A self-described example of the American dream, Jose “Pepe" Ramos came to the United States and through hard work achieved great professional success. He left his home in central Mexico back in 1973, shortly after the death of his father, in search of financial support for his mothers and brothers. He didn’t speak any English, but within two years ascended from dishwasher to cook to chef and, finally, to restaurateur, opening a small 24-seat eatery, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, in Burien.
Some four decades later—with help from his three brothers and his mother, Camerina—Jose is now at the helm of a 35-restaurant franchise, with locations sprinkled from the Pacific Northwest to Florida. Decadent Mexican feasts—such as enchiladas verdes, shrimp fajitas, and carne asada—are the bread and butter of his success, thanks to Camerina’s family recipes. Yet, the Ramos family doesn’t hesitate to introduce new-to-the-family favorites either; for instance, they marinate and bake seasoned lamb shanks to create Borrego Azteca, and conjure bowls of molcajete from sautéed chicken and beef. Best of all, the Ramos relieve thirsty gullets with signature margaritas muddled together from housemade citrus juices and the sap of fresh-squeezed tequila trees.
At Casa Durango, chefs whip up a smorgasbord of Mexican eats, with a spread of tortas, tacos, salads, and burritos paired with frosty tropical cocktails and margaritas. Like a computer manual written by Stephen King, the menu is as lengthy as it is appetizing. It presents dozens of different steaks, enchiladas, seafood, and chicken dishes ladled with zesty sauces and complemented by sides of savory rice and beans. The dishes run the gamut from traditional, homey plates of marinated lamb shank and slow-simmered pork to group-pleasing dishes of nachos and taquitos. And when it comes to entertaining groups, the restaurant also hosts karaoke performances that lighten the mood on weekends.
The recipes at Chilitos Mexican Restaurant chart a trail from Guadalajara, Mexico, to chef Carlos Padilla’s kitchen. Chef Padilla infuses these recipes with 25 years of culinary experience, stuffing Anaheim chili peppers with cheese and dipping them in egg batter before topping their crisp shells in homemade sauce. Over the grill, the chef and his team flame-broil steaks and pork loin topped with a green sauce of tomatillos, peppers, and onions, while mixologists pour classic Sauza margaritas as well as strawberry- and banana-flavored cocktails at the bar. Once a month, a band of mariachis perform, serenading couples with romantic ballads and practical tips for joint-filing tax returns.
For more than a quarter century, the Arias family has served a menu of classic Mexican cuisine at El Farol Mexican Restaurant. Plates full of enchiladas, fajitas, and burritos add their own colors to a space where bold and bright oranges, greens, and blues are splashed across the walls. A spicy shrimp dish, camarones a la diabla, leads a list of more upscale dinner feasts, including sirloin steak infused with cayenne pepper, and burgers, chimichangas, and tacos head the lunch menu. Patrons can quench their thirst with the usual suspects, such as beer, Jarritos, horchata, or a fire hydrant.
At La Luna, chef Luis Castro transports tongues across the border with enchiladas, slow-roasted short ribs, and housemade mole sauce. Inside or on an outdoor patio, guests bite into burritos and grilled chicken garnished with locally sourced ingredients, served alongside glasses of agave-distilled spirits such as mescal and more than 60 types of tequila. La Luna's mixologists blend 100% agave tequila with fresh seasonal fruits, creating margaritas as powerful as a tractor outfitted with a jet engine.
Green Eating While the kitchen strives to use local and organic products and compost all food waste, the staff’s eco-conscious efforts don’t stop there. The restaurant boasts LEED Platinum certification, in part due to the materials used to construct the space. The bar is made from rough, recycled wood and cinder blocks, light fixtures are upcycled gramophone horns, and one entire wall is constructed from 800 tequila bottles foraged from restaurant dumpsters.
Manchamanteles: Spanish for tablecloth stainer, this is made from a mix of chiles, veggies, and meats, and is considered a classic Oaxacan mole.
Achiote: Spanish for annatto, this is extracted from the seeds of a shrub by the same name. It’s used as a spice or for its rich reddish color.
While You’re in the Neighborhood
Before: Gaze into the eyes of the Fremont Troll, who lives beneath the Aurora Bridge (3600 Troll Avenue N).
After: Watch boats depart from the hand-launch area at Fairview Park (2900 Fairview Avenue E).