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How to Find Tolerable Mexican Food?

I've just moved to the Kitsap Peninsula(Bremerton, WA) from Nashville, TN. In Nashville, I could depend on Mexican food- always cheap and always good. I never found a bad place as long as I stayed away from chains.
I've been to 4-5 places in OR and WA now, and they have been uniformly awful. I'm not looking for a taqueria, I want a sit down place. The plates at all these places are the size of a football field, and it's all cheese. They all feature shredded cheddar on their beans and a tomato based sauce on everything that gives me an MSG gut-ache.
Clearly my mexican food radar is now as confused by this move as my gay-dar. How do I tell a good place from a bad one here?

The kind i'm used to has the following distinguishing features:
not much cheese
NEVER NEVER yellow cheese
pico de gallo with every meal
guacamole made solely from avocado and water
fresh cilantro- lots
no chili powder, no cumin
totally awesome cheese dip made from queso blanco, table cream, and jalapeno.
Aztec art on the walls
no crushed ice in cocktails
I don't know if it's more "authentic" or not, I just know it's better than the slop I've had here.

Is there a term for this type of cuisine so I can just go find it? I can only hope that maybe I'm used to a different regional cuisine than I am finding here!

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  1. I feel your pain. It sounds like you've been frequenting the Pacific NW "family mexican restaurant", an unfortunately profligate type of eatery that may be defined by huge plates, slushy technicolor margaritas, nearly liquid refried beans, and absurdly copious amounts of cheese. Examples are legion and include the chains Azteca and Las Margaritas (maybe the most tolerable of this species) as well as more singular variants.

    You've said that you want a "sit-down" place and not a taqueria, but I think the latter may be your best option for avoiding the appalling Gringo-Mex that you've been sampling. In fact, I can only think of about 10 places in Washington State that have quality Mexican food that I would not consider either taquerias or taco trucks (and none of them are on the Peninsula). In this region, taquerias and trucks, which cater more to the mexican communities than gringos, have IMO more authentic and appealing food across the board. You should be able to find not just tacos (always with fresh cilantro), but also birria, menudo, tinga, tortas, gorditas, and various other antojitos and homestyle dishes, depending on the day and the place. Of course, quality varies at these smaller places as well, but with some investigation you should be able to determine the higher quality items or specialties at the spots most accessible to you. I've seen at least two places that look promising along the main commerical strip in Bremerton on the way to the ferry terminal.

    I don't know where you might accomodate some of your specifics (guacamole made with water; cheese dip; no cumin). It sounds like the platonic ideal for you might be a higher quality, more authentic version of the family mexican restaurant, which I consider more akin to Cal-Mex. This is are a rare bird in these parts, and the closest I can think of was Rosita's on greenlake back in the day, which I haven't tried in about 10 years.

    1. Here are some threads to get you started:

      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/15706
      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/311207

      I actually don't think its hard to find decent Mexican in the Seattle area. I haven't had the kind of awful stuff you describe in...well, many years. Some of your criteria, though...fyi, guacamole made from avocado, tomato, peppers, cilantro, lime (yes I know this list of ingredients is subject to argument)...but not water.

      But I'm not sure there are any places on the Kitsap mentioned there. Bremerton is a military town and I'm not surprised you are having trouble finding decent food.

      1. May I ask why water in the guacamole? I have made guacamole from many different recipes (Bayless, Trilling, etc), and have never seen water as an ingredient, but am curious as to what it adds or does not add. As I understand it, the traditional ingredients in guacamole are avocado, white onion, cilantro, lime, jalapeno or serrano chiles, and salt. Some people like to add a little garlic or tomato. I'd made a nice version that includes tomatillos. Never seen water . . ..

        Of course, if you were in Mexico, you could get those wonderful Mexican avocados, which we do not have here. . .

        Finding a Mexican restaurant without cumin would be very difficult, possibly impossible. Cumin is a staple in the Mexican kitchen

        5 Replies
        1. re: PAO

          Guaymas in White Center has the watered down version of guacamole. I don't know the hows and whys of it, but it's a tasty condiment.

          1. re: pigeonmom

            Are you talking about their pureed green salsa made with avocado? That's not water and avocado.

