Food & Drink

With or Without a Lake of Melted Cheese

A Digressive, Incomplete History of Mexican Food in Seattle

With or Without a Lake of Melted Cheese

Kelly O

DEATH WEARS A FANCY HAT At brand-new Fonda La Catrina in Georgetown.

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COTIJA Not orange, not melted.
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Not so long ago, when you went out for Mexican food in Seattle, you went to a "family" Mexican restaurant. Your plate was probably a combination one—taco, enchilada, maybe a tamale for the adventurous—and it also housed a lake of melted cheese. My family went to one in our neighborhood, and we got combination plates, and it was entirely adequate.

These restaurants still exist, and while some people may look down their noses at them, they remain dear to the rest of our stomachs, for there are times when refried beans and a lake of melted cheese—somewhere close to home, preferably in a booth—are exactly what we want.

A friend in Columbia City goes to El Sombrero for her lake-of-melted-cheese needs. She says it has fake flowers arranged around a big framed review from The Stranger right by the front door. The headline is "Charmingly Adequate," which is (a) the best headline ever (the review is by Angela Garbes, from 2006) and (b) the best version of what we ask these places to be (with the fact of the framing, of the fake-floral celebration, acting as meta-charm). In a misguided moment this past Cinco de Mayo, I went back to my old family favorite on Capitol Hill—which was also the site of my first real dinner date, where my high-school boyfriend deeply impressed me by ordering arroz con pollo—and had a truly wretched margarita and the world's saddest, flattest, palest quesadilla. Having the nostalgia crushed out of you is, however, what you deserve for going to a Mexican restaurant on Cinco de Mayo. And everyone knows that El Gallito, aka the Little Cock, is the only place to go for Capitol Hill lakes of cheese; it has down-home charm, commendably bouncy booths, and especially good guacamole, and they also give out calendars at the end of the year.

Then came the painfully slow dawn of cheaper, less cheesy, and generally better Mexican food—food from a window, or a truck, or a no-frills indoor taqueria. This golden era, when tacos without hard shells were given unto the people, was also known as the Silencing of the Complainers About How Seattle's Mexican Food Is Nothing Compared to the Mexican Food in the Mission District in San Francisco. There was a place on the Ave that was just a window—I don't remember the name, for this was long ago—that made a thing called a burrito. And (DAMN!) it was good. There was the romance of discovering the taco bus, aka Tacos El Asadero, on Rainier (with another bus-branch at South Othello Street and MLK)—little paper plates of freshly cooked, completely delicious Mexican food served to you ON A BUS! And so cheap, they're practically paying you! And maybe a live chicken walking around in the parking lot behind it! There was the advent of Gordito's in Greenwood, which boasted about having no lard but tasted really good despite it. The opening and closing of a second Gordito's on Queen Anne remains an indelible black mark against that neighborhood; if it had succeeded, which it absolutely should have, the proliferation of this strata of Mexican food would have been accelerated across the city, with consciousness raised across the land instead of slowly working its way from the joints in South Park, from the parking lots of Northgate, from across the mountains in Eastern Washington. Damn you, Queen Anne. Because of you, years were added to the evolution that now allows me to walk 87 paces from my office to the glory of Rancho Bravo—a taqueria that is identical in adequacy to San Francisco's finest and is charmingly housed in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken—to pay $5.44 for the burrito I am going to eat right now. Pardon me.

Then, as with all good things, upscaling happened. (As did chains, and upscale chains—we'll set those aside, except to commend Chipotle for its commitment to humane, sustainable sourcing. I've never eaten there, but if you feel compelled to go to a Mexican chain, you should.) It's important to note that the upping of the scale is not necessarily all bad. And let us, for the purposes of this arbitrary taxonomy, divide the upscaling in two: the up-upscale and the mid-upscale.

To dwell too much on higher-level upscale Mexican dining in Seattle is to go down a philosophical rabbit hole—what is authentic? What impact is the stuff that white people like having upon our palates, our hearts, and our souls? Why does this guacamole cost $12? Etc.—so let's not tarry long. Suffice it to say, here within The Stranger's two-block radius, there is not only the brave, serviceable Rancho Bravo, but also two Mexican restaurants, run by two multipartite upscale restaurant groups, where you may bask in the glow of a wall of candles or, alternately, 14,000 hand-painted Mexican tiles, while paying more for Mexican food than ever. The very-well-groomed people love it. They also love places like Peso's and the local Matador chain, where they may pay more while doing tequila shots and acquiring companionship of the opposite sex. (El Camino, in Fremont, is the original in this category, making from-scratch margaritas before you were born; the late Galerias on Broadway was another progenitor. The Cactus chain also arguably belongs here, with its newest location in the South Lake Union mating grounds.)

