I DON'T KNOW BEANS about cooking authentic Mexican food. Well, that's not entirely true. I live off a bastardized version of the burrito, composed of flour tortillas, salsa, and packages of pre-chopped chicken and veggies found in the refrigerated sections at QFC.
And I grew up in California—where burrito stands bloom on every corner, parents wean their children on cheese quesadillas, and my usually cautious mom and pop drive to gang-infested areas of Oakland in search of a highly acclaimed taco truck—so I do know good Mexican food when I taste it.
When I moved to Seattle, a city with the ethnic diversity of an IKEA catalogue, I quickly learned that decent Mexican joints are hard to find. But after months of jonesing for quality cuisine, I've found a few fertile spots this far north of the border. For once, Northwesterners' fear of foreigners wanting to colonize their land isn't far from the truth: I've prepared this guide for my fellow transplants, clueless locals, and potential perpetrators of Mexican cooking, with the hope that in Seattle, where it rains more than the gloomiest chapter of a Gabriel Garc???MᲱuez novel, the jalape�epper will one day rival the coffee bean.
The Autentico Debate
Holy mole! Is this authentic Mexican, Tex-Mex, or an American massacre? A discerning food critic might ask herself just that question as she scrutinizes her tostada. Use your tongue, not your brain, I say. Overanalysis can lead to indigestion, while your taste buds can lead to ecstasy. Besides, anything that enters America becomes Americanized: Think Antonio Banderas, Pok魯n, Downtown Julie Brown. Eating truly authentic Mexican food would mean traveling to Tijuana, gulping down a forkful of beef and salsa in a small corn tortilla, and then praying like an Aztec to the porcelain god after ingesting authentic Mexican tomatoes.
But for those of you who insist on finding Mazatlᮠin your own backyard, here's a description of what to keep an eye out for: an inconspicuous storefront tucked away in an alley or located next to a bleak-looking parking lot; a TV blaring the latest soccer results in Spanish; tables (if there are any) that barely offer elbow room between you and your neighbor; and restaurant workers who toil and sweat behind a cash register and a wall of steam. In return for the crowded, bustling atmosphere, you'll receive an inexpensive lunch that'll make your belly purr like a well-fed cat in Guadalajara. Two downtown restaurants that more or less fit this description are Panchitos (704 First, 343-9567) and El Puerco Lloron (1501 Western, 624-0541); enjoy, and remember, tips are bien recibidas.
Beware the White Rice
In criticizing America's corruption of Mexican food, a friend born and raised in Ensenada commented that our southern neighbors don't drown their meals in cheddar cheese, inject their burritos with rice (it belongs on the side), or, like Texans, accessorize with chili peppers. "If you say a plate comes 'with chili,' don't expect a bunch of Mexicans to come running," he told me. Other Americanizations include fajitas, sour cream, and, as my friend says, the "super-American" invention of nachos. OK, so Salma Hayek didn't sprout into the curvy sexpot that she is by eating nonfat fish tacos, but we can let a few tasty items slide.
Others we can't. To my horror, I once found a Seattle-born coworker dousing his bean burrito with ketchup. Along with Tabasco sauce, this hamburger lubricant is near the top of the list of items to avoid when dining in a Mexican restaurant. The most cardinal of sins, however, is white rice. I don't know which owner decided this blasphemy was forgivable, but I've been to at least three Seattle spots that served white instead of Spanish rice with their entr饳. Some thoughts for Proprietors X to ponder: Oceans divide Mexico and Asia; gray skies don't cause brown rice to go pale; and the Mexican police would lock you up faster than a pot-smoking American on spring break if you pulled that crap in their country. Other no-no's include uniformly shredded lettuce and high prices; restaurants worth your time shouldn't be using economy-sized bags of anything, and, as great as the exchange rate is in Mexico, your tab shouldn't exceed $10.
(Mexican cuisine connoisseurs: Skip this paragraph so I can maintain some morsel of dignity in your eyes, if I haven't already lost it.) I, like most everyone else, occasionally partake in Mexican "fast food"—OK, I confess, I'm a sucker for Taco Bell. Despite the chain's masquerading as real south-of-the-border fare and their manipulation of that poor Chihuahua, Mexican Pizza, chicken soft tacos, and a few packets of "fire sauce" can make my day. As for the second-rate competition, I've developed a suspicion that when smoothie-sellers go out of business they become Taco del Mar; instead of liquid fruit concoctions, they make liquid-filled burritos that squirt out of one end when you bite into the other. Concerning Taco Time, they're one of the priciest fast food joints I've ever visited, and serving tater tots alongside refried beans is as felonious as crimes involving ketchup and white rice.
Viva la Kitsch
Blame it on the missionaries for allowing grown men to adorn Virgin Mary statues with baby-blue robes and pink lipstick, but, as Almod� movies, Miami-filmed soap operas, and men in heels from here to Buenos Aires can attest, Latin culture, like Mexican restaurants, bleeds easily into kitsch. This is all very fascinating for students participating in a gender studies seminar on motherhood and machismo, but do you really need the off-key mariachi, the cartoonish sombrero, the bull pi�, or the Carmen Miranda-like se�ta doing the can-can during your dinner? Chances are, the restaurant's displaying its bright colors to compensate for the dull courses to come. Restaurants in other cities may be able to pull this off, but in Seattle, where people seem to be confusing Mexico City with Tokyo, these are red flags signaling a lousy restaurant.
The drag queen of restaurants, Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen (506 E Pine, 329-9978), is the exception to the rule. Rather than mask it as cultural authenticity, Bimbo's flaunts its kitsch as the low-brow comedy that it is, grass-thatched overhangings, tacky paintings, absurd origin story and all. With a waitstaff hipper than Richard Rodriguez used to be and potato-filled burritos that come in plain, tomato, or spinach-flavored tortillas, Bimbo's offers both a performance and a mouthwatering meal. She may not be the 100 percent real enchilada, but hey, at least she's trying.