That's not entirely true: Seattle will probably never compete with San Antonio, Tucson, Chicago or Yakima in the Mexican cuisine category, but the city's options are surprisingly good considering that the border is a 21-hour drive down I-5. There may be better tortas and tamales elsewhere, but it's not hard to find a decent taco, salsa and a cold Victoria.
We happen to know of 10 places where Seattleites can get their "good Mexican food" fix, and we've listed them here in arbitrary order (except that the number one restaurant really is our favorite.) As always, Erin Thompson corralled the comments from Voracious contributors. And finally, a proactive disclaimer: Only sit-down restaurants were eligible for this list.
La Carta de Oaxaca is what a tapas restaurant would be if Mexicans had been given credit for inventing the idea of snacking while getting drunk, rather than the Spanish. Cocktels de camarones, albondigas, picaditas--all perfect for picking at while knocking back margaritas or shots of cactus juice. And if you're hungry for something a bit more substantial, there are always tacos--excellent fried tacos, rolled and topped with guacamole, chile, and Oaxaqueño cheese, or simple, street-style tacos al pastor and carne asada mounted on homemade tortillas.
Unlike say, chocolate-covered strawberries, "Mexican food" is rarely used in the same sentence as "sexy." The exception: Milagro Cantina. Located in downtown Kirkland, this trendy restaurant goes above and beyond beans and rice, serving braised lamb in mole sauce, lobster enchiladas, and guacamole dressed in your choice of almonds and pomegranate seeds or mango and pine nuts. Even the margaritas have gotten an Eastside makeover, infused with flavors like green apple, ginger caramel, and spiced pumpkin. And if you feel inclined to make your concoction even fancier, you can choose a top-shelf liquor from the branches of a seven-foot steel "tequila tree" growing behind the bar.
8. El Gallito
There's nothing little about the flavor, portions, or number of combinations at El Gallito, so where the name comes from is a mystery. The menu's pages and pages of options include countless combinations, the best being two chimichangas (get one cheese and one chicken). The carne asada and chicken mole are both big winners; the mole has a strong, authentic sauce and tons of pulled chicken. One of their better ideas is serving their chips warm with ultra-spicy (enough to get your nose running) salsa while you wait for your meal. El Gallito is also a big hit on Cinco de Mayo--no annoying tunes or cheesy decor, just lots of beer and beer-related paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling. Besides the food being consistently crave-worthy, El Gallito is family-owned and -operated.
7. El Quetzal
You can get all your favorite tacos and tostadas at El Quetzal-and they'll be good and cheap. What distinguishes the Beacon Hill favorite, perhaps Seattle's only taqueria specializing in Mexico City-style street food, are its overstuffed tortas (sandwiches) and the huarache gigante, a sort of Mexican pizza that all but defies explanation. The chicken quesadilla isn't a greasy flour tortilla dripping with melted cheese, it's a hoagie-sized turnover stuffed with smoky chipotle-braised meat and a smattering of queso fresco. At this friendly, family-run place, kids are definitely welcome.
When the Mexican-inspired COA Mexican Eatery & Tequileria opened in 2011, it filled a niche in the hood that badly needed to be. Taking its name from a device used in agave harvesting, COA presents artful riffs on south-of-the-border classics. Be forewarned: If you're craving slop Mexican, keep walking; COA's mole is served sans tortillas with crispy kale and fragrant rice and beans. Enchiladas verde are stuffed with chicken, cauliflower, and cheese, then smothered in a cream sauce that hits the right balance of rich and verdant. Expect little touches, like salsa speckled with hominy and gluten-free tostones filled with green plantains.
5. El Norte
Don't judge a book by its cover: Step in off this gritty stretch of Lake City Way into the aquamarine-painted, candlelit oasis El Norte. The tiny kitchen cranks out just a handful of taqueria-style food items, but there's sweet and tangy ceviche, chunky guacamole, tacos in housemade tortillas, and baskets of thin, just-fried tortilla chips. The nachos alone are worth a stop. Crisp chips are slathered in creamy refried beans, topped with melted jack cheese, jalapeños, guacamole, onions, tomatoes, and sour cream. Come for the food, stay for the drinks: Several premium tequilas are available, plus Negra Modelo from Mexico and Veltins from Germany on draft.
Bastille detractors shook their heads when news came that the design-focused team behind the French hotspot in Ballard planned to open a massive Mexican cantina in Capitol Hill. Fine: There's no place here for humorless mossbacks anyhow. Poquitos is an unending Mexican beach vacation, with top-shelf margaritas, freshly made guacamole, surprisingly elegant elotes, and a plate of chipotle garlic prawns that deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the city's best shrimp dishes. In a restaurant that's a perpetual beneficiary of foresight--Deming Maclise and James Weimann traveled to Mexico to collect decor elements--there are, of course, housemade corn tortillas for sopping up the delectable vestigial sauce. What fun.
Because bottom-shelf brands come with a shriveled worm in the bottle, mezcal's image is not especially highbrow in the eyes of many American drinkers. But in actuality, "the smoky spirit of Oaxaca" is tequila's more refined cousin. Mezcaleria Oaxaca stocks every brand of mezcal currently available in Washington, and offers a flight of three generous pours for $15 so novices can play the field before settling on a favorite variety. The food, meanwhile, is similar to the splendidly authentic Mexican fare served at its sister establishment, Ballard's Carta de Oaxaca. Stellar additions to the menu include gringas oaxaqueñas, marinated, spit-roasted pork with little bits of seared pineapple, drizzled with melted Oaxacan cheese, and served as tacos in handmade corn tortillas; and barbacoa cabrito, a chili-marinated, slow-roasted goat accompanied by a queso-speckled mole negro.
The benefits of owning an adjacent butchery are not lost on White Center's El Paisano Rosticeria Y Cocina, where the tacos come with an array of proteins: tripe, cheek, barbecued pork, fish, or shrimp. A dish of birria (braised goat) falls apart in a chili sauce still flecked with bits of slowly dissolving tendon. For customers on the go, there are $1 tamales served at the butchery and market next door, where dark chorizo hanging from a rod points downward at a bin of chicharrónes the size of a child's torso.
For the vast majority of Americans, "Mexican food" means a bowl of tortilla chips with salsa, some sort of meat wrapped in a cheese-slathered tortilla, and a soggy serving of refried beans and yellow rice. At first blush, a restaurant with a goofy, gringo-friendly name like Senor Moose might seem to offer this sort of insipid faux-Mex fare. In truth, though, the colorful and cozy Ballard restaurant specializes in authentic comida tipica, traditional dishes from south of the border. The vast menu comprises representative cuisine from various Mexican states, and while standards like enchiladas, tostadas, and tacos are included, they are rendered unique with a delectable variety of mole sauces and distinctive fillings. Moose works magic with pork, serving everything from a picante blood-red chorizo to moist hunks of pig meat braised in chiles and pineapple juice. And, just like any Mexican joint worth its margarita salt, the bar stocks a stellar selection of tequila and mezcal.
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