Asada Burrito at El Maestro del Taco


For my money, the best soft tacos in Bellevue are served at El Maestro del Taco. La Cocina del Puerco served terrific ones too but the restaurant closed a few years ago. Cocina was a sit-down restaurant, while Maestro is a food truck that also sells tortas, cemitas, sopes, quesadillas and a carne asada plate (with rice and beans). It also sells burritos that can be ordered with any meat offered in a soft taco (lenguacabeza, beef cheeks, adobadaasada and carnitas). My favorite taco filling there is asada, which is the reason I got a burrito filled with the same thing.

I can say unequivocally that El Maestro del Taco’s burrito is in a league by itself.

Let’s start with the flour tortilla wrap. Unlike at most places where the ends of a gigantic tortilla are tucked in before the burrito is rolled, a single turn of an 8-inch one barely covers Maestro’s substantial filling, potentially a big mess if the filling pushed out at one end when the other is bitten into. Fortunately, the whole thing is swaddled in foil. The absence of the tucks eliminates excessive tortilla that can double, even triple upon itself otherwise. A small matter maybe, but one appreciated by me. Plus, the tortilla itself is thin yet stretchy enough not to tear, putting all the emphasis on the filling.

It starts with shredded iceberg lettuce for a pleasant crunch and generous slices of avocado for creaminess. Sliced pickled jalapeños add spiciness and zing. Rather than whole beans, Maestro uses savory refried beans that act as a glue to hold the rice together. The supremely flavorful asada is chopped and in generous quantity that there’s no mistaking it as the main ingredient, unlike other places (such as Casa D Taqueria) where the filling is mostly rice and beans, tasty as they may be. Also excellent is the tomatillo salsa that comes with the burrito. At $5, this classic burrito (☆☆☆☆), like everything else here, is a bargain.

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El Maestro del Taco
15615 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008

Tacos at El Maestro del Taco


I’ve driven past the corner of NE 8th and 156th Ave NE many times in the last year or so and couldn’t help but notice a new taco truck parked behind the 76 Station. The reviewers on Yelp, though small in number, were almost unanimous in their praise, a few of them even going so far as to admitting having pined away when the truck apparently disappeared for a few months last spring. To their delight, it has returned. Why I’ve never stopped to try it until now, I haven’t a clue. Maybe it’s because I was on my way somewhere, like shopping at the Crossroads mall across the street or going to the movies. But, today I was at the post office at lunch time and made a decision to stop at El Maestro del Taco, only a half block away.

Taco fillings include lengua, cabeza, beef cheeks, adobada, asada and carnitas. At $2 each, they’re quite a steal. Each one is sprinkled with minced onion and cilantro and sliced radish. A lime quarter is also included. Zestiest of them all, pork adobada revealed its red chile, herb, spice and vinegar marinade, one of the best versions I’ve had locally (☆☆☆½). The carnitas were braised in a hugely flavorful liquid. The taco had some of the simmered onions and intensely flavorful pork shreds still clinging onto its lardy drippings, my wife’s favorite of the three (☆☆☆½). For my money, the asada taco (☆☆☆☆) was my favorite, the best I’ve had in a very long time since the majestic ones at a Walla Walla Mexican restaurant (Taqueria Yungapeti). Not only were they richly seasoned and beefy in flavor, they were tender, a far cry from many a gristly example I’ve eaten. In fact, all the meats were tender and had no obvious imperfections.

Tacos (left to right: adobada, carnitas, asada)

Tacos (left to right: adobada, carnitas, asada)

Also appearing in my order was a grilled long green chile, I’m guessing a chilaca (pasilla), which packed so much heat that I couldn’t finish it. A small tub of tomatillo salsa was also included, stiffened with a good dose of spicy green chile.

The truck’s name might sound a bit like self-promotion and grandiloquence, but the results speak for themselves. This is the best taco truck I’ve found thus far in the Seattle area, though it’s certain there are other fine purveyors in the many parking lots of Seattle and surroundings. The fact that El Maestro is relatively close to me in Bellevue is all the incentive I need to be a frequent customer. I surely hope they don’t do a disappearing act anytime soon. And the price can’t be beat.

