Despite what most non-Latino customers order at the taco truck or taqueria, tacos and burritos are just one of a class of late-night snacks, afternoon pick-me-ups, and midmorning noshes called antojitos, or “little whims.” And not always the best.
“Antojitos are kind of a vague category,” says Naomi Andrade Smith, owner of the late Villa Victoria, a Mexican delicatessen in Columbia City; she now teaches cooking and blogs about Mexican cuisine (seattlemexicanfoodblog.typepad.com). “One of the things that binds the category together is that it usually contains cornmeal (masa)—but not always. An antojito is something you have a hankering for. It’s not a meal, it’s just something to tide you over.” Antojitos come in many forms, but most are sized to fit in the hand.
“You don’t have these big, fat, cow-pie kinds of things,” Andrade Smith says. “Everything is small to ply your appetite.”
For those of us weaned on enchilada combo platters and burritos heavy enough to stun a cow with, it’s odd to think of stopping at a taqueria for a couple of tacos or a gordita to go. Our approach to eating Mexican also accounts for the myth that it’s gut-blasting food; sure, many dishes are calorie-dense, but they weren’t designed to be pounded a kilo at a time. (Although for anyone looking to pick up a little extra flesh to spill over your trunks in time for swimming season, I can’t recommend enough the efficiency of visiting seven taquerias in five days.)
Eating smaller and branching out beyond the burrito isn’t just a good, cheap way to explore the taquerias and taco trucks on the edges of town. It can also change your mind about the state of Mexican food in Seattle. If this review prevents just one more person from whining to me on that topic, my work will not have been for naught.
Just as any unfamiliar meat supposedly tastes like chicken, an awful lot of antojitos get described as “Mexican pizza.” This one almost qualifies. A Mexico City street food named after the sandal whose oval shape it mimics, a huarache is a little bigger than a whim, a little smaller than an intention. You can try one at the six-month-old Huarachito’s, which may be the loveliest of Seattle’s new taquerias—with burgundy walls, an open kitchen, and even a patio for summer. The owners specialize in Mexico City–style food, and while the kitchen’s not always on fire, the huaraches ($8.99) are damn tasty: a half-inch-thick masa cake with a secret inner layer of refried beans, spread thinly with salsa then covered evenly with the diner’s choice of meat, plus lettuce and crumbled queso fresco. Try it with Huarachito’s maciza carnitas or with suadero, griddle-browned cubes of flank steak.
Huarachito’s 5418 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., 568-3019. Also recommended: flautas (rolled, deep-fried tacos) stuffed with lamb.
The Mexican, um, quiche. Sopes are thick-bottomed, slightly chewy corn cakes with a raised lip, about the size of a CD. At Taqueria La Fondita #2, the woman working the counter recommended I get one topped with grilled chicken: As the bottom of the sopes browned on the grill, her co-worker spread the shell with a thin layer of refried beans, followed by meat, lettuce, and tomato for crunch, and finally a thin white drizzle of tangy crema. (All for just a buck and change.) Add salsa if you need more kick, La Fondita’s oregano-scented pickled carrots and jalapenos if you want fiber. Watch out for the pigeons lurking around the picnic tables, though. They’ll dive-bomb your food if you leave your plate for more than a few seconds.
Taqueria La Fondita #2 Parking lot at the corner of 15th Avenue Southwest and Southwest 100th Street, 551-0529.
The Mexican sandwich—a favorite with Mexican patrons, ignored by most everyone else. And with good reason: Taco-truck tortas vary from flat and greasy to fluffy and bland. But the carnitas torta at Rancho Bravo Tacos‘ first foray into restaurants without wheels—the old KFC on Capitol Hill—matched my platonic ideal: a roll whose cut sides had been lightly oiled, then crisped on the grill. A thin layer of refried beans, a thick layer of carnitas. Now the genius part was that along with the standard lettuce and tomato, the cooks had added slivers of pickled jalapeno. The vinegary peppers were the yang to the yin of the deeply porcine meat, the Samuel L. Jackson to its Bruce Willis, the secret of its chemistry (and they made up for Rancho Bravo’s otherwise lackluster tacos, tamales, and burritos).