The mid-upscale is where we will end this necessarily incomplete and probably annoyingly digressive consideration of Seattle's Mexican food, for the mid-upscale is what new Fonda La Catrina in Georgetown ends up being. The mid-upscale has well-thought-out decor without going to the candley, tiley lengths of the up-upscale—think of the bright colors and on-a-vacation feeling of Agua Verde (where you definitely know you're not down-home anymore, as you may also rent a canoe). Think of the great black-and-white photos on the walls of Mezcaleria Oaxaca on Queen Anne (Queen Anne has embraced it, where Gordito's wasn't good enough), and, before it, its sibling Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard.

People say that the mid-upscale Mexican places cost too much. "X-amount-of-dollars for a TACO!!!" they cry. For a long time, I agreed with them. I've still never been to Carta de Oaxaca; I was prejudiced against its prices. But when Mezcaleria opened, I finally felt obligated to go and see what the fuss was all about. And what a fool I had been: For the family that runs those two restaurants makes food that contains all the love of a great "family" Mexican restaurant, but with more interesting regional recipes, and non-food-service ingredients, and crumbly, fresh, wonderful, non-bounteous and non-orange cheese. (And goat! Lord, their goat is good.) Not to pull on the loose thread that is authenticity, but it tastes like food you get in Mexico.

There aren't enough mid-upscale Mexican places in Seattle. To take the goodness of family cooking and marry it to better-quality ingredients without going overboard on the surroundings: This goes to the greater food-good of our city. Fonda La Catrina is a case in point. They make their own tortillas in the corner open kitchen; the bar that occupies the other side of the room makes a jalapeño margarita that is actually, truly spicy-hot. The nuanced mole sauce is earthy rather than sweet; it has a savory complexity, but it remains comforting. The chicken has the taste and texture of bird, not the squidgy blandness of just breast meat; the pork in the (again, actually, truly spicy-hot, with visible bits of habañero) cochinita pibil is from Carlton Farms. The lengua is soft, almost creamy; so are the tamales. The editor of Edible Seattle says that the first tamale she had at Fonda La Catrina was "the best tamale, hands down, I have ever eaten." The slippery cactus salad that comes with your torta is topped with crumbles of cotija. The room is clattery and the decor is not trying too hard, mainly consisting of a Diego Rivera–style mural depicting Mexican revolutionaries and poets, ears of corn and musical instruments, children and guns; it's got Death on a bicycle on one side, Death wearing a fancy feathered hat on the other. Adequately sized plates of very tasty food cost less than $10, with no refried beans, no lake of melted cheese. If you eat here, you'll wish it were your neighborhood family Mexican restaurant. recommended


Comments (65) RSS

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Can't believe you neglected to mention the role the Taqueria Guaymas in blazing the trail in Seattle for mission style mexican food. They filled the gap for a decade before the taco trucks arrived.
Posted by soggydan on June 13, 2012 at 10:26 AM · Report this
kid icarus 2
Fantastic article. You nailed it.
Posted by kid icarus on June 13, 2012 at 10:42 AM · Report this
--MC 3
An unsung hero of the family restaurant era is Campos's, which was in the University District from the dawn of time until 1982 or so, and which was most Seattleites' first brush with the stuff.
Posted by --MC on June 13, 2012 at 10:58 AM · Report this
reverend dr dj riz 4
well now baby.. you mentioned this would be incomplete but you missed some whole neighborhoods could walk to becaon hill. charles does all the time. baja bistro started out as a neighborhood coffeeshop, then expanded to lunch, and now is a full service full meal joint (… )they've been quietly serving their brand of mexican for a decade or so. i haven't been in a bit - they used to serve quacamole with saltine crackers , which might be authentic somewhere, but nowhere i'd ever heard of.their pomeganate margarita will float your boat.
then there's there's el quetzal
(… )started out as a 3 table big shop that only sold tortas, but from that they've turned into full service expanding the room and a full bar with music and dj's on the weekend. their fish tacos rule . you can get rice and beans , but no lake of cheese.
la cabana's (… )is the place to go for the lake of beans and cheese.
and for walkups y'all just recommended luisa's taqueria (… ) which is so new we haven't gotten over there to check it out but we will. for further mexican realness there's a full mexican grocery store across the street from the shell station of beacon ave.if you must cook with lard and stuff that'd be the place to go..oh and don't forget azteca carneceria on 14th and rainier. the best tubs of fresh slasa ( red and green ) you'll find in these parts. neither of those places have fresh fried chicaronnes.. not like the joints in white center.. hey ! where's the white center love ?
Posted by reverend dr dj riz on June 13, 2012 at 11:01 AM · Report this
freesandbags 5
Oh My God!! I'm Sooo Hungry!!
Posted by freesandbags on June 13, 2012 at 11:35 AM · Report this
I second Riz's mention of Baja Bistro, which is about 2 blocks north of the Beacon Hill Link station. Excellent fresh & authentic Mexican food!
Posted by Mexifood is comfort food! on June 13, 2012 at 11:54 AM · Report this
Every place mentioned in the article and comments was long preceded by El Puerco Lloron, which has served good, traditional soft tacos (carnitas, etc.)on fresh, house-made corn tortillas for at least 25 years.
Posted by downthehill on June 13, 2012 at 12:18 PM · Report this
@1: You're right! A major oversight.

