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.

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

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

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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La Super Rica (Santa Barbara, CA)

A big reason we stopped here to have lunch was the praise that Julia Child heaped on La Super Rica, a taqueria on the outer edge of the Santa Barbara commercial district. It’s basically a stand on the corner of Milpas and N. Alphonse Streets, though the covered eating area makes it look bigger than it is. Long lines frequently form, so it’s best to arrive during off-peak hours. The menu is written on a blackboard which a newbie will study for a good while before deciding what to order. We did that and ordered The Super Rica Special (marinated pork with pasilla chile and cheese) and two kinds of tacos (pork adobado and chorizo).

The Super Rica Special suffered from an overload of cheese, sort of like American fast-food pizza. The pork flavor was fine and the chopped fresh pasilla chiles were interesting but the cheese glued everything together. It was an exercise in frustration to pry small pieces from the entreé without fighting long, stringy strands.

La Super Rica Special

La Super Rica Special

The tacos are served unadorned—the meat filling is simply piled on soft tortillas. The salsa bar lets you add whatever you want. Pork adobado tacos were greatly improved with the excellent (and spicy) pico de gallo.

Pork adobado taco

Pork adobado taco

The sausages in the chorizo tacos were very flavorful, but again salsa is required to give it extra dimension.

Chorizo taco

Chorizo taco

Overall, the experience at La Super Rica was above average. I have eaten at other taquerias in Southern California, especially in the LA area, that are better. Heck, even Taqueria Yungapeti in Walla Walla, WA, is a couple of rungs up the ladder.

La Super Rica
622 N Milpas St
Santa Barbara, CA 93103