            1. re: christy319

              Well, yeah I know it's not water. I just assumed that that type of salsa was the one the poster was referring to.

          2. re: PAO

            the guacamole recipe I like the most is just smashed avocado and water. Not even any lime or lemon to slow the reaction. When I got guacamole at restaurants in Nashville, I knew that one avocado had been smashed immediately prior to serving the dish, and the taste was so fresh that with a good pico de gallo and sour cream it was unbelievable in fajitas. The food NEVER contains garlic, cumin, or chili powder. All flavor comes from fresh ingredients and cooking methods. Things like fajitas or tacos de asada never came with cheese, and they didn't need it. I have a feeling that the secret is cooking with lard. :)
            The restaurants were always family operations, and the service was so nice it was unbelievable. As a kid I spent every single day for years and years at a mexican friend's house. His mom was way nicer than my own, so without my mexican comfort food, I'm feeling pretty disconnected!
            And when I get recommendations from the locals, it invariably sucks in the same way.
            I give up, I just have to keep eating at La Poblanita. They are far and away the best I've had, I just miss my restaurant fare like fajita quesadillas and molcajete and a host of dishes with impossible to pronounce aztec greens.

            1. re: dkcaudill

              Why are you giving up? Did you look at the threads I linked? There are many good choices in the area. Perhaps not in Bremerton, but there aren't many good choices of anything in Bremerton (not surprising from a small military town).

              And I'm not a Mexican food expert, but I'll say that at the places I love to go, many of which are in those threads, I don't taste cumin or chili powder or much garlic. So give some of them a try. You probably won't find fajitas and sour cream at the authentic places, though. I too love sour cream but that's strictly for gringos.

              Also, you could probably order just mashed avocado instead of guacamole, if that's what you like. Guacamole always has other ingredients, you are just describing mashed avocado.

          3. Mt Vernon/Skagit Valley has a large Mexican population and of course several Mexican restaurants. I like La Casita; it's a bit off the beaten path and is a homey little place. That said, I don't know if you'll like it any better, based on your definition of "authentic". It is Mexican food, made by Mexicans, eaten by Mexicans.

            1. Well, Kitsap now has a free mullet-removal program:

              http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html...

              Halfway decent food can't be that far behind.

              1. Based on your description of "authentic" Nashville Mexican food. It sounds like you can go to any horrid mexican chain sit-down place (like Azteca) tell them to hold the yellow cheese and throw some water into your guac.

                9 Replies
                1. re: hhlodesign

                  Well, garlic and cumin are staples in the Mexican kitchen, so it is a bit hard to understand Mexican food without it. Chile powder is not, but that's because a Mexican cook would use dried chiles and toast, soften them and puree them.

                  1. re: PAO

                    Just come on over to Seattle--we have loads of good authentic Mex here these days. There's a small regional chain called El Rinconcito that you should keep your eyes out for. They are usually in old fast food joints, as a lot of the good little Mex places are.

                    1. re: allisonw

                      Hey allisonw, where may I find some of these joints? I love me some mexican food, and I always like to try new spots!

                      1. re: dylinw

                        If you must know (wink), my personal favorite is El Sabor on 153rd and Aurora.

                        We have so many good places now though, mostly in places like Lynnwood and Renton--you know, not in the high rent districts....

                        1. re: allisonw

                          Well 153rd and Aurora isn't too far from me, so thank you! I'm down in Ballard and go to Senor Moose probably far too often. Must mix it up!

                    2. re: PAO

                      Again with this "staples of the mexican kitchen" business? There are a lot of different types of mexican cuisine, and this is the one I'm looking for. My "mexican mom" is from Monterrey, and she certainly didn't use garlic in almost anything, except maybe, maybe salsa.
                      I'd have to say that my negative stereotype about the northwest is the overuse of garlic. It's like the only spice people tolerate well here.

