El Camión Adentro
What started out as a taco truck (and which still has multiple trucks in the wild) now has a permanent brick-and-mortar establishment known as El Camión Adentro, in the old Zesto’s across from Ballard High School. The tacos (fish and cochinita pibil—slow-roasted pork marinated in citrus and achiote—are especially good) and burritos (try the adobada) are the biggest draws, but branching out will serve you well. Crispy gorditas and cheesy mulitas (cheese, meat and avocado sandwiched between tortillas) are great alternatives to the standards. Expect a mix of high school kids, cheap-bite lovers drinking beer from bottles or on tap and families taking up the wooden booths and patio seats. To-go food grabbers are happy to spend their waiting time filling little containers with the many house-made hot sauces or playing Pac-Man or foosball. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 6416 15th Ave. NW; 206.784.5411; elcamionseattle.com
La Carta de Oaxaca
People have been raving about the Ballard Avenue restaurant for years, and for good reason: The menu is made up completely of dishes from the state of Oaxaca, and universal favorites include the sweet mole negro (in a tamale or as a plate served with house-made tortillas), quesadillas fritas, halibut tacos and entomatadas (tortillas folded in warm salsa and topped with thin pieces of steak). Share a few dishes while sipping margaritas made from La Carta’s decent mezcal and tequila selection. Families often take up the communal table, with couples tucked in wherever they can get a seat, but be warned that weekend nights are nuts. Lunch Tue.–Sat., dinner Mon.–Sat. 5431 Ballard Ave. NW; 206.782.8722; lacartadeoaxaca.com
Tex-Mex is the name of the game at Matador, the popular flagship of the Opper Melang restaurant group, which also branched out into Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen and Ballard Annex Oyster House in the past two years. While the Ballard locale is one of the smaller Matadors, the perfect Ballard Ave/Market Street location means it’s always hopping. The menu is reliable, walking the line between authentic preparations and crowd-pleasers (such as bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with goat cheese), but the twice-daily happy hour (4–6 p.m. and 10 p.m.–1 a.m. daily) is where it’s at. Insanely big nacho plates, excellent braised pork or carne asada tacos, and tons of other choices hover at about $5 a plate and are sizable enough to restore 20-somethings who finish their nights here. Lunch and dinner daily. 2221 NW Market St.; 206.297.2855; matadorseattle.com. Additional locations in Redmond, Tacoma and West Seattle, as well as in Oregon, Idaho and Colorado.
This nearly 10-year-old restaurant serves regulars the best breakfast in town. While it nails the standards (huevos rancheros, etc.), diners are advised to expand their horizons to the chorizo con papas y nopales (Mexican sausage cooked with potatoes and cactus), chilaquiles (tortilla chips in red or green salsa, topped with eggs, chicken, or steak or pork) and huevos ahogados (eggs poached in a smoky tomato sauce with strips of poblano chiles) for authentic and delicious starts to the day. At night, the camarones enchipotlados (shrimp in chipotle sauce), a half-dozen mole dishes and house-made chips with divine guacamole are the stars. Don’t miss the esquites appetizer (corn off the cob topped with Cotija cheese, chile de arbol, epazote and Mexican sour cream) or margarita ahumada (a smoky margarita with roasted-chile-infused tequila). Just trust us. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 5242 Leary Way; 206.784.5568; senormoose.com
Hungry for breakfast? Perfect, because the enchiladas de huevos, topped in a flavorful but mild tomato sauce, are the perfect way to wake up, and meat eaters shouldn’t be shy about adding chorizo—to everything. A cup of coffee and a pomegranate margarita are equally delicious, and should probably be consumed with every meal here. The equality-celebrating, gay-friendly vibe supports the feeling of community between staff and customers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 2414 Beacon Ave. S; 206.323.0953; Facebook, “Baja Bistro”
