There’s a good reason why you start a Mexican meal with a shot of tequila and a bite of bracingly sour, salty lime. The two open your palate, preparing you for the subtle, delicate, complicated flavours that follow. Which brings me to a myth about Mexican food. This myth is that Mexican food means flabby flour tortillas and great big larded heaps of beans and rice and loads of cheese and two sauces: red and green. This could not be further from the truth. Mexican food – real Mexican food – is about slow cooking, refined flavours, and balance. Above all, balance. In fairness, I think that thanks to chefs like Rick Bayless and the prevalence and huge popularity of taco trucks lately, most people know this, or are learning it.
This is the story of Taco Monday, as it was told to me by my one of my favourite Seattle dining buddies. Matt Dillon (no, not that Matt Dillon), is a hot shit chef in Seattle (that’s a technical term) and Sitka and Spruce is his restaurant. Since I moved to London, Sitka and Spruce also moved, to a beautiful space in the Melrose Market on lower Capitol Hill where from all reports it still turns out thoughtful, precise slow food.
But Taco Monday is not Dillon’s night. In fact, Sitka and Spruce used to be closed Mondays, but one of Dillon’s chefs – from Mexico City, I think – persuaded him to let him run a Mexican pop-up, called The Suadero, “food of the ‘malafacha’” (literally, poorly dressed). More about the suadero later.
“Taco Monday” is a bit misleading, because what they’re serving up isn’t anything like what you’d get from a taco truck. This isn’t street food, and if you’re expecting street food prices, you might get sticker shock. But it’s beautiful, exciting food, masterfully prepared.
We were all famished, so after a bracing round of tequila shots we ordered queso fundido (spiced melted cheese with poblano chiles served with toasted tortillas and pico de gallo, $8) and every taco on the menu. (My apologies: most of my photos are terrible, so you’ll just have to trust me that these plates were gorgeous.) With our first taco, I realized that the meal was going to be stellar. Cochinita pibil is Yucatecan-style suckling pig, traditionally buried in a pit and slow-cooked. I ate it whenever I could in the Yucatan – and some places did it better than others. This was extraordinarily good – rich and tender, lingeringly sweet, with a tingly hot kick from the habanero. Campechano ($8) – salt-cured beef with chorizo, chicharron and smoked jalapeno – was an immensely complex, exciting dish. Piles of lean cured beef topped with a crumbling of cotija cheese got a fatty boost and smoky heat from the chorizo and smoked jalapeno, with the crispy chicharrons (pork crackling) adding crunch and texture. Both vegetarian tacos – potatoes with poblanos ($7) and nopales ($7, grilled cactus with avocado salso and cotija cheese) showed the same careful attention to flavour, balance, and spicing as the meat tacos, the bright flavours and heat at equipoise (yes, equipoise) with the dense taste of umami.
I was skeptical of the halibut ($10) and the carne asada ($10). How good could a fish taco and grilled steak be? Remarkably, surprisingly, astonishingly good, is the answer. The slightly charred grilled meat was rare, tender, and nicely seasoned, and the fish taco was bizarrely magnificent, a beautiful combination of succulent fresh delicately-fried halibut with a bright acidic pico de gallo and crunchy cabbage. Yes, classic, but not bog-standard.
But the dish that simultaneously made me want to cry and stab my friends’ greedy hands with a fork so I could eat it ALL was the dish for which the restaurant is named, the suadero ($9.50) – thin-cut tender brisket, milk-soaked and slowly braised until it literally melts on your tongue, topped with just a touch of chopped cilantro and a delicate salsa verde. It was the kind of dish that you tell your friends about later, the kind of dish that makes you come back to a restaurant.
So if you’re in Seattle on a Monday night, all I can say is RUN do not walk to Sitka and Spruce, and bring your auxiliary stomach and your favourite dining buddies, because Taco Monday, simply, is exceptional.
Sitka and Spruce Taco Mondays
1531 Melrose Avenue #6, Seattle 98122
Price per person: about $40-$50 per person, including drinks and tip
The verdict: Must try
Authentic Mexican cuisine is so much better than Don Pablos and Taco H*ll, I mean Bell. I’m so glad that chefs and cooks across the country (I’m in New Jersey) are not afraid to give us true, balanced flavors, not mystery meat smothered in chiles and cheese!
We have a local place that serves tripe tacos – and they are stellar!
Great post 🙂
Oh I ADORE tripe! Those sound fantastic! I miss Mexican food so much!
I love tripe too! Tripe-lovers solidarity now!
Fantastic descriptions! Thanks for including the vegetarian and fish dishes now I know I would find great food there too. Little did I know to start with a shot. Now I have a plan for eating Mexican food. Beautifully written post!
Thank you so much for this lovely comment Nina! The shot, I think, is essential. (But it’s entirely possible I’ve got a wee bit of self-interest underlying that statement.) Try for pure agave tequila. I agree about the vegetarian/seafood dishes — it always makes me happy when a restaurant prepares vegetarian food with the same attention and dedication they show their meat dishes. Taco Monday’s menu changes weekly or monthly, but there are some items that are always on the menu.
I’ve heard good things about Sitka and Spruce, but I’ve never been. I’ve never heard of their Taco Mondays. I’ll have to add this to my list for my visit to Seattle this summer. Here in Southern California, we have so many “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants with chefs that are cooking authentic dishes from their homeland. That’s what I love about the LA food scene.
I desperately need to come eat my way through LA. I haven’t been there for years. There is some excellent Mexican food in Seattle, too, but I’m sure that LA blows it out of the water.
Great post! I completely agree: Mexican food gets such a pounding from ignorant people! There is so much diversity in Mexico, and the complexity of the cuisine can rival France, Japan, China. It’s just that no one went around and codified it!
What really gets my goat? I can’t tell you how many of my European friends either wrinkle up their noses or refuse to go to a Mexican restaurant, declaring flatly that there is no good Mexican food.
I know exactly what you mean! I have friends in London who are just the same. It’s okay though: more for us!
I would buy a ticket to fly out just to be there on a Monday. What wonderful sounding food.
There are so many other reasons to visit Seattle, food-related and not food-related! I am glad I was able to convey what a magical meal this was.
I had Mexican for lunch today, and now I want MORE! Ugh! 🙂
I always want Mexican food!
haha, same here, truth be told!
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finally went last night- wow! my friend (who’s from the DF, so he knows his tacos) were both well into our third plate of the the suadero (as well as some cochinita), when we finally came up for air … yummy stuff! We seriously contemplated challenging his lifetime record (19 tacos), but decided this was neither the time nor the place for such antics. 🙂 Great post, Susan – so glad I found your blog- it’s beautiful –
Thanks Jan! Now you and Tom both subscribe. 🙂 When I am back in Seattle we should go for the suadero together. xx