by Ben Adlin
When the husband-and-wife team behind the Columbia City restaurant El Sombrero retired last May after 17 years in business, locals turned out in droves for a tearful goodbye. Now a new tenant is saying hello and hoping to win over stomachs across South Seattle.
Jackalope, an upscale but offbeat Tex-Mex joint, opened last month on Rainier Avenue South after months of preparation and planning. It’s the brainchild and passion project of Jack Timmons, founder of Jack’s BBQ, and Graham Ayers, a longtime Jack’s manager and Columbia City resident.
The menu, available for both dine-in and take-out, includes Tex-Mex classics such as chile con queso ($9), cheese enchiladas with chili gravy ($17.50), and fajita nachos ($10–$17). It also boasts more unusual offerings, like grilled quail ($15) and the “El Caesar” salad with green chile dressing ($9–$14).
Timmons, whom Seattle Met dubbed the city’s “affable brisket baron” when the magazine listed Jack’s as one of its top 100 restaurants last year, said he hopes to share with the neighborhood some of the flavors he remembers most fondly from growing up in Texas.
“Tex-Mex is a culture,” Timmons told the Emerald. “It’s really a memory that’s created by someone’s childhood growing up where there’s three different Mexican restaurants on every single block.”
Tex-Mex, distinct from Mexican cuisine, is rooted in the Tejano people and influenced by dishes on both sides of the border. Describing it, Timmons referenced the history of nachos and emphasized — repeatedly — the heavy use of cumin.
“When you eat Tex-Mex, you taste cumin!” he said, occasionally interrupting Ayer’s description of a dish to point out how much cumin was in it. He also pointed to refried beans, fajitas, and flour tortillas as iconic of Tex-Mex.
Jackalope takes advantage of ties to its sibling restaurant, using Texas-style brisket from Jack’s BBQ in a number of its own dishes, for instance the San Antonio puffy tacos ($19). Its brisket enchiladas ($21), perhaps unsurprisingly, are among the more popular items on the menu.
“It’s not the cheapest place in town,” Timmons acknowledged. “It’s high quality, you know? We’re using Double R Ranch smoked brisket, and we’re using fresh vegetables cooked down to make the sauces.”
Timmons launched the restaurant with co-owner Ayers, who worked for seven years as a general manager of the Jack’s BBQ location in SoDo. While not a Texan himself, he said he long ago developed a passion for Mexican cuisine. “I’ve studied tequila, mescal, Mexican food — I just love it,” Ayers said.
Before Jackalope opened, Timmons and Ayers ate their way through Texas for inspiration. Along with head chef Stew Navarre (Canliss, Local 360, Jack’s BBQ) and kitchen manager Josh Carpenter, they took a trip to sample food and begin crafting their new menu.
“It was a real advantage to us to all go down to Texas together as a foursome and be at the same table, tasting the same dishes, talking about the flavors,” Ayers said. “When we came back and started test-kitchening hard … we all knew, when we would try a dish, what we wanted to get out of it.”
Though he’s been working nearly 80-hour weeks to get the restaurant open, Ayers called the project “a labor of love” and said it’s given him a chance to invest more in his own neighborhood.
“This is my community,” Ayers said. “I think our success is this neighborhood’s success. Columbia City’s always been about supporting your neighbor.”
Ayers moved to Columbia City after getting married in 1997, drawn by the neighborhood’s communal vibe and old-time feel. He said he hopes Jackalope can earn the same fondness from locals as El Sombrero. “My kid grew up there,” he said. “But what I think is great is that we’re something completely different.”
The team is close with many of its neighbors, for example people at Geraldine’s Counter and Lottie’s Lounge. “We’ve tried to be neighborly rookies,” Ayers said. “We lent them our ice machine this summer.” Meanwhile the couple who ran El Sombrero, Maria and Andres Rodriguez, were Jackalope’s first guests on opening night.
Lottie’s Lounge owner Beau Hebert told the Emerald that everyone he’s met from Jackalope so far has been great. “Adhering to the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said, “I think Jackalope will be part of making Columbia City a real destination neighborhood.”
Timmons, for his part, is proud that even skeptical Texans who’ve come into the restaurant have left satisfied.
“The Texans are like, ‘I’m critical about this kind of stuff, and you nailed it,’” he said. “The reviews so far have been glowing. We want to print them and hang them in the front window.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
📸 Featured image courtesy of Jackalope Tex-Mex & Cantina.
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