Beacon Hill residents fill this unassuming restaurant and bar for fresh, authentic standards and to find new favorites. They’d probably prefer to keep it to themselves, but with the light rail close by, pambazos (traditional sandwiches with unique fillings, such as mashed potatoes) and tortas this good won’t remain a secret much longer. The “gigantes” portions don’t mess around, but quality isn’t sacrificed for quantity. Crisp fried fish tacos are lauded, with apple bits adding zest and tartness. The nopales (cactus) salad with chicharrones (pork skins), enchiladas in cactus sauce (enchiladas picudas) and the mole plate are definite stars of the menu—especially adorable is the fried tortilla “boat” holding a side of flavorful refried beans. 3209 Beacon Ave. S; 206.329.2970; Facebook, “El Quetzal Bar Lounge”
Taqueria La Estacion
You can’t miss this neon yellow taqueria, situated in a former Taco Bell just off State Route 509 in Burien, which boasts some of the most authentic Mexican food in a Mex-rich area of Seattle(ish). All the meats are delicious, and can be tossed into a burrito, tacos, on some nachos or with the real star, a crispy huarache. The giant, thick handmade masa tortillas are stuffed with beans, meat (order the tinga de res, pork or chicken stewed in a chile sauce), lettuce and sauces, and should be topped with the spicy green salsa. Vegetarians are advised to try the stuffed nopal, if they know what’s good for them. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 14820 Ambaum Blvd. SW; 206.439.3944.
Taqueria El Rinconsito
On the weekends, this is where the crowds come hungry and leave satisfied for pennies. El Rinconsito serves some of the best menudo around, as well as a house specialty of caldo de res, a stew of beef, carrots, corn, potatoes, chayote and zucchini. Soup not your thing? Try the gorditas, mulitas or sopitas, and wash it all down with a giant vat of horchata (a cinnamony rice agua fresca) or Jamaica (hibiscus agua fresca). Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 15101 Ambaum Blvd. SW; 206.431.0663; elrinconsito.com
The incredible ceviche is not to be missed, but Barrio’s heavy (“Heavy” is also the name of the restaurant group that owns it, and Purple, most notably), dark wood and metal-rich interior is, hands down, one of the city’s best rooms to drink in. Groups tuck into round booths, while the bar is crowded with tequila lovers getting tips on the large selection. Excellently balanced drinks please with taste profiles from bitter to spicy, and we wouldn’t blame you if you forgot to eat altogether. Nightly taco specials add to the menu’s variety. Try tequila and mezcal for half off on Mondays, check out its extensive happy hour, and sample a michelada (it serves two types of this spicy beer concoction). Lunch and dinner daily. 1420 12th Ave.; 206.588.8105; barriorestaurant.com
The most beautiful Mexican restaurant in Seattle comes from the team behind sophisticated Bastille and youthful Von Trapp’s, who put as much effort into design as they did the lovely menu. Walls are pieced together with thousands of handmade tiles from Puebla, in the southeastern part of Mexico; lighting is low; and booths both small and large offer privacy for groups of all sizes. Poquitos dishes up sustainable meats and seafood with some of the best ceviches available, with special preparations rotating, depending on what’s fresh. Crispy chips, house-made green or red salsa and special guacamoles, such as the bacon and habañero, keep things exciting. The chiles relleno stuffed with pork, raisins and almonds, served with a chile sauce and crema, is unlike any other. At brunch, get the ahogada (drowned) torta topped with a fried egg and served with pickled veggies. Brunch Sat.–Sun., lunch Mon.–Fri. and dinner daily. 1000 E Pike St.; 206.453.4216; vivapoquitos.com
Mexican food lovers who want a little privacy and less of a scene on Capitol Hill will find solace in the unpretentious Fogón, with the bar separated from the restaurant to make drinkers and families equally comfortable. The solid happy-hour menu (3–6 p.m. and 9 p.m.–close) will help out lighter wallets with ceviche, tostadas and quesadillas fritas on the cheap. Margaritas served with the cocktail shaker on the side add a little thrill to the many-paged selection of tequila cocktails, while platillos fuertes like the arroz con pollo and the milanesa earn big thumbs up. Lunch and dinner daily. 600 E Pine St.; 206.320.7777; fogonseattle.com
