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

Cinco de Mayo at Tapatio Mexican Grill (Bellevue, WA)

After a throat-parching, warm day of hiking in the Cougar Mountain Regional Park, we headed straight to a Mexican restaurant for a late lunch. There were no Cinco de Mayo specials, except for a few drinks and snacks for happy hour, somewhat of a disappointment since many area Mexican restaurants were offering specials (off-menu) just for the celebration. There were certainly a lot of customers today. Whether typical for a Sunday or because it was May 5, I have no idea.

Our first order of business was margaritas. The house margarita (☆☆), likely made with a pre-mix, was $4 for happy hour, but the Cadillac version (☆☆½) was prepared from scratch with a premium tequila. Aside from being too sweet, the Cadillac was very nice and potent, served on the rocks, while the house was just sweet enough but watered down.

House and premium margaritas

House and Cadillac margaritas

The chips were crispy. The salsa, made from canned tomatoes, was spicy, tart and not too bad.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

Sunday’s special was carne asada (☆☆½). The beef was thin, nicely grilled, tasty, chewy. On the side came pico de gallo, well made Mexican rice and refried beans cooked with vegetable oil rather than lard. A tasty scoop of guacamole was also included.

Carne asada plate

Carne asada plate

I requested jalapeños—by which I meant the pickled kind—but I got these instead, beautifully grilled and delicious (☆☆☆). An open flame must tame the chile’s heat. Even my wife, whose stomach can’t tolerate spicy foods, ate one and loved it.

Grilled jalapeños

Grilled jalapeños

Chile verde (☆☆½) was cooked in tomatillo sauce, with a consistency and creaminess very much like suiza, with spinach, a uniquely prepared sauce that was quite flavorful. The dish was marred by pork pieces that were not very tender.

Childe verde plate

Childe verde plate

Besides being much too noisy, a complaint that I have with many restaurants, Tapatio prices are high. The entrées were $14.50 and $16.99. The portions were huge though, so we had to take almost half home.

Tapatio Mexican Grill
Loehmann’s Plaza
13720-C Factoria Blvd. SE
Bellevue, WA

Lunch at Taqueria El Rinconsito (Bellevue, WA)

Soft tacos are such a popular snack in Mexico that it was inevitable that they should make an appearance across the border. This has been a relatively recent phenomenon because the Mexican restaurants of yesteryear—at least the ones I frequented in Southern California—usually served tacos with crispy, fried shells and ground beef fillings. I have to wonder if ground beef fillings are common down south at all, if they have roots in ground-beef-anything so popular here in the U.S., promoted by the likes of Taco Bell, than something having originated in Mexico, which favors shredded beef instead. Certain fillings for tacos may never materialize here. Friends of mine who just returned from a trip to Mexico were ecstatic over shark tacos in Ensenada, while other friends couldn’t get enough lobster tacos near Cabo San Lucas. For the soft taco to be successful, freshly made corn tortillas are a must and that is what taquerias are making nowadays.

Taqueria El Rinconsito is a chain here in Washington state, currently at thirteen locations. The one here in Bellevue is tucked away in a strip mall far removed from the commercial core. Despite its isolation, there was a huge crowd of people at lunchtime, a scene also common in the Auburn location, according to my friend who lives there and had lunch with me today. Though their specialty is tacos, there are other things on the menu, not only familiars like burritos, enchiladas and flautas, but items you don’t find on many Mexican menus: tortas, gorditos, sopitos, mulitos, birria, menudo (on Saturdays only), seafood cocktails, and more. Visible behind the order counter was a big ball of masa from which the tortillas were being made.

And the nicest touch is that beverages that are gratis with many meals also include bottomless aguas frescas—five different kinds: tamarind, hibiscus, horchata, guava and (my personal favorite) canteloupe, all of them with a bit too much added sweetener. But, damn, are they refreshing!


Agua frescas (left to right: tamarind, horchata, hibiscus, guava and cantaloupe)

Most taquerias nowadays have a salsa/condiments bar. Rinconsito is no exception. Among the salsas I sampled, I was most impressed by a salsa roja made with smoked chiles, possibly chipotle.

Salsa bar

Salsa  and condiments bar

As this was my first time, I went straight for the tacos, their specialty, which you can order in quantities of three, four or five. Lest you think five are excessive, these are very small tacos. A taco plate gives you three tacos, rice and beans. You have your choice of five different meat fillings: asada, adobada, lengua (tongue), chicken and carnitas, the last two of which I split between three tacos. The chicken was chopped into small pieces and rather bland. Though not the best version I’ve had, the carnitas were tender and flavorful. Refried beans were authentically lardy, smooth, salty and the rice was perfectly cooked.

Chicken and carnitas tacos

Carnitas (left) and chicken taco plate

The prices here are very reasonable; you could even say cheap. It’s worth a repeat visit to try some of the other menu items, if for no other reason than to have the aguas frescas again.

