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, though I would’ve preferred a more succulent leg. A combination of many ingredients, molé, if not Mexico’s most famous sauce, is surely the most complicated, typically consisting of fifteen or so ingredients, including dried chiles, spices, nuts, seeds, dried fruits and sometimes chocolate. COA’s has over 30, evidence that the restaurant has serious aspirations. North of the border, making molé from scratch is rare, a great one even more so. Chocolate-based molé doesn’t appeal to everyone (my immediate family included) because 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

Molcajete at Cabrera’s (Pasadena, CA)


Maybe it’s because I’m noticing it more, but the Mexican entrée known as molcajete has been appearing on more menus. Aside from being a stone kitchen tool for grinding food products, it is also the name of a kind of preparation typically served in the bowl itself. I’ve said before, the best one I ever had was the first one, in the small town of Orick (La Hacienda), inconspicuously nestled in the redwood country of Northern California. The restaurant has since shuttered its doors forever, no doubt a victim of location and little traffic.

The procedure for making molcajete is to get the bowl, fashioned from volcanic basalt, really hot, into which is poured either salsa or broth (typically tomato-based). The superheated vessel will quickly get the liquid boiling. Slices of meats (beef and/or chicken) and sometimes shrimp are handsomely draped over the rim of the bowl. Grilled whole chile and sliced avocado also make an appearance, as might other vegetables.

It happens that molcajete is one of the specialties at Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine in Pasadena. My wife and I and three family members had dinner here, not by design but because our original choice, Kathleen’s, a half block away, was closed (Mondays). Cabrera’s has been doing business since 1985.

You can order molcajete here in three ways: with beef and chicken, shrimp only, or a combination of all three (my choice). It came to the table, not in a traditional molcajete vessel but a more polished stone one that retained its heat even after I was done eating and scooped the remainder of the generously sized entrée into a take-home container. Presentation was impressive. Slices of grilled steak and chicken draped the sides, nopal slices, shrimp tails and grilled guero chile poked up from the burbling broth, as were tongs and serving spoon. Despite being listed as an ingredient, no chorizo was to be found. Cabrera’s uses queso panela, a mozzarella-like cheese and equally mild, that held its shape nicely, a welcome relief from most cheeses that melt beyond recognition. The glory of this stew was the sauce, the finest I’ve tasted since La Hacienda’s, salsa-like with beef and shrimp flavors, spicy and garlicky. I’ve come to prefer this kind of sauce as opposed to tomatoey broths that are too acidic for my taste, though the version I had at Los Agaves in Santa Barbara was quite good. Even if I could eat this sauce all by itself, the dish was impaired by overcooked beef and shrimp, an otherwise very good example of what is possible with molcajete (☆☆½). Very fine rice and lardy refried beans were served on a separate dish, pico de gallo on the side. A “dry” version of this dish is another specialty, steak ranchero, grilled sirloin served with nopales, guera chile, grilled onions, all moistened with molcajete sauce, served with rice and beans.

Molcajete with beef, chicken and shrimp

Molcajete with beef, chicken and shrimp

On the other hand, my sister-in-law’s carnitas Michoacan was simply outstanding (☆☆☆☆), packing great pork and grill flavors. Cut into large chunks, no one complained after the first bite.

Carnitas Michoacan

Carnitas Michoacan

I was hoping that my wife would order shrimp and crab enchilada, but she decided on cocido, a beef soup with sliced corn on the cob, zucchini, carrots and cabbage. Beef chunks were very tender. The tame broth could have been improved by a beefier flavor (☆☆).

Cocido

Cocido

Cabrera’s Mexican Cuisine
655 N Lake Ave
Pasadena, CA 91101
626.795.0230

Lunch at Los Agaves (Santa Barbara, CA)


Every one of us can recall when one of our favorite restaurants closes its doors for good. It’s all the more upsetting when it was responsible for introducing you to a defining dish, one that stays in your memory long after you’ve had it, one that hasn’t been matched by any restaurant since. Such was the case with the molcajete made by a Mexican restaurant in a small town in the redwood country of Northern California. Sometime last year, La Hacienda shut down operations in Orick. I had been anticipating a return visit on this current road trip before a Yelper mentioned its demise.

Why this drawn-out lament? I discovered that Los Agaves in Santa Barbara claims molcajete as one of its specialties, in fact, the first item under Especialidads. So while I confirmed with my own eyes that La Hacienda was dark as I drove through Orick two days ago, I at least had Los Agaves to look forward to.

