by Mark Van Streefkerk
Baja Bistro is coming back. For almost 25 years it was North Beacon Hill’s longest-running neighborhood Mexican restaurant — and eventually became its one and only gay bar. But Baja was forced to close last summer during the pandemic. Now they’ve secured a new location: the ground floor of the new Colina Apartments. “The ball is rolling,” said owner Oscar Castro.
He’s hopeful the restaurant will officially reopen in December. “We’re excited to come back,” Castro said. “It’s been a tough year and a half for everyone. We can’t wait to go back to whatever the new normal is. We’re looking forward to seeing our friends and customers 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’s also even closer to Castro’s brother Luis Rodrigquez’s cafe and community hub, The Station coffee shop. Baja will split the ground floor with CheBogz — the first brick-and-mortar for the Filipino food truck of the same name, operated by Trixia and Paula, sisters from the Paraiso family. The Paraisos also owned Kusina Filipina, another cornerstone of the Beacon Hill community that was displaced in 2017.
The new space is easily twice the size of Baja’s approximately 1,000-square-foot original site. The new bar area will overlook the corner of South McClellan Street and Beacon Avenue South, across the street from Hilltop Red Apple Market and kitty-corner from Perihelion Brewery. Not only will the new restaurant be bigger, the menu is expanding as well.
“We’re going to have more seafood … We’re going to have grilled fish, we’re going to have shrimp … maybe add some mussels and clams,” Castro said but affirmed the restaurant will keep the regional focus on Baja California cuisine and recipes he learned from his mother and grandmother.
Brothers Oscar and Luis started Baja Bistro in 1994, then as Java Love, Beacon’s first specialty coffee shop that also served popular Mexican dishes. Ten years into the business, the adjoining space became available and Baja expanded, growing their kitchen and adding a small bar. In the mornings, Baja would serve Stumptown coffee and breakfast favorites like huevos rancheros, chilaquiles, and pancakes. In the afternoon and evening, fish tacos, enchiladas, and tortas were main attractions, as well as their specialty margaritas. Local drag queen Atasha Manilla hosted a drag show every Wednesday night in the latter years.
In 2010, Luis and his wife, Leona Moore-Rodriguez, opened The Station, a community and social-justice-minded cafe, and Castro focused on the restaurant. Baja was an unassuming, inclusive space with reasonably-priced food. Luis, Leona, their children, and other family members and friends could often be found gathered together with Oscar at Baja to share meals. Several of their relatives worked at one or the other spot, Baja Bistro or The Station (or both), over the years.
When the pandemic forced Baja to shutter their doors last summer, many concerned neighbors and customers reached out to Castro. “People that were sad that we closed and were curious about what was happening,” he remembered.
The truth is that Castro had been thinking of moving the restaurant for a few years, but the pandemic had a way of expediting the process. The small space could only accommodate two or three people maintaining a safe social distance, but “We really weren’t set up for it,” Castro said, and Baja had to close.
Tim Abell, principal at Pacific Housing Northwest, was a regular customer at Baja and had talked to Castro in the past about 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 important resources and support. “She’s our friend,” Castro said about Castañeda. “She’s the one who helped me navigate through this whole thing. She’s the one who hooked me up with the right people.”
The new space is still a “shell.” Baja has to build out a kitchen, bar, dining area, and restrooms. The building plans have been approved by the Department of Health but still need to be approved by the Office of Building and Construction before the buildout can begin. Castro hopes to start construction within the next few weeks.
Loyal customers are already buzzing about the return of Baja, the preservation of a neighborhood institution. It also points to the valuable anti-displacement work steered by community-based organizations, like-minded developers, and the family restaurants who fight to stay and hold tight to the dream of coming back if they must move.
“Most people don’t know this, but Beacon Hill does not have a Starbucks or McDonald’s at all,” Castro said. “It’s [just] little mom-and-pop businesses, and it’s something to be proud of and, hopefully, we’ll keep it that way.”
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!