El Maestro del Taco
15615 NE 8th St
Bellevue, WA 98008

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Eating Solo in Ballard on Pooch Duty


While my daughter has gone out-of-town to celebrate her grandfather’s birthday, I volunteered to do the dog-sitting at her (and the dog’s) home. Though I like to cook, I don’t always do it for myself, less so when I’m away from home. As I’ve written before, my daughter lives in Ballard (a neighborhood of Seattle), a dining mecca where one doesn’t see a single franchise fast-food restaurant in the main commercial district roughly centered on Market St and Ballard Ave. My meals have been restricted to places within walking distance (except once). A lot less hassle.

I decided to consolidate my reviews into this one post because really I’ve ordered just single items from every menu. If I had thought of it earlier, I could have included Wednesday’s lunch at Pestle Rock here, too.

I’ll start off with dinner at Señor Moose on Wednesday night (Oct 30). Inspired by my wife’s order of pescado veracruzana at Black Cat Cantina in Portland recently, I ordered the same at this Ballard favorite, a Mexican restaurant that had apparently been serving molé even before La Carta de Oaxaca did, only a few blocks away. Señor Moose’s rockfish had previously been frozen, so it was not as moist and flaky as I would’ve liked. Still, it wasn’t bad. The sauce was made with the usual tomatoes, capers and green olives, but also a plethora of minced onions that diminished the sauce. Add to this that the tomatoes themselves were lackluster. I was not overly impressed (☆☆½).

For lunch on Thursday (Oct 31), I stopped at La Isla, supposedly the first Puerto Rican restaurant in Seattle. The lunch menu included one of their specialties, Puerto Rican pernil, a slow-roasted pork shoulder. A standard recipe calls for marinating the shoulder for a long time (La Isla does this over a period of days) in lots of garlic (sometimes a whole head), olive oil, black pepper, oregano (fresh or dried) and vinegar, though the server said the chef also uses a secret ingredient or two. To render it fork-tender, shoulder benefits from a slow roast over several hours, all the better if some fat is left on to baste the meat. La Isla surely must because their’s was unctuous. In the pernil bowl for lunch, it was shredded (like ropa vieja, which La Isla also serves) and piled on top of arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), stained orange from achiote and tomato sauce, overall a fine entrée (☆☆☆½). The tostones (☆☆) that came as a side was starchy and firm from green plantains. I’ve had better in Puerto Rico, but the mojito sauce (☆☆☆½) for the tostones was a killer, a mayonnaise of garlic, onion and citric acid (lemon, lime, orange or a combination), a garlic lover’s dream. I saved half the lunch for dinner later on.

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Pernil bowl with tostones and mojito

Instead of a smoothie that I made for myself on Thursday morning, I picked up a couple of pastries from Café Besalu right after it opened on Friday (Nov 1). The magnificent plum danish (which I reviewed before) I saved for later, but for breakfast, I savored onion and Gruyère pastry (☆☆☆½) which was up to their usual high standards. It crackled and let loose shards of puff pastry in my mouth, gluten-y in the center and tasted of savory Gruyère cheese, gently sweetened by the roasted onions.

Sweet onion and gruyère croissant

Onion and gruyère pastry

It was lunch at Kimchi House on Friday. The kalbi plate includes a big scoop of rice, salad and banchan. The salad of romaine lettuce and shredded carrots was dressed with a soy sauce vinaigrette, spiced up with just a little kochujang and dried chile peppers to add a distinctly Korean touch. Kalbi has an inherent problem. While unmistakably beefy in flavor (it is unapologetically fatty), pumped up by the garlicky teriyaki marinade, it can be resiliently chewy, which is one reason it is sliced thinly. Even so, without a knife (and the restaurant does not have any in the utensil tray or at the table), you have to eat them with chopsticks, which is what Koreans do. Some cooks have figured out a way to tenderize kalbi, but Kimchi House hasn’t or doesn’t bother. I had to ask for a knife. It was sure tasty though (☆☆½).

