COA, Great Mexican Dining in the Skagit Valley


Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

The Bard came to mind because the broth bubbled non-stop in a fiercely hot molcajete, like a fire underneath that didn’t extinguish until dinner was almost done. This wasn’t a witches’ brew but a tasty stew of grilled chicken, carne asada, shrimp, nopal, tomatoes, pico de gallo, pickled red onions and queso asadero (top image). The molcajete (the dish has assumed the name of the basalt vessel it’s served in) was sublime, the best I’ve eaten outside Orick (California). If there’s anything that’s a problem with superheated vessels, it’s that the proteins continue to cook and become tough. Even so, this molcajete was glorious, a riot of color, flavor and texture, but was more than two of us could finish.

It was clear that COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria aspires to be more than the run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant. The revelation started with lunch where pollo en molé was so good that we returned later for dinner to assess the molcajete. Always on the lookout for great molé, COA rewarded me with a sumptuous version spooned over chicken breast slices. A combination of many ingredients, molé poblano, if not Mexico’s most famous sauce, is surely the most complicated, typically consisting of twenty or so ingredients, including dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and chocolate. COA’s has over 30, evidence that the restaurant has serious aspirations. Making molé from scratch is rare, a great one even more so. Molé doesn’t appeal to everyone (my immediate family included) because its chocolate and fruit components seem more appropriate for dessert, but done right it rivals the world’s best sauces. What passes for molé at most restaurants is, in fact, too sweet, one-dimensional. It likely comes out of a jar. Beneath the understated sweetness and bitterness, COA’s had a savory foundation from rich stock, and complexity that defied description.

Pollo en molé

COA’s side dishes show nice touches, too. Instead of refried beans, whole dried pintos are stewed to perfect creaminess on the inside and accented with queso fresco. A mango pico de gallo tops a side of salad.

Then, there are the salsas. A flavorful mild one comes with freshly made tortilla chips (gratis), which are thicker than usual and served in a small bucket (refillable) rather than basket. If heat is more to your liking, be sure to ask for the spicier salsas. One is a creamy avocado salsa verde, the other made with nothing but ground dried red chiles and oil, both addictive and plenty hot.

Avocado salsa verde and red chile salsas

Billing itself as a tequileria is an indication that COA promotes serious tasting of Mexico’s national spirit. The lineup of blancos, añejos and reposados can be tasted neat, as flights or in cocktails. Mezcal makes an appearance, too. While enormous, their cadillac margarita was too sweet for my taste, the only letdown in an otherwise great dining experience.

Catching the end of a late tulip season in the Skagit Valley was the occasion for finding COA in La Conner. (There’s also one in nearby Mount Vernon.) Restaurants like this make me glad that dedication to quality is alive and well in small towns.

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
214 Maple Avenue
La Conner, WA 98257
(360) 466-0267

COA Mexican Eatery and Tequileria
102 S. 10th St
Mount Vernon, WA 98274
(360) 840-1938

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There’s Something Shrimpy About Fresno’s Don Pepe Taqueria


I had my doubts that I could find a shrimp dish to equal the ones from Fumi’s Shrimp Truck in Kahuku. Their shrimp is reason enough to trek out to the North Shore of Oahu. My favored combination of garlic, butter and sriracha (optional) sauce is a heaven-sent recipe.

That was before I found Don Pepe Taqueria, an institution in Fresno since 1995. You could order standard Mexican fare (tacos, burritos, tortas, quesadillas) but you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you passed on their specialty: shrimp. The location on N Blackstone has drawn so many loyal customers over the years that two more outlets opened to satisfy growing popularity. Pick any day of the week, any hour, and you’re likely to find the place packed. To be heard over the noise inside, you may have to shout out your order at the counter. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll feel rushed to decide when people line up behind you. If dining in, you might have to wait for a table to free up. But service is fast and you’ll be eating soon enough.

At the top of the seafood menu is Shrimp Botana, served ‘regular’ or spicy. A full dozen poached crustaceans, butterflied along the underside and in-shell, are piled on top of a cabbage-avocado-tomato slaw. There’s no way to eat these gracefully; it’s best to use your fingers. Besides, you’ll not want to waste time with decorum in getting these babies in your mouth.

I ordered mine spicy (top image). The shrimp were smothered in a glorious, bright reddish-orange hot sauce, reminding me in no small way of Fumi’s. The shells pulled off easily if messily. After polishing off the meat, I sucked on the shells to vacuum up every last drop of sauce, using a ton of napkins to wipe mouth and hands.