@3: I think my family might have gone there—a very hazy memory emerges—was it near that great hardware store (still there) a block or two north of the University Bridge?

@Riz: And how right you are, dear sir. I shoehorned in a mention of South Park, and I had El Quetzal in my mind, but there just wasn't room to get all the current good stuff in. I had to cut a whole bunch for space... SAD. (And I did not realize that Baja Bistro has been there so long. That is great! They have that reportedly fabulous gay-friendly bar...)

@7: I am not joking when I say that I woke up in the middle of last night and thought "EL PUERCO LLORON!!! I FORGOT EL PUERCO LLORON!!!" then cursed myself thoroughly and could not get back to sleep for a long time. You're right, it really might have been the first "real" Mexican place in Seattle, and it was the only one for so long...
Posted by Bethany Jean Clement on June 13, 2012 at 1:10 PM · Report this
This article was a bit too snooty. I like Azteca.
Posted by biebel228 on June 13, 2012 at 1:11 PM · Report this
I liked this article except for the inclusion of Cactus. Their margaritas come out of a bar gun, and they suck all the more for it.
Posted by outoftowner on June 13, 2012 at 3:28 PM · Report this
Thank you all for shouting out El Puerco Llorn. As I read this article, I couldn't believe it wasn't even mentioned. It's the grandaddy of the best. Now I'm really hungry.
Posted by crone on June 13, 2012 at 6:22 PM · Report this
The place in the U-district that you're thinking of might be La Vaca. There's still one near the pike place market.
Posted by kb2 on June 13, 2012 at 7:00 PM · Report this
Let's talk about Pasco and Mexican next.
Posted by bozbozeman on June 13, 2012 at 9:40 PM · Report this
What's the name of that place on Greenwood, north of 85th? Maybe La Cocina? Totally authentic. And how about the El Camion taco truck by Home Depot on Aurora and in Ballard?
Posted by elaineinballard on June 13, 2012 at 10:28 PM · Report this
Blue Water Taco Grill on Queen Anne makes a great Steak Burrito. When I feel flush I go for the Steak and Prawn Combo. The place is funky and pretty authentic.
Posted by wis.hilltopper on June 14, 2012 at 7:27 AM · Report this
Sorry, but by Bay Area standards, Rancho Bravo is a barely passable, lower tier burrito joint. A random corner taqueria in San Jose, Redwood City, El Sobrante - basically any bay area suburb - will likely have a much better burrito than that.

Don't forget, the Mission District is just one neighborhood in the Bay Area - there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of very good taquerias spread throughout the SF metro.

Seattle's taquerias, and especially the burritos, are nowhere near the same league as the Bay Area. I live in Seattle, but spend a ton of time in the Bay Area, and am always blown away by how much better the burritos are in the Bay Area. It's a whole 'nother level, and while Seattle has improved, it's still not even close.
Posted by g-ballz on June 14, 2012 at 10:02 AM · Report this
Not sure why my comment was deleted, but I think it's a fair point to make that Rancho Brava (despite being one of the best in Seattle) is nowhere near the Bay Area standard of burritos. In fact, if it were in the Bay Area (not just the Mission District, mind you, but the entire Bay Area), it would be considered sub-par, barely passable.