Rancho Bravo Tacos 1001 E. Pine St., myspace.com/ranchobravotacos.
Tamales are the Lars von Trier of antojitos: critically praised, publicly unloved. It’s not necessarily the public’s fault. The last couple of von Trier films have been almost unwatchable, and many tamales seem to be mushy blocks of masa studded with a few underseasoned pieces of meat. But a good tamal is a textural marvel, moist and light, seasoned richly with stewed meats, roasted chiles, or—even better—the scent of the home-rendered lard whipped into the masa. Maggie Savarino tipped me off to the tamales sold at La Bendicion, a tortilla-maker and market that specializes in Oaxacan products. Smaller than a corner store and smelling sweetly of Mexican detergent and masa, La Bendicion only sells one tamal, and it’s a memorable one: chicken thickly caked in a Oaxacan mole negro—not the insipid raisin-chocolate sauce many places get away with, but a little bitter, flickeringly spicy, and haunted by the will-o’-the-wisp scents of a dozen spices and toasted seeds. Oh, and they’re only $1.39 apiece.
La Bendicion 2556 Beacon Ave. S.
What is a mulita? No, seriously? Because I’ve eaten 20 of these since moving to Seattle and haven’t enjoyed a single one. They’re a quesadilla gone wrong: Two corn tortillas are fried until leathery and glued together with bland melted cheese; whatever meat doesn’t get lodged in the muck falls onto my lap the moment I try to pick the thing up.
The Mexican pita pocket. Taqueria La Estacion is gaining a rep as Burien’s best taqueria, with arched fast-food-joint windows, a clear display case of sweets, and platters of grilled meats and vegetables on many of the tables. Many of the antojitos at Taqueria La Estacion rock, but the gorditas ($3.25) are particularly delicious. The cooks hollow out the center of a quarter-inch-thick tortilla, then plump it out with your choice of meat so that it resembles a beer coaster that swallowed an apple fritter. Order the gordita stuffed with La Estacion’s tinga, or braised pork, and it’ll also come with a fine crunch of onions and cilantro. But if you’re of a mind to go for broke, the classic gordita con chicharron contains curls of pork skin that are fried, then braised in tomato sauce. Paradoxically frilly and unctuous in texture, the four delicious bites of chicharron I ate before crying uncle were the richest snack I’ve eaten all month.
Taqueria La Estacion 14820 Ambaum Blvd. S.W., Burien, 439-3944.
Pound for pound, every 12-year-old in this country has eaten more quesadillas than carrot sticks, and every bar in the nation gums up the gullets of its patrons with giant half-moons lousy with melted jack. But Andrade Smith confirmed my suspicion that the flour-tortilla quesadilla is primarily a Tex-Mex dish. If you want to taste the quesadilla anew, visit El Quetzal, a family-friendly spot in Beacon Hill sponge-painted the colors of a piñata. Waste no time in tucking into your quesadilla de pollo when it arrives; you want to eat the freshly pressed and griddled corn tortilla when the papery crispness of the masa hasn’t faded, when the lettuce is cold and crisp, when the jack-like cheese is more of a sauce—there’s just enough to anchor the braised chicken to the sides of the tortilla—and when the sputtery saltiness of the queso fresco nuggets scattered overtop is still cool and concentrated. El Quetzal prides itself on Mexico City–style “antojitos gigantes,” and at $8.99, this quesadilla is snack enough for two.
El Quetzal 3209 Beacon Ave S., 329-2970. Also worth trying: the pambazos (chile-drenched tortas).
Other recommended antojitos: The tlayudas (Oaxacan pizza) and molotes (potato-stuffed masa) at La Casa Azul on Greenwood and North 144th Street, and the Salvadoran pupusas and empanadas at Burien’s Salva Mex and El Trapiche.