A pandemic was as good a time as ever for the temporary closure and relocation of chef Chad White's downtown ceviche bar, Zona Blanca.
Operating for four years inside the Steel Barrel taproom on downtown's west end, Zona Blanca was the first Spokane restaurant White, a former Top Chef contestant, launched after moving from San Diego back to his hometown. With it, he quickly began making waves in the regional food scene. Since then, the Chad White Hospitality Group has added two locations of High Tide Lobster Bar and TT's Brewery & Barbecue to its repertoire; White's also crafted menus for Arbor Crest Wine Cellars.
Zona Blanca reopened in mid-April inside its new digs, a former Rocket Bakery cafe on the main floor of the historic Holley-Mason Building at 157 S. Howard St. With plenty more space to move around in the kitchen, bar and dining room, White and his team were also able to expand the menu from ceviche — fresh, raw fish cured in citrus juices — to an all-encompassing array of coastal-inspired Mexican cuisine.
"The original concept for Zona was a closet concept in the back of a dive bar with only eight menu items, and now we have 30 menu items," White says. "I brought in a very talented chef, Jeana Pecha, and she's just an absolute powerhouse. Her technique and flavors aligned very well with myself."
Zona's new bar program centers on agave spirits: tequila, mezcal and sotol. To head the bar White brought on Adam Vizzo, formerly of Durkin's Liquor Bar.
"It's been incredible to see [Pecha and Vizzo] work together to create a menu in unison that pairs very well, and just to see their passion," White says.
The new restaurant space, with branding and art by local studio Maker and Made, is vivid and colorful, with Latin music always blasting in homage to the equally bright and flavorful Mexican cuisine served there.
"We wanted it to be very energetic and cultural, as much as we could with a gringo running it," White says. "Granted, I have a lot of ties to the culture. My kids are Mexican, and I have a lot of roots there."
While Zona's new menu is exponentially larger than it was in its previous home, it's still contained to one page with a handful of items per category: appetizers, ceviche, oysters, entrees, tostadas, tacos and dessert.
"A lot of people looked at Zona and said it wasn't Mexican food, just ceviche," White says. "But now it's Mexican, but not traditional. It's eclectic and flavorful — flavors people may not have had so far. A lot of the Mexican food you find in Spokane is coming from Jalisco and Oaxaca, and very few from coastal areas in and around Baja."
For the appetizer section, there's queso fundido ($9), housemade guacamole ($10), frijoles Jalisco, (aka refried beans; $8) and Dorilocos ($8), a Mexican street food combining Doritos, gummy bears and spices that White introduced on Zona's previous menus.
Four ceviche dishes ($10-$17) include options ranging from tuna to shrimp to octopus, or a combo of all three in the Mixto. Fresh oysters are served as shooters ($8) and raw or roasted on the shell.
"There are three oyster options with five species available nightly, so you can get a half or full dozen, raw or roasted," White says. "The zarandeado oysters — 'shaken' in Spanish — have an egg-based marinade like mayo with chilies and achiote and lime and oregano, and we roast them until it's caramelized."
There are also four choices each in the taco and tostada sections, offering a variety of flavor and ingredient combos, from the bacon-and-shrimp Gobernador ($13 for two) taco to the vegetarian Hongos (mushroom; $9) tostada. Rounding out the menu are three entrees: a butternut squash tamale ($17), charred Spanish octopus ($25) and roasted lamb with beans ($25).
In the bar, Vizzo's lineup of 10 agave cocktails include a refreshing frozen margarita, perfect for hot summer days and nights. Perhaps one of the most eye-catching choices in the bar, though, is the agua azul cielo ($12), or "blue sky water," a vivid, blue-hued concoction of mezcal, rum, coconut milk, blue curacao, cardamom simple syrup and chocolate bitters.
White hopes to soon add lunch hours at Zona Blanca, but says he's held back now by an industrywide hiring challenge.
"The people who I've found so far are so amazing, and I feel so blessed to have them," he says, "but we need 10 more employees, and it's all levels of employees, not just line level or front of house, even for salaried managers we're struggling." ♦
Zona Blanca • 157 S. Howard St. • Open Tue-Sat 4-10 pm (lunch hours TBA) • limefishsalt.com • 509-241-3385