but whom I recognized from third grade—more on that later), mixes a potent yet perfectly balanced margarita, which, with a clever dash of self-mockery, is simply called “the $10 margarita” on the menu. Harjo’s cocktail expertise also results in acquired-taste concoctions such as la hora verde ($8), an astringent and mind-bendingly strong herb-infused drink that I was intrigued by (for good reason, it turns out—be sure to ask Harjo about the recipe), but didn’t enjoy. The roja sangría ($8), on the other hand, with a float of nutty Amontillado sherry, went down easy.

Cocktails, as you might have noticed, are much more than an afterthought at Ocho. Like so many of Seattle’s most recent restaurant openings—especially pub-grub haven Quinn’s—dining at Ocho feels as much like eating in a bar as it does eating in a restaurant. Unlike Txori, the recently opened Belltown Spanish pintxos bar where authenticity reigns, Ocho takes a less stringent approach. But the loose Spanish interpretation is intentional: No one (Harjo and Hanson included) is taking themselves too seriously here, and it’s refreshing. In fact, the no-reservations policy, the cranked-up music (including local bands The Cops, Jesse Sykes and Sarah Cahoon) and the good chance that your hip will bump into your neighbor’s table when squeezing by—all of these elements create an unavoidable go-with-the-flow atmosphere. If the traditional dining ritual of choosing an appetizer and an entrée, then considering the wine pairing is what you’re in the mood for, this isn’t the pl