The building on the south side of 37th and NE Sandy doesn't have a reputation for being lucky. Replacing a strip club, the Blackbird managed to crash and burn there, despite consistently hosting some of the best rock shows in town. And it perhaps goes without saying that the next business to take up residence there, Uncle Butchy's Low-Carb Creations, quickly suffered a similar fate. It's a tough space to deal with. On the inside, an awkward staircase adjoins two different levels into a weirdly elongated room that has never felt exactly cozy, even when the Blackbird kept the lights down low and the sound up high. On the outside, the front windows are uninviting, resembling a cheap department store, and congestion from the nearby I-84 on- and off-ramps makes parking difficult, and sometimes near impossible.
But nevertheless, another restaurant is giving it a go: Rafael's, a cantina-style establishment with a simple, relaxed menu of burritos, quesadillas, tostadas, and other Mexican standards. Such cuisine, no matter how well prepared, isn't going to knock anyone's socks off, but the restaurant does feature some amenities that may prove more profitable than its failed predecessors. For starters, it has a good battle plan for the space's odd physicality: The lower area is the main dining room, decorated with an eclectic array of old paintings and pastel green and red paint job; the upper area (still under construction) is the lounge area, all sleek, cool black tablecloths and (one would presume) candlelight. I was assured by a Rafael's employee that a liquor license is on the way, and that, eventually, the lounge area will feature live music at night. This marriage of dine and dance could be the missing link needed for a business in that space to stick around awhile.
Another handy feature that Rafael's offers is delivery service. For now, they'll only provide this for the Hollywood District, but still, any service that helps customers bypass the need to park on Sandy and still get their food is a good service—especially during the lunch hour, when driving or trying to cross the street on foot feels like an extreme sport. I chose, naturally, to bypass this convenience and eat in the restaurant, where the service was friendly as can be, and the carne asada and chicken tacos spilled over with fresh onion, tomato, lettuce, and subtly seasoned meat. Strangely, the burritos (which include the breakfast variety, replete with eggs and chorizo: yum!) came in the form of two taco-sized tortillas, resembling enchiladas without the cheese topping. Structural inconsistencies aside, though, I couldn't quibble with the taste of my California Burrito, which again featured well-cooked beef, along with cheddar cheese, pico de gallo, and fried potatoes, which wound up adding a pleasing texture that was somehow both crispy and chewy. The best dish I sampled was the soup of the day, a vegetable/beef concoction brimming with huge chunks of tender meat, potatoes, and zucchini.
For people in the area, Rafael's is a welcome addition; there aren't really any joints in the Hollywood 'hood offering tasty, cheap Mexican food, let alone ones that'll deliver it to you. For those farther away, well, I bet your Mexican joint doesn't offer a full bar and live music. And... neither does Rafael's... but it's going to! And when it does, I want to see you there. It's time to end the curse of NE 37th and Sandy.