Authentic Mexican: Seattle's Best Kept Secret

You don't have to look far—even in places like Issaquah—for a good tamale around here.

Seriously, dude? Seattle? What are you going to do there?""Same thing I do here, I guess." I leaned back on my stool and sipped my drink, still collecting on owed markers at my neighborhood bar. "Eat. Write about it. Just a different time zone, is all."Next to me, one of my buddies was still in shock that I would consider leaving the Mile High City, which had become an adopted home for both of us. "Yeah, but Seattle? I mean, OK, salmon...""Sushi," chimed in another friend. "Lots of good sushi there.""Sushi. Salmon. Lots of seafood. But what else?""Bald eagles," I said, waving for the bartender to top off our glasses. "I'd totally eat a bald eagle.""Bald-eagle-egg omelets for breakfast.""Seared breast of bald eagle. What kind of sauce would you serve that with?""Simple beurre blanc," I insisted, decisively. "Something restrained and respectable. You don't want to overpower all that delicious eagle flavor."We laughed, and talked about the weather for a bit. Eventually, conversation circled back to food."Mexican food, man. You've said a million times that you can't live without breakfast burritos. What are you going to do about Mexican food?""Find some.""In Seattle? Good luck."I just smiled and tapped my knuckles on the bar.Everyone told me the same thing when they heard I was headed north: I'd better load up fast on all the breakfast burritos, enchiladas, desebrado, tamales, and posole I could hold, because north of, say, Cheyenne, I was going to be shit out of luck. Actually, most people weren't even that generous. They were convinced that the line of demarcation, north of which Mexicans apparently did not open taquerias, was somewhere around Northglenn, Colorado—about 20 miles north of Denver.When word broke that I really was leaving, chefs started sending me green chiles and canned tamales in the mail. A couple of good friends came through with a bottle of Del Maguey Pechuga, the greatest mezcal—and one of the greatest alcohols, period—ever bottled by man. Even Jonathan Kauffman, with one foot out the door aimed south for San Francisco, took time to drop me a note: "Eat all the Mexican food you can while you're still in Colorado," he said, "because you're not going to find anything like it here."I wasn't worried, though.The way things are in the food world today, a man with any tenacity, some smarts, and a willingness to walk through any door that presents itself can find (almost) anything (almost) anywhere. I believe that. I've seen it borne out time and time again: Ghanaian food in the Rockies, pho in Rochester, siege coddle on the burners in a Mick bar in South Florida, honest-to-Jesus low-country grits a thousand miles removed from the pots and parishes where they were conceived. This mutt republic of ours may have its issues with immigration and acclimation, but for those grubniks willing to look past niggling, inconsequential details like politics, religion, and race and focus on the important things (tacos, fufu, baklava, and where to find a decent plate of momo), it is a dreamland. All you have to do is look.Taqueria La Venadita is nothing but a hole-in-the-wall in a strip mall, flanked by a Denny's, a dry cleaner, chain restaurants, and a kid's cooking school. For three years or so, the Ortega family (who also own the little bodega a couple doors down) has been doing lonchera-style business at this location, serving late breakfasts, lunches, and dinners to the neighbors. Once I started looking, it took me all of 48 hours to find them.The room is just on the warm side of artistically spartan, with nothing but a few tables, chairs, and maps of Mexico and Issaquah hung on the walls. Specials are written out longhand on a dry-erase board. Behind the short counter are pictures of some of the specialty plates, all glossy, bright, and out-of-focus like the pictographic menus at a Chinese take-out place. TVs hang near the ceiling and a spread of Spanish-language newspapers on a table is pushed against the wall. It is, more or less, a small, squarish box with tacos inside. And that's enough for me.On a Thursday night, from the outside, the place appears empty. Really, though, it is only quiet—the tables taken by Latino men hunched singly over bowls of posole, their eyes raised and locked on the soccer game playing out mutely above them, with one large family doing exactly the same, kids on laps, sucking at bottles of neon-green lime Jarritos. Not wanting to interrupt, I ask for a bowl of my own posole, flour tortillas, and a Mexican Coke, and sit where I can see the game.At the counter, they speak English as the second language that it ought to be in places like this. I'd bitten my tongue on my less-than-perfect kitchen Spanish (mostly just curse words, and how to scream for the fucking poulet roti for table 14), and ordered in English. I got called "amigo" anyway, but so does everyone else.Ten minutes later, my posole arrives—a huge white bowl, big enough to wear as a hat, smelling deeply of the kind of comfort that nearly 10 years in the Southwest has twined into my genes. On the TV, someone is up by one over someone else. Knowing what I do about soccer (basically nothing), I nevertheless understand that this is a huge development in a game that can often be locked at