The Bay Area and the hundreds, if not thousands, of taquerias there absolutely blow Seattle taquerias out of the water, especially when it comes to burritos. I live in Seattle but know both places well - trust me, it's not even remotely close.
Posted by g-ballz on June 14, 2012 at 10:32 AM · Report this
Nevermind - my old comment is back, ignore #17 :)
Posted by g-ballz on June 14, 2012 at 10:33 AM · Report this
@4--I like both Baja and Quetzal, and don't have much good to say in favor of Luisa's; I stopped in last weekend. Pretty low on flavor, it seemed like a lot of the base ingredients (like rice) just get carted over from Inay's. The carnitas was good in a steamed pot roast kind of way, rather than what I think of as a proper carnitas (braised, then fried) kind of way. I expect that their 4 tacos for $5 will keep them hopping, though.
Down on Rainier & Graham there's a very tasty truck, Los Padrillos. I think I have to go there for lunch, right this minute.
Posted by alight on June 14, 2012 at 11:39 AM · Report this
Please, please tell me you've eaten at Mama's Mexican Kitchen. For a humungous, obscene amount of beans/rice/cheesey goodness, and Elvis on Velvet, there is no other choice. I loves me my Mama's.
Posted by Skippy LaRue on June 14, 2012 at 12:34 PM · Report this
Mezcaleria Oaxaca on Queen Anne is worth every last cent. Superb food!
Posted by HamHock on June 14, 2012 at 3:42 PM · Report this
For us oldies - Casa Lupita might be where we first ecperienced cheesy goodness. Whatever happened to those restaurants? There was one in the U District and one on Airport Way ... and maybe another?
Posted by WilderOne on June 14, 2012 at 4:20 PM · Report this
I also love the variety of regional food that can be found at Señor Moose in Ballard.

And though it's not in Seattle, Señor Taco in Federal Way deserves a mention. I've driven 45 minutes just to eat there; and picked up a bottle of their house-made hot sauce to go. Their hot sauce is to die for!
Posted by Bored@School on June 14, 2012 at 7:34 PM · Report this
Posted by Victoria Lucas on June 14, 2012 at 8:47 PM · Report this
Scotto 25
loved the writing in this article. will definitely find an excuse to try Fonda La Catrina soon...
Posted by Scotto on June 15, 2012 at 9:19 AM · Report this
Outrageous Burrito was near 50th on Brooklyn.. How can you neglect Guadalajara at 4th and Pike. Both of these places were lifesavers - Outrageous because of the size and Guadalajara because of the two entrances/exits (it was below the old Drug Store on 4th & Pike). You had 2 doors to choose from to d and d out of...
Posted by ibdpain on June 15, 2012 at 4:58 PM · Report this
"This golden era, when tacos without hard shells were given unto the people, was also known as the Silencing of the Complainers About How Seattle's Mexican Food Is Nothing Compared to the Mexican Food in the Mission District in San Francisco."

Nah. I know nothing of Mission District tastes, but Seattle Mexican food still sucks in general. It just doesn't suck as bad as it did five years ago.

They do haughty/honky and Asian food well here. There's that.
Posted by LMNOP on June 15, 2012 at 9:30 PM · Report this
I grew up in Highland Park, a Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles, and traveled to Seattle in 1976. I was used to seeing tortillas in the markets in sealed plastic bags. An entire endcap would be stocked with all different sizes and kinds. In a Seattle market, I saw a CAN of tortillas. It was a very wide, short can with a pull ring on top, to peel off the lid. There was a red sticker on the can. It said "Imported". From where?

It sound like you have come a long way.
Posted by RonZone on June 16, 2012 at 8:20 AM · Report this
depending on what "long ago" is to you, the window on the Ave, if not La Vaca (which was down around the old Macheesmo Mouse location and still lives on 1st between Union & Pike if i'm not mistaken), could have been POLLO LOCO, which certainly made my favorite-ever burrito, in the early '90s.

@14 - she mentioned it. Gordito's.

@22 - i've never thought of eastlake as "u district", but point taken. CL was my first Mexican restaurant experience, at age 8. generally was treated to leftovers as the grownups wanted to treat it like "a grownup place".
Posted by TheNuszAbides on June 16, 2012 at 11:09 AM · Report this
that said, a wet burrito from Muy Macho in South Park is the main runner-up, from the days of living above the shitty casino across 599.
Posted by TheNuszAbides on June 16, 2012 at 11:20 AM · Report this
No mention of El Chupacabra? Mango Margaritas to die for and the best nachos I've ever had.
Posted by pistolkitten on June 16, 2012 at 11:38 AM · Report this
Ummmm. Mama's? Hello?
What's the matter with Seattlites these days?
Posted by tacomagirl on June 16, 2012 at 11:46 AM · Report this
pragmatic 33
418 Public House is excellent Mexican bar food, really good tortas and tacos.
Posted by pragmatic on June 16, 2012 at 12:24 PM · Report this
I still have no idea why people are so crazy about Gordito's. Gordito's is Glop Mexican food at it's blandest. I'm convinced the only reason people fawn over it is because the burritos are larger than most babies.

