South of the Border on the Edge of Belltown
Barracuda Taqueria's chili con queso is a dish of hot, gloppy awesomeness. Here, the Tex-Mex classic is made New Mexican–style, with flecks of red chili suspended in the cheesy goo.
It's topped with a fresh jalapeño slice and a dusting of red pepper, and it's hyped as "Nathan's secret recipe of delectable cheesy goodness." Owner Nathan Yeager hails from Texas, with his love of south-of-the border foodstuffs deepened by a decade and a half of "scuba diving and eating" in Mexico and Central America. Accompanying Yeager on these scuba/culinary excursions were two friends—one Cuban, one Guatemalan, both happy to sign on as partners when Yeager launched Barracuda. Accompanying the queso: miraculous bursts of oil and salt that have coalesced, however briefly, into tortilla chips.
You can't ask a man to reveal his secret queso recipe. But you can ask whether it's possible to make good queso without involving some amount of Velveeta. Nathan's reply: "You can make queso without it, but you can't make good queso without it."
The amazing queso is also available a few doors down from Barracuda at Bandits Bar, which is also owned by Yeager. It was here that he first trafficked in his own Mexi-food, offering bar patrons his queso and "De La Cruz Kick-Ass Tamales" (praised by Stranger food writer Bethany Jean Clement for "mightily kick[ing] the ass of every other tamale I've ever had"). When a nearby retail space opened, Yeager was ready to put food front and center, and Barracuda Taqueria—described on its website as "real, south-of-the-border street food... made with freshly prepared, locally sourced ingredients"—was born.
Tucked in the ground floor of a condo tower at Denny Way and Second Avenue, Barracuda is less than inviting from the outside. (The small space formerly housed a failed wine bar, and looks it.) But inside, things click into place. Diners seat themselves around tables of various sizes, from small and private to big and communal. At the center of each rests a pitcher of water and a stack of water glasses. Table service is low-key and efficient, and food arrives on colorful mismatched ceramic plates. The resulting vibe is actually, comfortably casual—a rare accomplishment.
Still, if you're going to build a sit-down eatery around tacos, you better get 'em right—especially at $4 a pop. The menu is simple: just tacos, tortas, rotisserie chicken, and some sides. All the tacos involve amazing homemade corn tortillas—thick, fluffy creations that have more in common with Indian naan or Ethiopian injera than the thin, dry disks masquerading as corn tortillas in U.S. supermarkets. As for the $4 price tag: Barracuda tacos are twice the size of the ones found at a taco stand. One taco makes a light meal, two make you full, three make a potentially gut-busting indulgence that still runs less than 15 bucks.
To properly judge a taqueria, one must eat a lot of meat. As a vegetarian who sometimes eats fish, I couldn't do it alone, so I brought in a team of carnivorous taste testers.
The al pastor—a taco-stand staple—features slow-roasted pork marinated in a variety of peppers. It's a perfect example of Barracuda's carefully enhanced street food. At a stand, an al pastor taco typically involves nothing more than marinated pork and cilantro; at Barracuda, a pineapple pico de gallo is added. It's meat and sweet, and it elicits effusive praise.
The rotisserie chicken in the pollo en mole taco also earned cheers, while the mole itself was a pleasant mystery. Hyped on the menu as "authentic Oaxacan black mole," one batch was described as "more sweet than spicy," while another was found to be neither sweet nor chocolaty nor cinnamony—"more like brown gravy." Both testers liked the mole, but the inconsistency is noteworthy. Yeager says his mole is the result of 15 years of tweaking by all three friends/partners and now involves over 30 ingredients. They might want to nail it down.
Braised with beer and chipotle pepper, the slow-roasted brisket taco comes topped with caramelized onions, salsa fresca, and Oaxacan cheese. "The brisket was a little stringy," said the tester. "But the chipotle sauce was right-on—spicy, but well played off of the sweetness of the onions."
As for the lengua, the menu plays coy: "Mexico's beloved street food secret... ask one of our employees to educate you!" (If you've ever wanted to ask a waitperson for tongue lessons, here's your chance.) At Barracuda, the tongue is braised and shredded, topped with pickled red onions and queso fresco, and rated as "Everything a lengua taco should be."
I sampled the shrimp taco and was blown away. Three big, fresh shrimps are sautéed with chiles de árbol, glazed with lime juice, then topped with purple cabbage slaw and a beguiling avocado-lime crema. It is incredible—the shrimp sautéed to external crispiness while staying moist inside, each of the toppings a distinct pleasure. Slapped with a $4.50 price tag, the shrimp taco earns every one of those extra pennies. And of course I tried the vegetarian taco, built around Barracuda's excellent black beans (sharply spicy, completely vegan), here mixed with rice and sautéed seasonal vegetables (wild mushrooms and squash, in this case). Served with salsa on one of those swoonworthy tortillas, it is an exemplary vegetarian option.
Barracuda also sells tortas, the popular Mexi-sandwiches that are here served "slider style" on Mexican flatbread for $4. All test subjects reported being overwhelmed by the tortas' breadiness and underwhelmed by the scant fillings. Also not-so-impressive: the chipotle Caesar salad ($6), featuring flash-seared hearts of romaine with heirloom tomatoes, chipotle Caesar dressing, and grated Manchego cheese, all of which was perfectly okay but unforgivably drab compared to the other menu offerings.
At Barracuda, it's all about the tacos, and lord knows Seattle needs more good ones. If you live near Barracuda, you're lucky, and if not, it's very much worth the trip. They have breakfast tacos on the weekend. Ándale.