With or Without a Lake of Melted Cheese
A Digressive, Incomplete History of Mexican Food in Seattle
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.