Kalbi plate

Kalbi plate

Across the street from the Ballard Locks on NW 54th St is Red Mill Totem House, the third Red Mill Burger restaurant to (re)open locally. This was the only time I got into my car. One of the old-time burger diners in Seattle, it was a destination for lunch on Saturday (Nov 2). Why is it called Red Mill Totem House and not Red Mill Burgers? A popular fish-and-chips restaurant called Totem House used to occupy this building until it closed in 2010 after a 65-year run. Red Mill thoughtfully was mindful of the past, incorporated the name, with a restored totem out front, and kept the fish-and-chips menu.

The Deluxe Cheeseburger is a quarter-pounder with American cheese, tomato, pickles and Mill sauce, sandwiched between a sesame bun, with a slice of red onion if requested (I did). This was a messy sandwich. Without the foiled wrapper folded over one half, the cheese and sauce would act as lubricants to send the fillings shooting out with the first bite. My ideal burger does not include any sort of sweet dressing (Mill Sauce is kind of like Thousand Island) because it literally masks the beef’s flavor. It’s even debatable if I really need lettuce, tomato and pickles, though it depends on their quality. The best burger, which Red Mill gets voted for annually by Seattle Weekly, should not equate to being the most adorned. All this said, the burger was pretty good (☆☆☆), the sesame bun being supportively soft and slightly doughy, though not sturdy. Rather than fries, I had Babe’s Onion Rings (☆☆½), about a half dozen thickly cut rings. The batter, cornmeal-based, was so super-crunchy and loud that I had to remove by hearing aids. Kidding aside, it was more to lessen the aural assault by loud piped-in music that really sends this message to customers: hurry up and eat and get out. I would gladly have sat outside on one of the picnic tables if it weren’t so windy and threatening to rain.

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe's onion rings

Deluxe cheeseburger with Babe’s onion rings

The lunch repast stayed with me longer than I wanted, so for dinner it was just a bowl of tai nam pho (eye-of-round steak and well-done flank) at Than Brothers (a previous review here), though for the first time ever, the noodles were too soft.

Tai nam pho

Tai nam pho

With the resetting of the clock back to standard time, my eyes opened on Sunday (Nov 3) morning an hour earlier. Other than Starbucks, the only other place I could find open for breakfast before 8am was Café Besalu. So, back I went for the second time in three days. My daughter raves about their almond croissant. I understand why. Made only on Sundays, the croissant is studded on the outside with sliced almonds. Inside is a generous filling of divine marzipan, intensely flavored and not too sweet. And, of course, there is the legendary croissant itself. This is a pastry worth going some distance for (☆☆☆☆).

I couldn’t resist getting the ham and Swiss cheese pastry (☆☆☆½) again, with the intention of eating it later. Yes, well, the road to personal hell is paved with good intentions. I swiftly polished it off with a double tall order of Besalu’s wonderful Americano (☆☆☆), which is a sight better than its drip coffee.

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Almond croissant, ham & Swiss cheese pastry

Ballard hosts one of the very few farmers markets in the Seattle area that are open year-round. Even as the summer produce has all but disappeared, at least the late fall and winter vegetables will still be around, not to mention the bakeries, dairies, meat and seafood stands, and food vendors. Among the latter is Los Chilangos that not only offers food at a number of farmers markets (including Issaquah, the closest one to me) but also operates a food truck in Bellevue. With their catering business, they are easily the most ambitious mobile Mexican food operation in the area. For a food stand, there is a good-sized menu, including three soft tacos that I decided to have for lunch. You can mix and match among four fillings: al pastor, chupa cabras, carnitas and carne asada, the first three of which I tried. Each taco is wrapped in the traditional two soft corn tortillas, with chopped onion and cilantro and choice of mild or spicy salsa with each filling. No, chupa cabras (chupacabras) is the not the flesh of the mythical goat-sucking cryptid of Latin and southern American legend, but rather a combination of chorizo and carne asada. The house-made chorizo (☆☆☆) is good, while the asada was gristly (☆☆½). Ditto for the al pastor (☆☆½), whose origin has an interesting historical origin (involving Lebanon), described on Los Chilangos’ website. The carnitas taco (☆☆☆) was my favorite, succulent shreds of tender pork.

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

Soft tacos: al pastor, carnitas, chupa cabras (L to R)

My brief stay in Ballard ended with having dinner with my daughter, whom I picked up from Sea-Tac, at Cafe Munir—speaking of Lebanese connections—which I will review in a future post.