My wife’s Tostada Ceviche was unusual in the sense that the topping was a minced paste of raw fish, lime juice and cilantro, topped with two poached shrimp and avocado. Both fish and shrimp were very fresh. This too was an excellent dish.

I personally know of no other place that serves ice cold bottled beer with rim flecked with salt and plugged with shrimp and lime. A very nice touch.

Other ways to enjoy their shrimp are the tacos, burritos and shrimp cocktail.

I have relatives who live in Fresno. For you, Don Pepe is reason enough to stop.

Related post

Don Pepe Taqueria (original location)
4582 N Blackstone Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 224-1431

Don Pepe Taqueria
4950 N Woodrow Ave
Fresno, CA 93726
(559) 292-3188

Don Pepe Taqueria
7029 N Ingram Ave #108
Fresno, CA 93650
(559) 261-9744

Mom’s Tamales—L.A.’s Best?


Nestled against the hills of Lincoln Heights, my wife’s old stomping grounds, is Mom’s Tamales, considered one of the best tamalerias in Los Angeles. Recipe handed down from grandmother, to mother and and now to current owner, the tamales are so popular that any of the six on the menu may be unavailable at any time because customers may have depleted the day’s stock. Bulk purchases can be made by the dozen either steamed or unsteamed ($3 cheaper).

The business’ exterior is not much to look at, the front of a brick warehouse from all appearances except for the restaurant’s name painted high on the wall in Mexican tri-colors. Similar non-descript buildings are to the north, a dirt yard surrounded by chainlink fencing and an overgrown property hiding a crowing rooster to the south.

Inside, things are more cheery, floor-to-ceiling windows on the west wall, tables spread out over the telltale warehouse space and a mural on the north wall. Still, for all the windows, it was dim inside.

momstamales - 1

My brother-in-law and I arrived at 9:30am shortly after Mom’s opened. The breakfast menu looked interesting—machacachilaquileshuevos rancherosspinach and eggs and one of my favorites, chorizo con huevos. But, this place is known for tamales, so both he and I opted for the tamale combination, any two tamales paired with rice and beans. My choices were spinach and cheese and chicken molé. I had never come across the latter before; since I love molé sauce, I had to have one. Both fillings were very tasty, as was my brother-in-law’s cheese and jalapeno. But what distinguished these tamales was the extraordinary masa, more light and fluffy than I can ever recall having eaten. Are these the best tamales in L.A.? Could be.

Incidentally, Guy Fieri featured Mom’s in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives a few years ago.

Mom’s Tamales
3328 Pasadena Ave
Los Angeles CA
323.226.9383

Comida Reimagined: Greenbridge Cafe


I don’t usually go to White Center, a Seattle neighborhood, to get a bite to eat. That’s because the drive over there from the Eastside can charitably be described as convoluted. There is no easy freeway access, toward the tail end a series of twists and turns through a light industrial area before finally arriving at White Center. Fortunately, friends of ours were willing to drive. We went to have a late lunch at Greenbridge Cafe, located in what is currently a mixed-income neighborhood (called Greenbridge) of relatively new apartments and townhomes. The cafe oddly sits alone in the neighborhood with no other apparent shops or restaurants nearby.

At 2:30pm, we were the only patrons. I don’t know what the normal lunch and dinner patronage is like, but I get the feeling that the area doesn’t get a whole lot of foot traffic. The four of us ordered from both the brunch and regular menu.

greenbridge-cafe

Chorizo hash, from the brunch menu, typifies what the kitchen is aiming for, bistro-style dishes many of which use ingredients of Mexican cooking. Instead of corned or roast beef and bell peppers, chopped chorizo and roasted chiles combined with nicely browned homes fries for a very good south-of-the-border interpretation (☆☆☆½). These weren’t typical Mexican-style ground pork chorizos either, but chunks of roasted beef and pork with a lively chili powder and vinegar flavor. On top was an easy-over fried egg.

Chorizo hash

Chorizo hash

The remaining three entrées were ordered from the regular menu. Flatbreads here are shaped like rectangular planks, on the thicker side, more like pizza than, say, a cracker-like, unleavened bread. One is topped with grilled vegetables, another more Mediterranean in execution. The third, most interesting-sounding one, is called chicken poblano (☆☆☆). It was top-heavy but very flavorful with smoked bacon, jack cheese and poblano purée and drizzled with crema.