Universally adored, tacos and mulitas both get rave reviews. Cactus tacos keep vegetarians and carnivores equally happy, and adobada tacos with grilled pineapple are full of deep, smoky flavors that come through the complimentary, house-made guacamole dollop that tops them. Can’t decide? Get the nopal asado (grilled cactus) topped with meat and “the works,” and your mouth will thank you later for making at least one good decision. Lunch and dinner daily. 219 Broadway Ave. E; 206.328.4447; Facebook, “Tacos Chukis”
The ladies behind Montana have done it again with a short and sweet menu for drinkers (“borracho” means drunk, after all) in this brand-new bar, which is green to the scene. For a fun play on what you’re used to, enjoy the frozen avocado margaritas, tachos (yep, Tater Tot nachos), flautas, spicy-sweet wings and house-made queso with poblano chiles or chorizo, served late, with a side of photo booth memories. Lunch Sat.–Sun., dinner daily. 21+ only. 209 Broadway E; 206.466.2434; nachoborrachoseattle.com
Photo: Chipotle mushroom torta with a side of sun at Little Water Cantina on Eastlake
Little Water Cantina
Classic Mexican dishes, local meats and inventive preparations meet at this Eastlake cantina, perfect for groups and sunny days spent overlooking the lake on the large patio. Freshly fried corn and flour tortilla chips get props, as do the smoked chicken enchiladas, anything that features seafood, and the lunchtime offerings, which are both affordable and flavorful. Try the chipotle mushroom torta and a cup of pozole. Lunch and dinner daily. 2865 Eastlake Ave. E; 206.397.4940; littlewatercantina.com
Fonda La Catrina
It’s impossible to pick just a few dishes to try at the slightly punk rock Catrina, but the servers are more than happy to offer their favorites. Dozens of tacos (try lengua or champiñones), tortas, tamales and enchiladas are all excellent. The chalkboard makes things even more difficult with specials you shouldn’t miss, including chiles rellenos with mole, made from scratch. Brunch brings families, hungover neighborhood residents and groups that want to split half the menu. Brunch Sat.–Sun., lunch Tue.–Sun., dinner Tue.–Sun. 5905 Airport Way S; 206.767.2787; fondalacatrina.com
Celebrating 19 years in business, Greenwood’s healthy Mexican restaurant has one of the most loyal followings in town. It skips the lard in its beans, keeps the stock out of its rice, and uses fresh produce to make all of its sauces, meaning preservatives are MIA. With nearly a dozen kinds of giant burritos for less than $10, it’s easy to fill up, no matter your budget. Bring your newborn baby to see if it’s bigger than the fajita-style grande wet burrito, the highlight of the menu. Our money is on the burrito, but the walls of the restaurant are covered with newborn versus grande burrito pics, and local artists are also encouraged to submit their work to decorate the walls. A small patio is recommended on warm days. Lunch and dinner daily. 213 N 85th St.; 206.706.9352; gorditosmexicanfood.com
One of Seattle’s best-kept secrets, the Greenwood restaurant, just down from Gainsbourg and Naked City Brewing, is hidden in the back of a Mexican market, with a lucky few diners snagging the tables in the small seating area. Menu offerings include the most overstuffed, flavorful carnitas and asada tacos in the city, various quesadillas on house-made tortillas and weekend specials. Try the menudo on Saturdays; the consommé, barbacoa (slow-roasted, shredded lamb) tacos and tacos dorados (fried, stuffed tacos) with crispy tortillas wrapped around spicy chiles and potatoes, on Sundays; and the avocado-studded green salsa on weekends. Open daily 9 a.m.–6 or 7 p.m. 8532 Greenwood Ave. N; 206.782.0533