Take me to the El Camion taco truck by Home Depot on Aurora any day.
Posted by Ivana on June 16, 2012 at 12:47 PM · Report this
seattle pretty much sucks when it comes to mexican food (al asadero excluded). i have been to fonda a catrina twice, i thought is was going to be great, and while the food is not bad, they have ruinous service issues. i am not even that picky, but it is just bad, so bad. i hope this changes, but until is does there is basically a 50/50 chance you dinner will be ruined by service so clueless it defies belief. looking around the restaurant you can see the lucky tables looking happy and thinking this place is so nice, and the other half everybody is just pissed off looking.
Posted by thejerkstore on June 16, 2012 at 2:58 PM · Report this
DOUG. 36
Hackneyed local exclamations:
"No one in Seattle can drive in the snow!"
"Seattle is the whitest city in the United States!"
"Mexican food in Seattle sucks!"
Posted by DOUG. on June 16, 2012 at 3:49 PM · Report this
TLjr 37
Has Mama's improved? Haven't been there in years, but it had nowhere to go but up.
Posted by TLjr on June 16, 2012 at 3:59 PM · Report this
I don't understand why the Chile Pepper in Wallingford isn't on more people's radar. It has authentic Mexican food at moderate prices and has been around for about 30 years (it was on U way before this location). The owner, Rodolfo, is a sweet man who's often up for a pleasant chat.

I tried Gordito once and didn't think it was very good.
Posted by anon1256 on June 16, 2012 at 4:04 PM · Report this
Free Lunch 39
Mama's is terrible. If you have a positive memory of the food there, it's because you were drunk.

@38 - The chile relleno at Chile Pepper is out of this world.
Posted by Free Lunch on June 16, 2012 at 4:41 PM · Report this
Damn you, Bethany. Now I'm jonesing for a prawn burrito from Tacos Guaymas or Blue Water Taco Grill - different styles, but both delicious.

(P.S. Love your roundups about just opened/closed restaurants. Thanks!)
Posted by Compass Rose on June 16, 2012 at 5:18 PM · Report this
Fnarf 41
He doesn't cover the Northwest except very briefly, with Taco Time (started in Eugene, OR in 1959), but "¡Ask a Mexican!" Gustavo Arrellano's recent "Taco USA" covers the history of Mexican food in America in great detail, and most of the stories have Seattle-area cognates. Azteca (Burien, 1974) is comparable to El Torito, who still have a restaurant in Tacoma, which was one of the real pioneers of combo-plate Mexican-American. Mama's also opened in 1974 (1971 in Hawaii).

Before that, the first modern-style Mexican restaurant in Seattle, as mentioned @3, was probably Campos Mexican Food in the University District (at 4334 Roosevelt Way as "Campos Taco Bar" in 1960; later moved to 4228 Roosevelt). It opened sometime in the late 1950s.

Maria Luz Lara Lopez worked as a cook at Campos, then in 1970 opened her own restaurant, Lucy's, the first of five, in which most of the later Northwest Mexican chains including Azteca have their roots. Some names: La Palma, Tapatios, Acapulco (in Seattle Center), Mexico Lindo, Guadalajara, Mazatlan, Las Margaritas.

In a continuation of Campos's generational influence, Tina Castro opened La Puerta in the 80s on East Pike after working in the kitchens of Acapulco, Azteca and Guadalajara. I could swear I ate here in the late 70s -- my first taste of cilantro -- but if so it must have been some other restaurant in that space. In 1968, it was Northwest Trophy!

Possibly before Campos was Tabell's Tamale Shop, at 915 Pike in 1960 (buried beneath the Convention Center now), which was presumably a continuation or branch of the one in Tacoma, which first opened in 1921, and was run by William Bertel Tabell and his wife (a Tabell genealogy site says "William learned the tamale/chili business from his uncle, Roy Mills, in Astoria, Oregon. They moved to Tacoma, Washington in 1921 and operated "Tabell's Tamale Place" for 30 years at 915 Pacific Av.") Tamales and chili were by far the most important Mexican food in the US up until about 1950. I would love to know when the Seattle Tabell opened.

My 1960 City Directory also lists "El Matador Espresso Coffee House and Restaurant", which is probably Spanish, not Mexican, but you never know, at 2400 Westlake, down by the marinas; note that this is seven years before The Last Exit, supposedly Seattle's first coffeehouse, opened. El Matador is at 2811 Second Ave in 1968.

In 1960 there's also La Fiesta Cafe, 715 Pike (still there in 1968); Luis Cafe, 1419-1/2 1st Ave; Los Amigos Cafe, 906 Pine (still there in 1968); and Pancho's Barbecue & Broiler, 1901 4th Ave, which are possibles.