Chicken poblano

Chicken poblano

Instead of Cuban bread roll, telera bread holds the Cuban pork sandwich (☆☆☆) together. There was no Swiss cheese in an otherwise standard filling of ham, lightly smoked pork and dill pickles, mixed with a Dijon mustard aioli. The sandwich comes with soup-of-the-day, which happened to be a French onion (☆☆½).

Cuban pork sandwich

Cuban pork sandwich

Less successful were the enchiladas suizas (☆☆½), whose overly creamy sauce muted the tomatillo and chile flavors—more Swiss than Mexican. Still, a good sauce. Maybe a little more chicken filling would have helped, too, the enchiladas appearing flattened, seeming more like a happy hour order than a main plate. Furthermore, the chicken pieces were dry. But the whole dish didn’t lack for presentation—a slice of jack cheese jacketed the tortillas, drizzled with crema. A nice lettuce and strawberry salad came on the side.

Enchiladas Suizas

Enchiladas Suizas

The chocolate brownie (☆☆☆½) that I brought home was excellent, deeply chocolate-y. While I prefer my brownies to be dense than fudgey, as this was, this double-chocolate cookie was still darn good.

Kudos to chef Blanca Rodriguez for offering such upscale and tasty fare with great attention given to presentation and detail. There’s no lack of quality ingredients here. But, you have to wonder if the place can make a go of it when there are no other enterprises around to create a vibrant commercial core, a thought shared by our concerned friends who brought us here. Greenbridge Cafe, at the moment at least, seems like a place that needs a more supportive environment.

Greenbridge Cafe
9901 8th Ave SW
Seattle, WA 98106
(206) 762-3447
 

Burritos at La Azteca (E. Los Angeles, CA)


Prompted by a list that appeared on fivethirtyeight.com, my daughter and her fiancé decided to go on a burrito quest (with me in tow). And why not, since Southern California has one of the highest concentrations of the best burritos in America. One of the restaurants that made the list was La Azteca, which technically is not a restaurant at all, but a tortilleria. It also happens to be in the same neighborhood as Molés La Tia (reviewed here), within a block of each other on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles.

Even at 1:30 in the afternoon, the place was packed with customers, some eating at the skimpy few tables and counter space inside. Above the order counter printed on a blackboard is the menu, which reveals that La Azteca also sells tacos, quesadillas, tamales. And there are the tortillas, both flour and corn. But people come here for the burritos.

Along the west wall is a huge mural of an Aztec with a background of a masonry wall and portal and blue sky that continues through to the entire ceiling. To the right of the order counter are copies of food reviews. One of them, written by Michael Krikorian, journalist, novelist and occasional food critic, who writes primarily about Los Angeles crime, provocatively mentions La Azteca in the same breath as French Laundry and Alinea. It also happens to be L.A.’s highest rated burrito place on Yelp.

la azteca

All the burritos are wrapped in Azteca’s glorious, freshly made flour tortillas. There are no excessive fillers, as in Mission-style, only a thinly applied spread of refried beans and pico de gallo, plus the main ingredient.

Our party ordered three kinds of burritos: chile verde, carne asada and chile relleno. It took a good half hour, maybe even longer, to get them in hand, which apparently is typical on a busy day.

The carne asada was the least appealing of the three (☆☆). Tasty enough, it had shortcomings. The beef was hardly tender, probably overcooked. Because of that and the fact that they were cut in large slices, they had the annoying tendency to pull out whole with almost every bite. Worse, many pieces were gristly. La Azteca’s fame can’t possibly rest on this burrito.

The chile relleno can be had with or without asada, which I would recommend against (read above). The vegetarian burrito (☆☆½) consisted of a roasted poblano chile stuffed with white cheese, battered and fried, then wrapped in a flour tortilla. It didn’t generate any excitement among those who ate it, including diners back at the house for whom we ordered takeout, a clear disconnect between our circle and those who generally gave it high marks.

Chile relleno burrito

Chile relleno burrito (image posted on Yelp by Roopa S.)

Except for the superior tortilla, the burritos failed to impress. Our own hunt for the best continues.

La Azteca Tortilleria
4538 E Cesar E Chavez Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90022
323.262.5977

Back to Taqueria Los Temos (Salem, OR)


The drive down through Oregon wasn’t the downpour that I had braced myself for. By the time we got to Salem though, it was drizzling and there was enough pall in the sky to call it gloomy. The atmosphere completely changed when we walked into Los Temos, a return visit to an outstanding taqueria after a hiatus of over a year. Unlike last time, the restaurant was packed with families out for Sunday lunch. The back room, dark back in 2013, was now jammed with customers being entertained by a mariachi band. We would’ve joined the festivities but for the fact that every table was taken.

