Why People Say There’s No Good Mexican Food in Seattle

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard somebody say that there isn’t any good Mexican food in Seattle. Right? OK, everyone, you can put your hands down. Although Yelp lists around 240 Mexican restaurants in the city, somehow the consensus is supposed to be that none of them are any good. But that’s entirely wrong. There’s excellent Mexican food all across Seattle, and the people who think there isn’t might be basing their ideas on a false conception of what Mexican food is supposed to taste like.

The funny thing is that I’ve heard the same sentiment about Mexican food expressed in other places I’ve lived, like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Boston. Why might that be?

Seattle resident Michael Kostin proposed one answer in a recent discussion in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group, responding to a parallel suggestion that the city doesn’t have any good barbecue. “People aren’t really saying that there isn’t good barbecue in Seattle. What they are really saying is that there isn’t barbecue like they remember from wherever they think they had good barbecue,” Kostin said, adding that the same theory applies to Mexican food as well as to other international cuisines. “Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.”

For Mexican food, the issue gets even more complex when you consider how diverse the cuisine is, with seven distinct culinary regions. “There are a lot of different regions in Mexico, and they have different characters and different flavors,” Seattle resident Drue Chatfield pointed out in another Seattle Foodies thread, discussing Mexican restaurants. And so, the fish tacos you might remember from a trip to Baja won’t taste anything like the black mole you might have eaten over pork in Oaxaca, and a Mexican restaurant in Seattle might specialize in one style or the other – or in something else entirely.

Both of these explanations are magnified by the recent pattern of California residents moving into the Seattle area. From 2012 to 2016, almost twice as many people moved into King County from Los Angeles County as from any other county, according to a report in the Seattle Transit Blog. And six of the top 10 counties where people lived before moving to Seattle are in California.

That means that many Seattle newcomers have fresh memories of good Mexican food – which  there certainly is a lot of in southern California. Like anywhere else with a large Mexican population, a diversity of styles is represented in that region. But some people remembering the Mexican food they ate in L.A. might only be remembering their favorite taquerias, or the beloved burritos that were filled with guacamole.

Another reason some people might think there isn’t good Mexican food in Seattle is that it takes effort to seek it out. Around four percent of the city’s population identifies as Mexican, according to the 2010 census, but they’re not concentrated in a single area. And restaurants and food trucks that represent the best of Mexican cuisine are spread out across the city.

Also, if you just want to get your food close to home, you’re likely to find a good number of Mexican fast-food or fast-casual options nearby. Taco Time has nearly 70 locations in Western Washington, including seven in Seattle, while Azteca has 11 restaurants within a 50-mile radius of the city. Most people wouldn’t put either chain in their list of the best Mexican food in Seattle.

So, when you’re looking for good Mexican food in Seattle or in the surrounding area, where should you go? I’ll suggest a half-dozen of my favorite spots:

  • Tacos Chukis, now with four locations across the city, in Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, Beacon Hill, and the Central District, has spectacular (what else?) tacos, with my top choice being the house specialty that features adobada pork and grilled pineapple
  • When I’m craving an overstuffed burrito, typically with carne asada, I head to Rancho Bravo in Wallingford or Capitol Hill
  • As I wrote about a few weeks ago, my favorite taco truck in North Seattle is Loxicha, where I usually pick up a plate of tacos al pastor and a creamy horchata
  • For Oaxacan food, I like La Cocina Oaxaqueña in Capitol Hill, although others swear by La Carta de Oaxaca in Ballard
  • Luna Azul in Greenwood has fantastic fajitas, mole dishes, and salsas
  • In south Seattle, the “taco bus” Tacos El Asadero is a can’t-miss spot in Columbia City that seems like it’s been around forever

And, for good measure, here are another half-dozen highly regarded places that I haven’t yet had a chance to try:

  • Carmelo’s Tacos in Capitol Hill, with one stand located inside the Hillcrest Market and a permanent restaurant coming soon
  • El Taco Loco, which you can find inside the Ballard Liquor Store on Market Street
  • Asadero, a Mexican steakhouse in Ballard and Kent that offers taco takeout boxes including one with two pounds of wagyu beef, two dozen tortillas, pints of three different salsas, and accompaniments, all for under $50
  • Carnitas Michoacan in Beacon Hill, where I have my eye on the carnitas burrito and tacos made with fresh corn tortillas
  • El Quetzal, also in Beacon Hill, with an appealing menu of tortas
  • Birrieria Tijuana in Burien, where customers line up for cheesy beef tacos to dip in consomme

Sergio Juárez, a Seattle resident from Aguascalientes City in Mexico, concurs that there’s lots of tasty Mexican food across the city. “I can pretty much find anything truly Mexican and authentic I want,” Juárez said in a spirited thread in the Seattle Foodies Facebook group. “Don’t get the hate.”

Clearly, Seattle’s no different than most big cities across America. The Mexican food in Seattle might not be what you remember from where you used to live. But there are still tons of great options for you to seek out and enjoy.

Where are your favorite places to get Mexican food in Seattle and the surrounding area? Leave a comment and let me know!

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More from SeattleFoodHound:

What I Ate: Ceviche tostada at El Colera in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

Good Mexican food in Seattle might not remind you of what you ate in other places