Getting My Goat

On the hunt for great Mexican tastes in far-flung locales.

To get to the tables at narrow, ramshackle La Conasupo, a Mexican market in Greenwood, you have to go deep. Back past the cowboy boots and calling cards at the cash register. Back past the family-of-six cans of hominy and the refrigerator cases filled with Mexican Coke. Once you pass the bins of hard-to-find dried chiles, stopping for a sniff, you’ll reach the “dining room”—a counter with heat lamp, a few tables covered in plastic tablecloths, and a menu spelled out in block letters on a piece of posterboard.

There, a small team of cooks serves up corn-tortilla quesadillas, a few tacos, and huge sopes—thick cornmeal cakes topped with refried black beans, onions, and a dusting of salty, white cotija cheese, which they’ll serve with two thin pork chops on the side if you’d like. I thought I’d discovered the restaurant’s best when I tasted the quesadilla with tinga—shredded chicken braised with onions in a smoky chipotle sauce. Then the market’s owner told us we should come back Sunday morning for La Conasupo’s real specialty: barbacoa, or slow-roasted lamb, often served with consomme de barbacoa, a soup made with the drippings.

I immediately scheduled a return visit. Then I also got to wondering: Were there other backdoor Mexican restaurants around town? By now, even Seattleites too chickenshit to ever eat at a taco truck or bus know that las loncheras are the best way to experience vicariously Mexico’s vibrant street-food culture. But not the only one. Over the course of the next few weeks, I set out in search of Mexican markets where I might find lesser-known specialties.

I started on Sunday back at La Conasupo. My friend and I were soon caught in the post-church crush, surrounded by grandmothers in Sunday dresses and clans of men dressed in work pants and flannel shirts. La Conasupo sells its barbacoa by the pound, and the hunks of meat come wrapped in tinfoil, with tortillas, onions, chopped cilantro, and squeeze bottles of green and red salsa on the side. The lamb can easily be pulled into long shreds that, with a shake of salt and a liberal dose of all the sides, made for simple, robust tacos. It was home food, the kind that staves off much more than hunger, and I could see why the line of customers snaked back through the shelves. (The consomme, sadly, was not the clear, aromatic broth I’ve loved elsewhere—a sort of Mexican pho—but more of an oily stew.)

The next Saturday took me to White Center, where I spent an afternoon driving up and down the streets, fortifying myself at taco trucks, before I passed Carniceria El Paisano and noticed a crowd inside. On the Saturday before Christmas, close to 20 customers were squeezed against each other in the slim space between the butcher counter and shelves of dry goods, placing holiday orders for meat, all fresh-looking and sliced in Mexican-style cuts. On top of the meat counter were stacked big sheets of fried pork skin, edges curling under like puffy parchment. Fat ropes of chorizo, red with chiles (and, most likely, a little dye No. 2) looped around a metal bar hanging directly over the butcher. I left with a pound of carnitas, fatty pork braised in its own juices. The meat made a fine driving snack just out of the bag, but was twice as good back home, when I shredded and reheated it in a dry skillet until the excess grease melted off and the edges of the pork crisped up and took on a bacony aroma.

Bellevue was next. I crisscrossed the streets northeast of downtown, which seemed to hold the highest concentration of Latino businesses. I popped into markets for potato chips with hot sauce, bags of guajillo chiles, and questions: Did they know a store where I could buy barbacoa? Were there other markets in the area that served food? Nothing. So I recrossed Lake Washington and headed north on Aurora, not stopping until I reached south Everett. I was hunting down a tortilla shop I’d seen mentioned on Chowh Latino markets and butcher shops began appearing once I’d crossed north of state Route 525, and finally, I hit the jackpot: a strip mall complex at the corner of Highway 99 and East Casino Road, with restaurant Pollo Rico (see Nosh Box here for more details) at the front and tortilleriaCasa El Dorado around the side.

Peering through the kitchen window, you see hundreds of tortillas whizzing through a conveyor-belt maze every hour, being pressed and baked and flipped. The not-well-oiled machinery screams like a pod of dolphins watching The Shining. But in front of the tortilla factory is a more appealing restaurant space, where the owners have sponge-painted the walls in pumpkins and golds, attracting businesswomen as well as day laborers. In addition to the standard burritos, tacos, and enchiladas, Casa El Dorado serves menudo (tripe stew with hominy) and birria de chivo, spicy goat stew.

Birria is a specialty of Jalisco state that’s almost as rich and complex as mole. A number of Seattle’s taco trucks make a version with beef (my favorite: Tacos El Potrillo on Rainier and Graham), but it’s even better with goat, whose faintly mutton-mustiness seems to call out the darker, deeper tones of the dried chiles and spices in the broth. And Casa El Dorado’s birria is a good one. Once my friend and I shoveled all the onions, cilantro, and limes they provided into our bowl, we started peeling freshly made tortillas off a fat stack. We spooned chunks of braised meat—which fell apart at the touch—into them, squeezing some chile-pumpkin-seed salsa over the top, sipping the crimson, tart broth between bites. We also devoured two sopes mounded high with crunchy, meaty chicharrones (squares of fried pork skin) and lettuce.

The tortilla factory’s carnitas tacos, though, were the best I’ve eaten since I moved to Seattle. No lettuce or beans. No watery salsa. There was nothing extraneous on the taco, just pure flavor: the perfume of cilantro, the bite of raw onions, the flash and burn of salsa verde. And beneath it all, the taste of lean, tender pork, flushed with the scent of the lard that had once enveloped it.

Sure, it was just a $1.25 taco—but worth every mile it took to find.