New for 1968 (my other City Directory) is "Mexican Joe's at 8335 15th Ave NW (now Juliano's Pizza); "Taco House" at 1505 1st; four Taco Times; and "Poquito de Mexico" at 8202 Greenwood (until recently The Kebab House; before that Arita Japanese).
Posted by Fnarf on June 16, 2012 at 5:58 PM · Report this
Fnarf 42
Crap, I should have known that Arellano already covered the tamale story here, over in the Weekly. The first Mexican restaurant in Seattle was the Tamale Grotto at 1428 Fourth Avenue, which opened in 1909 (whatever this building was, it was replaced by the Liggett Building, AKA the Fourth and Pike Building, in 1927). Before 1909 tamale vendors sold out of wheeled carts.…
Posted by Fnarf on June 16, 2012 at 6:35 PM · Report this
La Costa in burien been there more than a decade and authentic mostly, inexpensive and delicious
Posted by nige on June 16, 2012 at 6:59 PM · Report this
ohhh, the original Gordito's. I'd forgotten about that until now, but it brings back so many wonderful memories. Mostly of being a broke undergrad who could get three meals' worth of burrito for $5, and every one of those meals more delicious than the last (it somehow only got better in the fridge).

La Vaca might have been the udist one. On the trip back to Seattle I just completed, I actually made a little squealing noise when I saw that there's still one by Pike Place (and not just because of the name/my username/whatever).

If your old Capitol Hill favourite was Jalisco, my understanding is that it's all new management anyway and no good anymore. They used to be that right kind of 'charmingly adequate', especially their Cadillac margaritas.

Excellent article. So many wonderful memories of lakes of melted cheese.
Posted by Cow on June 16, 2012 at 8:10 PM · Report this
Nice article.

Although not very historic, I would just say that I miss Villa Victoria (Madrona/Columbia City) - they put out some great food. Too bad they couldn't make a run of it at either location.
Posted by Action Slacks on June 16, 2012 at 11:36 PM · Report this
raku 46
Rancho Bravo has the exact same customers and food quality as the KFC it replaced. Ridiculously bad in every way, by any standard. I think it's borderline racist to call it "authentic" or "good Mexican food".
Posted by raku on June 17, 2012 at 12:19 AM · Report this
Props to the posters @ 22 and 29 - Casa Lupita did excellent American Mexican food back in the 70's when I was a kid (or at least it sure seemed like it at the time). Correct me if I'm wrong, but it was the giant Mission-style building visible from I-5 in Eastlake, right?

I can't remember the name of the place on 15th Ave W just south of the Ballard Bridge, but that seemed pretty damn good back in the 80's, too. As I recall, there was also a similar and decent American Mexican restaurant on the south Ave from the 80's into the early 90's too, might have been in or by the current Schultzy's space (they also had two-for-once coupons for a long time, which suited my student budget).

La Vaca wasn't in the U-District for long, but the Pike Place Market location was good and cheap for quite a long time. A very early leader in more authentic Mexican cuisine was the original Chile Pepper location in the U-District just north of 50th (now in Wallingford). And yeah, Guyamas was definitely the leader in bringing California-style taqueria Mexican food to Seattle (even if they do cost a fortune now, and if most any taco truck is as good or better).

Heck, even Taco Time is still pretty good in it's thoroughly Americanized way....
Posted by Mr. X on June 17, 2012 at 3:41 AM · Report this
First off, La Carta de Oaxaca is actually not that expensive. Second, it's unlike many other Mexican places in that it's a specific region's cuisine. As such, it's worth paying a dollar or two more to try it. They're not importing Mexican street food here (which is a rip-off when you buy it at the cheese-lake places), they're importing the stuff they eat at home or in a restaurant.

THIRD, they are perfectly willing to make you a damn fine michelada (the best I've had in the States).

So try that one, of the "expensive" ones.
Posted by STJA on June 17, 2012 at 6:07 AM · Report this
For the people who care, my bonafides:
1. Grew up in Houston ( wonderful "cheese lake" or Tex-Mex)
2. Lived for six years in the Bay Area, with all it's wonderful taquerias, both in the Mission and stretching south even into the Peninsula.
3. I like Mexican food so much, I make my own tortillas (admittedly, if I wait more than five minutes, they don't taste anywhere near as good as, let's say, Carta de)

For the rest of us, let's recognize that authenticity is overrated and most folks can recognize good food, which really can pop up anywhere. My picks:
1. Carta de Oaxaca: as other posters have put it, it's not particularly expensive and they clearly use fresh ingredients and make delicious meals.
2. El Farol near 15th, my favorite lake of cheese restaurant and wonderful service/people.
3. TACOS CHUKIS: please please give this place a shot. Opened about a year ago, and hands down the best tacos I've had. Full stop. Their nopales (cactus) and chicken tacos are delicious, but the real standout is their taco chuki. Pork adobada with fresh cilantro/onions, guacomale, a touch of cheese and GRILLED PINEAPPLE. The only reason it's not completely packed is that this tiny operation is tucked far back in the 219 Broadway building near John. Please give it a shot. Both you and they deserve it.
Posted by Simha on June 17, 2012 at 9:39 AM · Report this
@9: Why the fuck are you reading food reviews. I eat at Azteca too sometimes but I don't think "ITZ GOOD ENOUGH" is a valid comeback to legit complaints about low-end Tex-Mex fare.