Los Temos lacks in ‘atmosphere,’ by which I mean what Americans have come to expect as a large, modern restaurant with an equally large menu of Tex-Mex food and a bar. It is, after all, a taqueria, and one that seems to cater to the large Mexican population in and around Salem. It would scarcely attract passersby looking for a place to eat, even more so because it’s surrounded by agricultural fields. The building seems little more than a project of DYI amateurs. Different shades of brown paint hide imperfections in the interior wall plaster. The parking lot gets muddy during rains.

los temos

It’s all about the food, especially birria de chivo (goat stew). Great food is impossible to keep a secret. We don’t see birria tacos in the States much, but when you eat the stew with tortillas, it’s a no-brainer to offer them that way. Goat’s flavor profile is closer to lamb, which may explain why birria is made with mutton as well. My birria combination plate (with rice and beans) had enough filling for a half dozen soft tacos, which meant that my wife needn’t have gotten her two tacos of birria and adobada, even if the latter itself was very good. A generous stack of freshly made corn tortillas arrived with my order. And, like before, the consommé from the birria pot was divine, as good as the best jus that comes with French dip sandwiches. You could spoon the broth over the goat meat, but served in a styrofoam cup, I much prefer to drink it straight.

(Top to bottom) Condiment bowl of onion, cilantro and lime; chile sauce; birria de chico consommé

(Top to bottom) Condiment bowl of onion, cilantro and lime; chile sauce; birria de chivo consommé

Combination plate of birria de chivo

Combination plate of birria de chivo

Update (11-28-15): The drive down from Seattle today was sporadically foggy with temperatures in the frosty 30s. The sky was a brilliant blue in Salem. Naturally, I had to have the birria tacos, which did not disappoint.

IMG_9831

What caught our attention this time around was a special that Los Temos was offering, possibly for the season but also just as likely a specialty that will be available from now on: a stew made with goat, called caldo de birria, that everyone else in the restaurant seemed to have ordered that would have been the perfect antidote to the cold weather. Next time.

Related post

Los Temos Taqueria
7000 Portland Rd NE
Salem, OR 97305
503.463.6822

Cinco de Mayo at Ricardo’s Torero (Bellevue, WA)


Cinco de Mayo “celebrations” in the U. S. have largely been co-opted from a national commemoration in Mexico to an excuse for Americans to get loaded with margaritas. And who among us Americans don’t like Mexican food? It wouldn’t surprise me much if Cinco de Mayo were promoted by restaurants here to increase patronage. Regardless, Americans love excuses to party.

Last year, we had lunch at El Tapatio in Bellevue, only to be disappointed that there didn’t seem to be anything specially prepared for the celebration.

Tonight, we decided to try Ricardo’s Torero in the Factoria area. An encouraging sign as we walked through the doors was a cinco de mayo special written on the blackboard, carnitas de res with the works. A lady was stationed at the tortilla machine that churned out flour tortillas, suggesting in my mind that we should opt for these instead of corn.

tortilla machine

I also noticed advertised throughout the dining room that “celebrations” had been going on for five days (since May 1), including a $5.25 house margarita. The complimentary chips and salsa were pretty good, thin and crisp fried tortilla chips and a tangy, mildly spicy tomato-based salsa. With the special margarita pricing, it wasn’t the time to order any with premium tequilas (and Ricardo’s does have a good selection) and special liqueurs. Both the blended and on-the-rocks margaritas were surprisingly good (☆☆☆), possibly the best of any house margarita we’ve had even if they were served in plastic cups. They were not cloyingly sweet as many made with pre-made mixes, and were bracing with limes, even as the nation is facing a lime shortage.

house margarita

The carnitas de res plate was enormous, which we predicted and therefore made sure to split. Slices of beef were sautéed with onions and bell peppers, served with rice and refried beans, a tasty slaw, equally tasty scoop of guacamole and four flour tortillas. The meat had good beef flavor, some of the slices a bit chewy and gristly, otherwise a good entrée (☆☆½). Puffy and gluten-y, the flour tortillas were really quite nice (☆☆☆), almost like a softer naan and equally thick.

Carnitas de Res

Carnitas de Res

fresh flour tortillas

We were pleasantly surprised by our experience here, a cut above the standard Mexican restaurant.

Ricardo’s Torero
4065 Factoria Blvd SE
Bellevue, WA 98006
425.643.5585