Taqueria El Rinconsito
2255 140th Ave NE
Ste A
(between 24th St & State Route 520)
Bellevue, WA 98005

Taquitos at La Cocina del Puerco (Bellevue, WA)—CLOSED

In the sea of cookie-cutter Mexican restaurants in the Seattle area, one on the Eastside stands out for its great food and interior decor kitschiness. When you walk through La Cocina del Puerco‘s doors, it’s refreshing to be surrounded by piñatas hanging from the ceiling, the turquoise- and pink-painted walls, rickety metal card tables doubling as dining tables and sporting Superior beer logos, clunky folding chairs and other stuff hanging all along the walls. When you’re completely enveloped by this scenery and Mexican music playing on the audio system, you’d swear you were in Mexico. What’s doubly surprising is that this place, more like a cantina than a restaurant, thrives in Old Bellevue, an upscale neighborhood of high rises, concrete and steel buildings and yoga studios.

We’d been coming here for a long time. The menu lists many Mexican favorites, but we have long since settled on ordering one thing when we come here—the pork carnitas taquitos plate (item #1 on the menu). Continue reading

Dinner at Fiesta Mexican Restaurant (Kennewick, WA)

Camarones a la Plancha y Carne Asada

As I posted earlier, the large population of Mexican-Americans in eastern Washington naturally leads to the startup of quite a few Mexican restaurants. Driving through the main drag of small towns, such as Quincy, you can’t help but notice how many there are. All that competition should raise the overall quality. For dinner tonight, we asked the receptionist at our hotel (Baymont Inn & Suites in Kennewick) for dinner recommendations. One of them was Fiesta just a short distance away. We went there, even if we had Mexican food last night.

This is a large Mexican restaurant, well illuminated and less colorful than most, by which I mean the walls and ceilings are not painted in bright or earth tones, though the interior is not lacking in character. Toward the back is the salsa bar, with five separate kinds in large bowls, and behind it was an employee making tortillas on a large griddle. All of this, our waitress explained, was complimentary with meals. Other than “free” salsas which we you can get at many restaurants, this really means you can eat all the tortillas you want.

I’ll start with the beer. Continue reading

Lunch at La Carta de Oaxaca (Seattle, WA)

Halibut tacos

Whenever we visit our daughter in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, the subject of where to eat lunch often comes up. This is not a simple proposition. In most places, the decision might come down to the closest restaurant or a family favorite, usually involving driving there. In the case of Ballard, which has seen a restaurant renaissance lately, the choices are almost overwhelming. Since our daughter lives within blocks of the main commercial district, all we have to do is walk there, so distance is irrelevant.

On several occasions, the Mexican food choice has been La Carta de Oaxaca.

When La Carta opened in 2004, it could be said that Seattle’s Mexican restaurant scene shifted. Continue reading

Lunch at El Bruno’s (Cuba, NM)

Carne adovada plate

Carne adovada plate

Having just left Chaco, where the night before all we had to eat was freeze-dried food and this morning, coffee and nut bars, we were ready for some real food. Luckily for us, one of the legendary restaurants in New Mexico happened to be in Cuba, less than 2 hours away, and on the way to our next destination, Taos.

Cuba is a small town at the intersection of Hwys 126 and 550. El Bruno’s is almost at that junction. It has steadily gained quite a reputation for serving some of the best Mexican/Southwestern food in all of New Mexico. Success has been such that a branch has opened in Albuquerque, which no doubt pleases the restaurant’s fans who live there.

One of the most admired dishes at El Bruno is the carne adovada. I ordered it for lunch and it was great, just great (☆☆☆☆). Not only did it have a deep taste of dried red chiles but it also had the tang of lime juice. It was the first adovada on our trip. The Mexican rice was not as impressive, being on the mushy side.

Sopaipilla stuffed with beef and vegies

Sopaipilla stuffed with beef and vegies

A cold Modelo Especial in a salt-rimmed glass really hit the spot. The salsa (☆☆☆☆) served with the chips was extraordinary. It was thick, tomatoey and spicy, had great chile flavor. It was so good I purchased a jar of it on the way out.

Chips and salsa (and what a salsa!)

Chips and salsa (and what a salsa!)

El Bruno is a great restaurant in a small town. Outside seating has a lot of atmosphere and should be the dining spot of choice.

El Bruno
6453 Highway 550 Main St.
Cuba, NM 87013

Taqueria Yungapeti (Walla Walla, WA)

Carne asada tacos

It’s usually fruitful to ask the locals where to go for the best place to eat. A few years ago, a Hispanic clerk at the state liquor store pointed us to Taqueria Yungapeti up the street for a great place to find soft tacos. From outward appearances, the restaurant must have been a fast-food joint before, but a family purchased the property and converted it to a Mexican restaurant specializing in street foods: tacos, huaraches, etc.

You often wonder if the passage of time will improve your memory of foods you swore were a divine gift to the culinary world. On our return visit for lunch today, just one bite of the carne asada tacos (☆☆☆☆) proved once again to us that this place has the best soft tacos we’ve had anywhere. The corn tortillas are made on the premises and the fillings are nicely seasoned, adorned with fresh chopped cilantro and onions. The salsa bar ensures that you have a nice selection, from the mild tomatillo to a fiery roasted chile sauce. Usually at a taco bar, I’m pretty satisfied with a single serving of three tacos, but it’s hard not to order tacos with other fillings afterward. Hands down though, the carne asada are our favorite.

Beef and chorizo tacos

Taqueria Yungapeti
320 S 9th Ave
Walla Walla, WA 99362

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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!



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