Only a block from the disappointing La Super Rica, Los Agaves is not a terribly big place though it does have an interesting layout with side rooms, tiled floor and paintings on the walls. The sense of being rushed to order was off-putting: as soon as you enter, you must study the paper menu and specials on the blackboard, then place your order at the counter. With only a couple of customers ahead of us, there wasn’t much time. I knew what I wanted but my wife felt pressured to make a decision, not a good way to start a dining experience. You’re given a number, then take a seat somewhere in the restaurant. Chips and salsa, water and silverware are brought to your table.

The molcajete (☆☆☆) here was served in a cast-iron bowl, surprising since images posted on Yelp showed them in the namesake lava rock vessels. A minor matter. Called Earth and Sea, the entrée had beef strips, chicken breast cut into little cubes, shrimp and fish with a single roasted yellow chile and a grilled onion stalk, topped with an artfully sliced avocado half. Tomato sauce thickened the tasty broth, spicy, herbal and savory. The house-made corn tortillas were exceptional. This molcajete holds its own against the better-made versions. My standard is still the one once served in Orick.

My wife’s Taquitos Dorados (☆☆☆½) were unlike most taquitos: their generous filling of shredded chicken required only a roll and a half of the corn tortilla before being fried to crispy perfection, sliced in half and laid on top of a salad of shredded iceberg, chopped tomatoes and guacamole. These were meaty taquitos.

Our good friends preceded us here back in April and raved about their Chiles Norteños, another specialty, roasted poblano chiles sliced in half and filled with shrimp, chipotle salsa and Oaxacan cheese.

The food was great here, but the dining experience left a lot to be desired. Apart from the aforementioned ordering experience, it was quite loud. Many customers were here on their lunch hour, which exacerbated the circus atmosphere, and the wait staff and busboys rushing around and aggressively rearranging furniture were not conducive to a relaxing meal.

Earth and Sea Molcajete

Taquitos Dorados

Clockwise from top left: salsa quemada, salsa habañera, chips salsa, salsa aguacate

Clockwise from top left: sliced pickled jalapeños, salsa chipotle, salsa tomatillo and pico de gallo

Dinner at El Rodeo (Moses Lake, WA)


Eastern Washington has many Mexican restaurants, even in the small towns of the Palouse. One could say that here they are as ubiquitous as pizza, hamburger and Chinese restaurants. After a day of driving over halfway across the state, hiking and marveling at Missoula Flood remnants, we wanted margaritas, so that meant Mexican food.

Yelpers seemed to like El Rodeo a lot, so we headed over there.

First off, the margaritas. Generously portioned, there are three kinds to choose from: regular, gold and platinum, distinguished from each other by the quality of the tequila. The platinum also has Grand Marnier in the mix, which the others don’t. I’ve gotten to appreciate margaritas on the rocks instead of blended, still my wife’s preference.

Margaritas

Margaritas

The menu is essentially Tex-Mex. But the chef’s specials are entirely seafood-based, incorporating shrimp, scallops, octopus, and scallops in various combinations. Also on the menu was a dish I really went head-over-heels over in Orick, molcajete. Continue reading

Molcajete at La Hacienda (Orick, CA) – CLOSED


Two different Hispanic locals gave us the same recommendation: a shop keeper in Arcata and an employee at a gas station in McKinleyville. The tip was that La Hacienda in Orick was the best place in the area to have Mexican food. As we drove through Orick, situated within the Redwood National Park boundary, at first we passed the restaurant, it not being particularly noticeable, but we found it when we turned back. What a revelation this place is because Orick is such a small town just south of Redwoods National Park, one that you might usually ignore and the last place you’d expect to find terrific Mexican food.

We started off with a nice basket of tortilla chips. Several kinds of salsa were available at the salsa bar, which I always appreciate for giving the diner choices.

Chips and salsa from the salsa bar

Chips and salsa from the salsa bar

And how could we turn down a margarita? And served in a classic margarita glass!

Margarita

Margarita

The entrée that appealed to me on the menu was one called Molcajete (pictured at the top), named after the stone mortar in which it’s served. This version was a stew of carne asada, bacon and shrimp in a salsa-based broth with sliced avocado and roasted chiles. I’d never had anything like it. The broth was complex, savory from the meats and seafood, piquant with divine roasted chile flavor and tart from limes. The molcajete vessel was large, so I was doubtful that I could finish it all. Not to worry. Suffice it to say that I long to have it again.

Update: The poor economy in Orick, which was affected by the closure of six sawmills, has forced the closure of La Hacienda. If any reader knows if and where the chef, who I believe is Erick Torres Montes, has opened another restaurant, please let me know. It’s a shame to lose a chef this talented to bad fortune.

La Hacienda (**CLOSED**)
121137 U.S. Highway 101
Orick, CA 95555
707.488.2520