The "beachside" resort feel of the patio makes the place a busy attraction on most nights.

Photo by Ryan Murray
The "beachside" resort feel of the patio makes the place a busy attraction on most nights. Photo by Ryan Murray
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There’s an oasis in North Seattle, and it used to be a gas station.

Now, it’s a faux-seaside resort complete with margaritas and a sandy beach, removing you nearly entirely from busy Aurora Avenue North just over the walls.

Bongos Café serves up Caribbean sandwiches that are among the best in the city. With all due respect to competing sandwich shops Paseo and Un Bien, Bongos is a more affordable, leisurely option than either of those other two, and offers more on the menu, not to mention more seating.

Bongos Café is not new, opening in 2013, but it feels older than it is, and has quickly established itself as a neighborhood institution. The bright, splashy murals on the walls propel the restaurant into north Seattle from the pages of Havana travel brochures. Service can be slow, but it is helpful and friendly.

The Bart sandwich combines the best of Bongos’ two most popular sandwiches, the Desi and the 1 AM sandwich. At just $9.99, it’s a delicious deal and hefty enough for two meals. Stacked high with “citrus braised pork, caramelized onions, pickled jalapeños, banana peppers, house aioli and cilantro” (the Desi ingredients, a Caribbean roast pork sandwich) and the 1 AM sandwiches’ more braised pork, sweet ham, swiss cheese, fresh pickled cucumber, cilantro and stone mustard aioli (more or less the ingredients of a Cuban sandwich) all served on a toasted saba roll.

It’s messy and kind of ugly, but it’s a damn fine meal, with several key flavors complimenting one another in an umami-rich sandwich. The citrus-braised pork in particular is juicy, seasoned to perfection and forms the centerpiece of the sandwich. The house-aioli and semi-spicy peppers add a flavorful, rich kick. It’s acidic and drippy – you’ll need napkins and non-judgmental eating companions.

The West Indies plate ($9.99) offered some allspice-heavy jerk chicken with Cuban black beans and rice. A mango agave slaw comes with every plate and is sweet, crunchy and tropical. Several slices of a fried plantain (maduro) were a wonderful addition to the plate, despite being a bit more al dente than I would have liked.

The chicken was spicy and filling, and the rice and beans were well done, but the plate paled next to the Bart sandwich. A side order of the yucca fries ($3.99) was crisp, starchy and a nice addition to the meal.

While the food is good, and the drinks are thematic and tasty, there’s another reason lines sometimes stretch to the door: the patio. Coarse sand fills the patio under the former gas station’s rain cover, inviting guests to kick off their shoes and imagine themselves on a sandy beach somewhere in the Caribbean – a tempting prospect when the rain has fallen for two months straight.

All told, Bongos is a great deal for lunch or dinner on spicy, flavorful Caribbean food or drinks on “the beach.”

Bongos Café is located at 6501 Aurora Ave N.