Are your low expectations for life that interesting?
Posted by nobody cares on June 17, 2012 at 10:07 AM · Report this
Fnarf 51
Here we go: Bill Tabell, the "last of the old school tamale men", moved Tabell's Tamale Shop (or "Old Tamale Place") from Tacoma to Pike Street in Seattle in 1951. It was still there in 1961; by 1968 the whole block was gone, probably as part of the freeway construction; not just the block, either, but the old-fashioned tamale business itself, overtaken by the wave of Southern California-style, combo-plate, lake of cheese restaurants.

I read an interesting thing about Mexican restaurants in a Houston newspaper a while back. The guy was talking about the newest wave of immigrants to places that didn't have a strong tradition of Mexicans arriving before, places like Chicago (and Seattle) or even the Dakotas. Because these new immigrants don't necessarily encounter established Mexican-American communities, and because Mexican immigration is almost always highly regionalized (all the cooks in Seattle came from Cuatla, Jalisco, for instance), they sometimes are free from the stifling rigidity of earlier immigrants, who have fixed ideas about what gringos and gabachos will eat based on their encounters with bland palates (and racism) of white people.

So it is sometimes easier to find regional specialties, like Oaxacan food or DF-style tortas or good bírria de chivo or cochinita pibil in these places, because no one ever told them you can't.
Posted by Fnarf on June 17, 2012 at 10:36 AM · Report this
orino 52
In Seattle, Mexican is the only cheap, non-fetishized food left. "Authenticity," whatever the hell that means, is simply a form of fetishization.

Oh, add Taqueria Tequila, NW 85th & 3rd NW, serves up great combos, with a large lake of melted cheese.
Posted by orino on June 17, 2012 at 11:58 AM · Report this
TheloniousPunk 53
Rancho Bravo is not SF Mission comparison worthy.
What SF Mission comparison worthy means: you get an overflowing mound of meats, clearly way too much to be contained by the 3 tiny tortillas underneath. No worries, that's what the big ass pile of FREE chips right next to your tacos are for. There are some limes and some cilantro. It is greasy. You take a bite...and it's SO FUCKING GOOD that you have to fish your camera out of your pocket/purse/wherever and take a picture despite your greasy fingers. You aren't as conflicted as getting grease all over your stuff so much as you are concerned about the possible delay between getting the next bite in your mouth.
What SF Mission comparison worthy does NOT mean: It doesn't suck and is cheap-ish...and that, in a nutshell, is Bravo.
Posted by TheloniousPunk on June 17, 2012 at 5:39 PM · Report this
If you want good Mexican food, try eating where Mexicans eat. Visit White Center for a multitude of taco trucks and sit down places. Even the Guaymas there is more authentic than the North End spots.
Posted by westside on June 18, 2012 at 9:55 AM · Report this
The La Vaca outlet in UW in the late '90s was a lifesaver for this then-hungry student: cheap with huge tasty burritos (with little jars of chili-garlic paste as the condiment.)
Posted by Lopaka on June 18, 2012 at 10:28 AM · Report this
I appreciate this article for attempting an 'arbitrary taxonomy' of Mexican joints. It's a start in trying to make sense of this thing called "Mexican" food. What Bethany calls 'lake of cheese' places I call Tex-Mex, which, like many, I've been known to frequent when I am craving some comfort. Tex-Mex is easily identifiable: cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce are dead giveaways. My favorite Mexican food comes from my mama's kitchen, everything else pales in comparison. Which suggests the highly subjective nature of trying to identify the 'best' Mexican food. Enough, already, with those folks who laud the Mission for it's burritos. Burritos are not Mexican, there needs to be a new name, perhaps Cal-Mex, for Mexican food that was Americanized in California. If you want some good Mexican food, go to Eastern Washington, where I grew up, to Yakima or Pasco, where there have been Mexicans for decades now. Or go to Azteca and eat Tex-Mex, it's all good. I must plug Rancho Bravo's tamales, they are the best I've ever had in Seattle. They know how to make tamales that come the closest to tasting to what I grew up eating.
Posted by chuchacho on June 18, 2012 at 3:32 PM · Report this
Bethany, great article. As a Mexican, it annoys me when gringos proclaim so-and-so is the 'best' Mexican restaurant. My favorite Mexican food comes from my momma's kitchen, which shows how subjective all this stuff is. There are, however, boundaries. What Bethany calls 'lake of cheese' places I call Tex-Mex, which, like many, I've been known to frequent when I am craving some comfort. Tex-Mex is easily identifiable: cheddar cheese and iceberg lettuce are dead giveaways. It's really helpful to know if a Mexican place is really just serving Tex-Mex.