                      1. re: dkcaudill

                        I didn't say they use garlic in everything. I said it was a staple. Flour is a staple in an American kitchen and that doesn't mean it's in everything. Oregano is a staple in an Italian kitchen, but it's not in everthing either. Garlic, like white onion, is often roasted in the skin on a comal in Mexico so that it has a warm full flavor, not the sharp flavor that is so prevalent in American garlic fries or garlic bread, neither of which I particularly enjoy.. Look at Diana Kennedy's or Rick Bayless's or Susanna Trilling's cookbooks. You will see garlic, not in everything, but often. And stop sterotyping native Northwesterners.

                        1. re: PAO

                          PAO - Most of Northwesterners seem to be Californian transplants anyway, so unless you (generally) are from around here you might not recognize the "born in the NW" natives... ("born in the NW" to distinguish us from the original NW natives, of course).

                          dk - It doesn't make much sense to move to the Olympic Peninsula then criticize the food selection. I'm sure you knew what you were getting into. Take the ferry across and hit a taco truck or two. Take the food and make a picnic out of it somewhere. I can't stomach the sit-down places anymore, either, since I started to pay attention to what I was putting in my mouth. There's got to be one or two good Mexican places that are in actual restaurants around here, but I just can't trust that I'm not going to get those bad beans and warm salad. (Those things actually do hold a place in my heart when I'm abroad, though).

                          Anyway, good luck.

                      2. re: PAO

                        I'll add here that "sour cream" is also a staple called crema Mexicana, as are many cheeses.

                    3. "guacamole made solely from avocado and water"

                      sounds like you could make this one at home. fry up some tortillas and you're set for cocktail hour.

                      1. funny, i just recently moved from nashville and couldn't find a decent sit-down mexican restaurant there - they were horrible, actually...and i lived on nolensville road!!! (if you're from nashville, you know what that means - it's practically all mexicans in that part of the city) i found the more "authentic" stuff were from the taco trucks/taqueria/food stand inside the carniceria market... and this is coming from a "born in the NW" native!

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: asiangirl

                          Authenticity is a really hard thing to assess in general. I'm just looking for the style I had in the eastern US. By the way, this style was what I had all up and down the east coast, Texas, the Gulf Coast, etc. As far north as Toronto and as far south as Orlando.
                          There are good taquerias here if you look, and I love them. What I was hoping was that someone might tell me that "oh the food you like is from xyz region" so I would know what to look for. By the way, lots of "Mexican" restaurants are owned and operated by people from all over Latin and south America.
                          Oh and if you are looking for what I am talking about, asiangirl, it was Las Palmas on Nolensville Rd. I know it's too late since you've moved, but they also had a few spectacular international markets on Nolensville. Ever go the the K&S?
                          I read an article a while back about the geography of supertaster prevalence. The northern European countries have the highest prevalence, and the Indian subcontinent had the lowest. And given the heritage of a lot of the peninsula, it makes perfect sense that they might, in general, prefer milder food.
                          And I love it here, I've had tons of great food. I work in a field that allows me to choose to live anywhere in the country, and this is where I chose. The local people are very nice, polite, weirdos.
                          It's just hard to lose that one style of mexican food, after eating it all the time for most of my life.

                          1. re: dkcaudill

                            Indeed, there are probably regional differences within the US as to what is "Mexican food."

                            1. re: dkcaudill

                              That supertaster theory is thoroughly fascinating...and would seem to explain the relatively insipid flavoring you tend to find in Indian, Mexcian and Thai restaurants in Seattle that cater to the white population. dk, can you give me a citation to the article you read?

                              1. re: dkcaudill

                                Mexico does have regional "authenticity" like everywhere else. I think what you're looking for is something that you are not going to find in any sort of restaurant. What you're referring to are specific home-style dishes to a certain family. I've cooked with many different Latinos ranging from Cuba to El Salvador to Veracruz. Some basic methods are the same, but everything changes from person to person. Your Mother learned her recipes from her mother and they are going to be different then Mexicans I know.

                                Best Solution: Call your Mom, ask her how she makes certain things. Cook it yourself.

                                There should be some sort of term to combine homesickness and longing for homestyle food.

                            2. My impression is that Mexican food in the Puget Sound has gone through several generations. The first was the Azteca - blanket of yellow cheese style. Then came the Guaymas taqueria ones (with mission style burritos, carne asada plates and whole fried tilapia). The latest are the taco trucks, including ones that have settled down into former taco-bell locations, such as El Sabor (adding items like birria and tortas). There have always been exceptions (Pollo Loco, Oaxaca etc), but these are the most widespread types.

