My death-row meal is the cheese enchilada platter at Andy's Tex-Mex Cafe in my hometown of Houston. When I fly in for the holidays, it's my first stop; I consume up to three platters in one sitting, gleefully, until I feel the need to barf (which I don't do, by the way). My loved ones know that if they want to see me my first night in town, they must come to Andy's. It's just the way it is.
This particular combination—cheese enchiladas, refried beans, and Mexican rice—is how I gauge the worth of any Mexican restaurant. It's always the first thing I order, and often the only thing, because it's my favorite thing. Seattle isn't blessed with any joint that exactly replicates the greasy, Velveeta-y, taco spiciness of classic Tex-Mex (sorry, Austin Cantina—you do many things well, but your menu is too fancy), but it does have its share of good-bad Mexican food. By "good-bad," I mean sloppy. Simple. Perhaps containing lard. Never significantly departing from the basics. (Speaking of which, Peso's—putting the "tort" in tortilla—is suing the Matador, alleging it ripped off Peso's upscale-Mexi look, feel, and menu. Litigation over wrought iron and chipotle peppers is pretty much the opposite of sloppy, simple good-badness.)
Many establishments that get it wrong in the Pacific Northwest have a particular slant on Mexican cuisine, and I'm here to say loudly and clearly that tater tots dusted with cayenne pepper does not Mexican food make. Burritos with ranch dressing and sunflower seeds wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla: also not Mexican food. One Belltown institution that holds these truths to be self-evident and has good-bad Mexican down to a science is Mama's Mexican Kitchen (2234 Second Ave, 728-6262). Mama's claims to be Seattle's oldest Mexican restaurant, and I claim that Mama's has the most optimally greasy, gloppy cheese enchiladas in the city. Everyone's been to Mama's. And for good reason: The service is prompt and attentive, the margaritas are strong and generously poured, and the table salsa is soupy and heavy on the cilantro and onions, just the way good-bad table salsa should be.
Structurally, the cheese enchilada has three main components: the tortilla, the delicious cheese guts, and—most importantly—the sauce. You screw up the sauce and the whole thing goes to shit. The sauce is the glue that holds the enchilada world together, the spicy ocean in which the tortillas with their bellyfuls of cheese swim. Mama's plain-Jane cheese-and-onion Mexican plate ($8.50) has basic enchilada sauce nailed, and if'n you're a hotness monster, its cheese screamer enchilada platter ($9) is bathed in a pepper sauce that'll make your nose run. Also, the beef tamale ($5.50) is perfect: The cornmealy dough is as one with its meaty inner treasures, and the whole affair is never dry, always hot- orange greasy.
Phinney Ridge's ever-amazing El Chupacabra (6711 Greenwood Ave N, 706-4889) comes in second for the best cheese enchilada platter ($7.12). The viscosity of the cheese, the tenderness of the tortillas, and the fluffiness of the rice never, ever wavers or disappoints. Furthermore, El Chupacabra comes in first for its green sauce, a concoction that goes above and beyond your run-of-the-mill tomatillo/jalapeño blend to offer up a powerful heat and zesty, limey tang. The sauce sits upon each table in a squirt bottle along with a fine selection of other hottening agents. YOU CAN HAVE AS MUCH OF IT AS YOU WANT—like, you can squirt a perfect dollop on every bite of chip. It's your party.
An honorable mention for the most quintessentially good-bad chicken-mole-and-cheese enchiladas goes to El Gallito on Madison Street (1700 20th Ave, 329-8088). It tastes like someone put in too much cinnamon and not enough of something else in the Little Cock's mole sauce; the results, while not exactly traditional and slightly odd at first, are damn fine ($8.99). The room-temperature, garlicky guacamole ($1.59/$3.59/$5.59) is always spot-on and generously scooped—one of the most satisfying bad-good avocado-related experiences in town. And the strawberry margaritas ($6.25) can't be beat—except by those at Bimbo's ($5.75; 1013 E Pike St, 322-9950), which also offers the legendary chinchilla cocktail, a devastatingly sweet, creamy riff on the piña colada ($7.50).
The Renaissance man of good-bad Mexican food in town, Tacos Guaymas, gets the all-around award for doing taco salads, enchiladas, tostadas, tacos, and everything in between in the most perfectly haphazard, basic, delectable way possible. The Fremont location (100 N 36th St, 547-5110) is far and away the best due to the patio, with the original West Seattle restaurant (4719 California Ave SW, 935-8970) coming in a close second. Sadly, for some reason the Capitol Hill branch (1415 Broadway, 860-3871) has always been woefully subpar, even at times committing the cardinal sin of serving enchiladas with partially unmelted cheese. It also frequently runs out of the Guaymas signature very-much-above-par creamy green avocado sauce; perhaps this happens because others like me make a beeline for the ramekins and fill up five or six of them with the stuff. It's smooth, sodium-rich, and addictive as all get-out. If I could, I would eat it with a spoon straight out of the salsa bar.
Like the best things in life, the cheese enchilada combo is perfect in its simplicity. Rudimentary ingredients, flavor from uncomplicated spice, richness from grease: Good-bad Mexican, done right, can't be beat with a stick. Fortunately, Seattle's in luck, if only in a few choice places.