Seems to me that there ought to be some differentiation in what gets called "Mexican" food, which is why I appreciate Bethany's 'arbitrary taxonomy.' For instance, burritos are not Mexican. Sorry gringos, I've never seen a burrito in my many travels to Mexico. There needs to be a new name, perhaps Cal-Mex, for Mexican food that was Americanized in California.

If you want some good Mexican food, go to Eastern Washington, where I grew up. Go to Yakima or Pasco, where there have been Mexicans for decades now. Or go to Azteca and eat Tex-Mex, it's all good. But I must plug Rancho Bravo's tamales, they are the best I've ever had in Seattle. They know how to make tamales that come the closest to tasting to what I grew up eating. And they're cheap, which is always a good thing.

Here's some interesting history on the taco in the USA:…
Posted by elchuchacho on June 18, 2012 at 3:57 PM · Report this
lilmonster206 58
Confidential from a Mexican Texan:
Lake o cheese does NOT equal Tex-Mex. There is NO REAL Tex-Mex in Seattle.
Posted by lilmonster206 on June 19, 2012 at 7:45 PM · Report this
My new favorite Mexican spot is The Yard in Greenwood. Great happy hour specials, delicious beers, chips that come warm from the fryer (and barely even need the homemade salsas or guac to eat!), and great offerings. The chicken and pork tacos are some of my favorite in the city!
Posted by dissefff on June 20, 2012 at 10:12 AM · Report this
This photo I believe was taken in the early 60s at an Ivar's that is basically where Chase bank is now on Broadway.

I tried tracking down the date, but am still unsure. Late 50s or early 60s for sure.
Posted by ortolan on June 20, 2012 at 2:55 PM · Report this
Cool article, love the comments.

I'm a recent transplant from the Bay Area, and I'm near the Ballard El Camion and it assausges some of the homesickness ... but!

Where, in Seattle, can I get CRISPY carnitas? For you Bay Area transplants, I'm talking Taqueria San Jose style.

Posted by MissEli on June 22, 2012 at 8:23 AM · Report this
Mama's blows chunks. Actually, I usually blow chunks after eating there and, no, Chunks isn't my dog...

Tried them a couple times last month and was severely underwhelmed. My fond memories were merely from when I was a rookie drinker 20 years ago. Now I know what the real deal tastes like.

It's not even good by American 'lake-of-cheese' standards.
Posted by CPN on June 22, 2012 at 8:14 PM · Report this
Will all the people who have and will comment about how Seattle Mexican food pales in comparison with some other location or time, please do something other than ego stroking? I love food and want to know what exactly is missing from or added to the Seattle Mexican eateries that is so dreadful compared to The Bay Area. You and your readers appear to think Frisco & environs is the standard for Mexican food rather than Mexico, step up and explain what makes it better (other that it isn’t in Seattle). Do you know?
Posted by Philoctetes on June 25, 2012 at 7:06 PM · Report this
Everyone here compares Mexican food In Seattle to Mexican Food in San Fransisco. SF has great mexican food, but it has literally nothing on chicago where you can eat mexican food by its state of origin. There's so much I had places where I would get particular kinds of tacos because they were the best for hat type of taco. Tacos used to be a staple of my diet and the only place I've found to sate that craving is El Camion, which is far away. If Rancho Bravo really is that good, I'll be in heaven (well heaven in Seattle). I'm going to have to try it out very soon.
Posted by tacoslocos on July 7, 2012 at 10:23 AM · Report this
Great article. I agree that Cal-Mex is no more authentic that Tex Mex aka lake of cheese. The Cal snob burrito eaters know nothing about Mexico. And the Chile Pepper in Wallingford still makes the best Chile Relleno I have ever eaten anywhere including Mexico. It is a symphony of real Mexican flavors are remarkably original. The owners are from Guanajuato and have been making then in Seattle for over 30 years.
Posted by Curtissimo on February 24, 2013 at 9:47 PM · Report this

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