                              1. Since it's been months and I've been to dozens more places, many that I've just walked in and turned right around out of, I've still found nothing.
                                Things got so bad I called my Mexican mother about it. She said I shouldn't have moved here, and that I will never, ever talk her into moving here and opening a restaurant. She says what she cooks is just called "Mexican" food, and that I need to come back home to Nashville because she's worried about me. I love that lady.
                                Looks like I'm going to baja fresh...

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: dkcaudill

                                  I'm sympathetic to a point, but you can do a lot better than Baja Fresh.

                                  FWIW, Barrio is like an anti-tacqueria and will probably appall you with its Belltown East atmosphere and trying-too-hard menu, but they have the made-to-order guac you're describing. Very good pozole rojo when I went as well, though at least one other poster here didn't like it when they went so I can't vouch for consistency.

                                  1. re: dkcaudill

                                    Sounds like Mommy wants you to come home! Every Mom regardless of ethnicity wants that for their child.

                                    In the meantime, embrace the cuisine of this region. Our fresh seafood is second to none. Our use of fresh, local produce stands up to any region of the country if not the world. Embrace the foods of the beautiful Pacific Northwest and enjoy. Also tell Mom to make and ship hundreds of fresh homemade tamales. I'll buy three dozen from you in a NY minute!

                                    1. re: firecracker

                                      There's a lady who sells hot tamales out of a ice cooler on a baby stroller in front of a carniceria in Everett. You can't get more authentic than that!

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        Yum! I used to buy three dozen tamales every holiday season from a fellow employee whose mother made them. They were terrific. His mom moved on in years and she no longer makes them. My loss!!!! (Which carniceria?)

                                        1. re: firecracker

                                          This was in the strip mall at the corner of Evergreen and Casino Rd, right next to a Mexican roasted chicken place. I don't know if she's a regular or not. We'd just eaten at the chicken place, and it wasn't entirely obvious what she was selling until I observed a couple of people buy from her.

                                          While White Center south of Seattle has been best known Mexican concentration, the hwy 99 corridor from Shoreline north has grown increasingly international over the past decade, with taco trucks, taquerias, carnicerias, vulcanisadores (tire repair shops), multi-ethnic produce stands, and mega-Asian groceries.

                                  2. If you are still around, El Puerco Lloron is the place to go.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: wallyz

                                      Funny, I've been going there for years and it was the first place I thought of when I saw this thread. El Puerco has the best tortillas (hand pressed for each order), homecooked beans, guacamole and delicious dishes around. It's cafeteria-style, lunch trays, folding tables and all, but offers the best Mexican food I've found in the NW. The same staff has been working there for the 20+ years I've been a customer, too. Can't beat that.

                                      -----
                                      El Puerco Lloron
                                      1501 Western Ave Ste 200, Seattle, WA 98101

                                      1. re: erinhowell

                                        I love this place too but it's pretty clear the OP is looking for a particular style of Mexican food that s cropped up in the southern US. He's not going to find fajita quesadillas, whatever those are, or guac made only of avocado+water, at El Puerco.

                                    2. Rancho Bravo Tacos in Wallingford, On 45th st right past dicks drive in. (yes its a taco truck but nothing can beat it)

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: Bento Beast

                                        ...except that they never, ever have any tamales left by the time I get there after work!! I had them once there, and they were outstanding. The rest of their food is great, but I can't help pining for the tamales. I may have to order some ahead to bring home.

                                        1. re: MsMaryMc

                                          Really? I feel like I remember getting their tamales once and being highly disappointed. I remember them being oddly oily, the corn part being mealy and the meat being dry.

                                          But this was in their early days, they may have improved over time. I'll check it out again.

                                          1. re: GreenYoshi

                                            They get their tamales delivered (and if I remember right - usually on Wednesdays?) by an outside contractor. This was the case when I asked about two years ago, but things might have changed. I don't know my Mexican food, but I love their tamales when I can get them.