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!
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.
Here are some threads to get you started:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.