For those who eschew waffles and pancakes in favor of savory breakfast treats, Mexican food offers a rich assortment of flavors to awaken the senses. There are chilis, a heady mix of spices, earthy beans, tangy tomatoes and cilantro, salty cotija cheese, and rich crema heaped upon the all-important sweet foundation of maize and lard. The pleasure of a morning Mexican meal stands on its own, but it's worth noting that Mexi-breakfast is excellent hangover fare. All around town, Mexi-breakfast awaits you, from quick and easy breakfast burritos to the regional wonder of Tex-Mex fare, to authentic, soulful comida típica.
Here are the two most important things to know about the newly opened Memo's Mexican Food (4743 University Way NE, 729-5071): (1) It's on the Ave. (2) It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Memo's is easy enough to like—it's a gigantic, bright, airy space filled with glossy blond wood floors and booths and blasting Mexican pop music. The service is warm and friendly, the food is cheap, and the portions are huge. A machaca burrito ($3.99), roughly the size of an adult human forearm, is undeniably filling, if not wholly satisfying—a flour tortilla stuffed with shredded beef, green peppers, potatoes, and eggs that, lacking real flavor and moisture, needs regular dousings of hot sauce. I was disappointed to find that, out of all of Memo's breakfast offerings (including a bacon and egg burrito), chorizo, the spicy sausage that pairs so nicely with scrambled eggs, was nowhere to be found. Memo's is geared more toward the late-night drunk crowd and harried to-go diners, but it's not the place to spend a slow morning lingering over a plate of great food.
Ballard's Austin Cantina (5809 24th Ave NW, 789-1277), which labels itself "Seattle's Best Tex-Mex Experience!" offers a "Weekend Gospel Brunch" on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. The cantina's offerings include migas (scrambled eggs and tortillas with tomatoes and cheese, served with a chicken-fried steak, $9.50) and huevos rancheros (scrambled eggs and tortillas topped with beans, avocado, and ancho chili sauce, $7.95), and sides such as creamy corn grits ($2.95). Austin Cantina's brunch left me utterly confused—the food tasted, frankly, like nothing. Despite the use of fresh ingredients such as jalapeños (all seeds and membrane cut out), there was absolutely no salt, spice, or grease to enhance and impart flavor on the food. Austin Cantina, has your kitchen secretly sworn off all salt and fat, but not bothered to tell the customers? If this is Tex-Mex food, it must be Tex-Mex by way of Seattle—and something gets lost in the journey. How you managed to make runny grits and a chicken-fried steak covered with sausage gravy taste dry and unexciting is still beyond me. Hours after brunch, I remained confused—it seemed that no dish we tasted couldn't have been made at a diner. And sadly, the diner food may have tasted better—at least there would have been grease.
My meals at Memo's and Austin Cantina left me desperately hungry for real Mexican food. I wanted to dig into things like homemade corn tortillas, salty cheese, rendered animal fat—authentic, homestyle dishes with real depth and flavor. My first stop was the Burien branch of El Sabor De Oaxaca (217 James St, Seattle, 382-3557, closed on weekends; 452 SW 153 St, Burien, 242-2326), where the specialty dishes, while lacking huevos, make a fine morning meal for adventurous eaters. Sabor serves a delightful tlayuda ($12.95), a popular Oaxacan street food, composed of a large, homemade crispy griddled tortilla that's spread with thick refried black beans mixed with pork lard (sweet, smoky, porky, rich—delicious), covered with finely shredded cabbage, tomato, buttery slices of avocado, crumbles of cotija cheese, and strands of melty Oaxacan quesillo, then topped with slices of grilled tasajo, air-dried, seasoned beef. (FYI, the tlayuda, while delicious fresh and hot, also makes a great cold breakfast straight out of the refrigerator—à la leftover pizza.) It's worth checking out Sabor's quesadilla huitlacoche ($9.95), a thick grilled tortilla filled with huitlacoche, aka "corn smut," a fungus that infects corncobs and replaces normal kernels with tumors that resemble mushrooms. These "mushrooms"—musky, sweet, dark, and firm—make a rich filling paired with green and red peppers, fresh chilis, and quesillo.
In Ballard, somewhere between breakfast burritos and corn smut, lies the most heartwarming and satisfying Mexican breakfast joint, a tiny house which goes by the unlikely name of Señor Moose (5242 NW Leary Ave, 784-5568). Moose owner Kathleen Anderson spent over 20 years living in Mexico, and when she returned to the states, she brought back handwritten recipes collected from friends, home kitchens, and home-style restaurants called fondas. Señor Moose's menu items, in a loving nod to their homeland, list their place of origin. Chilaquiles ($8.75), from Mexico City, is a plate of tortilla chips tossed with green salsa, topped with crema and eggs. Having soaked up some of the salsa, the chips are by turns salty and sour, crunchy and soft, and covered with bright runny yolks. The entomatadas ($8.50), hailing from Oaxaca, are soft corn tortillas swimming in a bath of mild but piquant red salsa, topped with eggs and cotija, served with rich stewed beans. Moose also serves wonderful sides like esquites, sweet corn mixed with epazote, crema, cotija, cayenne, and lime. You'll find that the Moose's vast menu of perfectly prepared regional specialties, featuring ingredients such as housemade chorizo, nopales (fresh cactus), and sopes (griddled corn cakes), call quietly to you morning after morning, begging you to discover and savor each dish. Lucky for all, Señor Moose serves breakfast every day starting at 8:00 a.m. Vamanos!