The excellent butcher counter at this Mexican market boasts cuts of meat for your home cooking. But when you want a great lunch or dinner without the hassle, try the chiles rellenos and guisadas (stewed meats and veggies), served à la carte or with rice and beans, while seated in the new seating area: two short countertops with about eight stools. Grab a Jarritos soda out of the fridge, since beer is not available. The best deal is on weekends, when you can get consommé, menudo and barbacoa (lamb), or take home a family-size helping of carnitas, nopales salad, house-made tortillas, salsa, queso and crema salvadoreña (called the Super Combo Dominguero) for around $20. Open daily 8 a.m.–8:30 p.m. 7811 Aurora Ave. N; 206.245.1089; Facebook, “Mendoza’s Mercado”
Dark wood and low lighting give the restaurant an ambience appropriate for a sexy date night—and couples often fill the seats. A rotating fresh list adds variety to a menu full of modern twists on salad and meat dishes, a carne relleno and chicken mole. Special cocktails span the whole range, with some more traditional tequila drinks, and several others with spirits not often seen on a Mexican menu. Lunch and dinner Tue.–Sun. 148 Lake St. S; 425.952.6270; milagrocantina.com
Crispy-taco fans rejoice at the several locations of this cash-only taqueria, our favorite being the original, tucked away in the McGraw business district of Upper Queen Anne. The shredded chicken in freshly fried tacos (topped with lots of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese) is a favorite, as are the soft carne asada tacos, and chile relleno burritos or plates. There’s plenty of space to sit inside or out (on nicer days) and enjoy the generous portions from the combo plates (with pinto beans and Mexican rice), but those who order food to go will be just as satisfied with their dependable choices. No beer. Lunch and dinner daily. 620 W McGraw St.; 206.284.0304. Additional locations in Ballard and Green Lake.
At Queen Anne’s best Mexican restaurant, you really can’t go wrong with its authentic and interesting menu. The barbacoa de cabrito, a chile-marinated, slow-roasted goat, is the most satisfying dish, with the enmoladas a close second. But don’t miss the chayote con queso, as this is one of the only restaurants where you can find the deep-fried squash in an addictive red sauce. Tons of tequila and crowds waiting for seats at the chef’s counter mean it can get noisy, but it’s worth it. Lunch Wed.–Sat., dinner Mon.–Sat. 2123 Queen Anne Ave. N; 206.216.4446; mezcaleriaoaxaca.com. Second location on Capitol Hill.
Photo: El Borracho’s tacos—duck (left) and wild mushroom (right) with a plate of nachos
Pike Place Market
“The drunk” caters to lovers of cheap eats and strong drinks, with happy hour full of $1 tacos and $4 “El Cheapo” margaritas. Standards lovers should order the chicken and pork tacos, while those who want to step into a whole new world should try the rabbit tinga, duck carnitas and spiced lamb. The pineapple habañero margarita walks the sweet-spicy line perfectly. Lunch and dinner daily. 1521 First Ave.; 206.538.0440; elborrachoseattle.com. Additional location in Ballard.
South Lake Union
After-work drinks call for watermelon-cucumber margaritas (during the warmer months) served alongside beef brisket tacos and beautifully presented soups and tacos. Modern takes on seafood here are best highlighted in spicy ahi tacos and enchiladas stuffed with snapper, prawns and scallops, topped with rich, smoky salsa. The prickly pear Fruta cocktail pairs well with everything on the menu at the reliable restaurant, which is in high demand in every neighborhood (five so far) it pops up in. Lunch and dinner daily. 350 Terry Ave. N; 206.913.2250; cactusrestaurants.com
Muy Macho Mexican Grill
Giant burritos are standard at this neighborhood taqueria. The enormous avocado burrito gets big buzz, as does the sauce-covered wet burrito stuffed with tender, flavorful carnitas. With Muy Macho’s lovely tiled tables sometimes hard to come by, it may be better just to pack your football-size burrito into a bag and take it to go, but you’ll be rewarded with friendly service if you choose to wait. The carne asada and barbacoa plates are also delicious, and diners can watch the cooks prepare their dishes in the open kitchen while munching on chips and salsa—be sure to ask for the spicy salsa trio. Lunch and dinner daily. 8515 14th Ave. S; 206.763.3484; Facebook, “Muy Macho Mexican Grill”