zero–zero for hours. But I care less about that than I do about the bowl, broth, chunks of lime, devilish little red chiles, and bottles of hot sauce now arrayed before me.Breathing in, with my eyes closed, I am happy. The posole smells like home to me, a smirking middle finger to all those who said I was screwed—as if I were moving to the Arctic Circle or Boise or worse. And tasting, I am almost as pleased, but not completely. I have lived in places where posole was not just a meal, but a religious experience—Sundays in Albuquerque when all the girls in their white dresses and men in their dress boots would come in and sit down to bowls of the best soup in the world. In others, posole and menudo were simply indispensable as hangover cures and cheap breakfasts for the roughly used. La Venadita's version is close to that—a thin broth, studded with pork and hominy, bright with spices but not hot—though it misses some critical edge of richness, coming off rather like an echo of a great posole, not as the thing itself.Still, it is there and available, and I know all too well that an actual bowl of posole in front of me is nearly always going to be better than some dream posole in my head. I doctor mine with a squeeze of lime, then another, and get through half the bowl before stepping out the door again."How was it?" my wife, Laura, asks when I get home."Good," I say."But not great?""Not yet."Together, we go back on a Saturday for tacos and tamales—handmade in the back, a Saturday-only special—and have better luck. Jacket-and-tie Jehovah's Witnesses are camping out at a table in the corner, eating their way through a half-dozen combo plates, and neighbors come through the doors every few minutes looking for take-out tacos cabeza (beef cheek, tenderer than the asada), lengua (tongue—not my thing), and adobada. It's late afternoon, but we're fortunate: The tamales are still on the board. Two are left, according to the girl working the counter, both pork."Entonces tomaré sus dos tamales de puerco y diré gracias," I say. ("Then I will take your two pork tamales and say thank you.") My Spanish is stilted, goofy. To her credit, the girl doesn't laugh at me, but I can see the smirk in her eyes.The tacos at Venadita are Mexican street style: thin corn tortillas laid with a scattering of meat and a few leaves of Mexican cilantro (gentler than the Italian variety), with a wedge of lime on the side—nothing more. The pork for the adobada is roughly ground, in chunks that scatter when you pick up the taco unless you are a pro and know how to indent the end of one with your thumb. The asada is dry, a little tougher, and rubbed (or marinated) with cumin and chile powder. It's the tamales that really do it for us, though. They come still wrapped in their corn husks—fat little tubes of masa, cored with chopped pork in a red chile sauce. They are soft and tender, like perfect polenta, and the pork has a nice kick of heat behind it.Laura and I fence for bites with our forks. Because she's more vicious and clever, she wins—always distracting me by pointing my attention back to the tacos, to someone coming in through the door. By the time we're done, we've put down four tacos, two tamales, an order of chips with the house guacamole (decent, but nothing special), and a plate of camarones al mojo de ajo (a strange version, threaded with onions and spiked with garlic, but also thinly sliced mushrooms, which I'd never seen before), and killed an hour.We walked out the door for around 20 bucks, and the only thing I didn't like was the house salsa. There are two varieties, green and red. Both could've been made by hitting a box of tomatoes (or tomatillos) with a bat. Neither of them do much more than burn my tongue. They were artless.Venadita now had gravity for me. A force that drew me back, pulling me out of the fish houses and dive bars, comforting me with the knowledge that this was one thing I no longer had to worry about. I had tacos. Everything was going to be all right.I came back late on a Monday night, after slumming it at a sketchy bar where I simply didn't trust the hot dogs. At 15 minutes before closing, owner José Ortega and his crew are still there, rubbing down the counter and just waiting to serve me a brace of cabeza tacos and a splash of horchata (iced rice milk) ladled out of a bucket behind the counter.The tacos were excellent, hot off the flattop, and the horchata tasted of cinnamon and relief in hot climates. I thought I would find the place empty, or maybe already dark, but I didn't. Apparently, I wasn't the only one out amusing himself late on a school night.The next morning, I hit Venadita again for tortas. I went for pork again (because I was developing a serious fondness for the kitchen's adobada), but wasn't crazy for the bread, which is not as lard-heavy and dense as I like. But I loved the smoothness of the fresh avocado, the shredded lettuce, and the roast pig all squished together with the sour cream and onions and tomato. Venadita offers nine varieties of torta—everything from simple jamon and chicken to Milanesa and ahogada, a saucy mess of a sandwich straight off the streets of Jalisco, which I didn't order only because I didn't want to ruin my shirt.Personally, I think I showed remarkable restraint.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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