Taqueria Tequila’s bright, informal atmosphere is a portent of good things to come. Rather than focus on heavily decorative elements or tucking away its imperfections behind dim lighting, this authentic Mexican café focuses on the taste of its many dishes. Those in search of true south-of-the-border flavor can turn directly to the menu’s soups – a posole, menudo or seafood caldo – or swing for a torta sandwich, featuring tongue or a spiced chorizo. Anyone raised on American interpretations of Mexican food will find plenty to enjoy as well; there are taquitos, fajitas, carne asada combo platters, homemade guacamole and cheesy chile rellenos aplenty. Wash it all down with a cocktail or a soothing horchata, or opt for the small selection of Mexican cervezas and margaritas.
Tropicos Breeze specializes in Salvadoran food, especially pupusas: thick corn tortillas stuffed with a combination of savory ingredients, including cheeses, meats, and jalapeños. As filling as they might be, pupusas are generally just one component of the meals served here. Diners can save tummy real estate for house specialties, such as tacos and tortas, and for baleadas, flour tortillas packed with beans, avocado, cream cheese, and eggs. And, instead of wriggling a crazy straw into the nearest fire hydrant, they can wash it all down with refreshing sips of horchata de morro and passionfruit juice.
Cocina Esperanza is a Mexican neighborhood bistro tucked into a decidedly non-Mexican package. The standard brick building that houses Esperanza sits on a residential block, and comes painted in warming orange tones. Nonetheless, this local favorite spot delivers classic comfort cuisine, from chile rellenos and enchiladas to queso fundito and a crab sincronizada. Sunset Hill daters and parents toting their kids will both feel at home at Cocina Esperanza, where housemade sangria and cold Mexican beer are plentiful, but not necessary for an evening’s enjoyment. Drinkers and those who abstain both dig into chips and housemade salsas, before deliberating between seafood specials or a delicious pork chuleta. Those who save room for dessert can celebrate with a delicious disk of orange-flecked flan.
The Santa Fe Café has been concocting its spicy stews since 1981, when two New Mexican brothers yearned for the sultry tastes of green and red chilies found back home. The resulting menu of peppery portions became a Seattle staple, serving up homemade posole and authentic Land of Enchantment dishes. Heat-hankering hungers will quiver before the chile relleno tart ($16.50), in which hot green chilies, mozzarella, and gruyere cheese are baked into a blue corn pastry with goat cheese custard, and the green chile burrito ($14/small, $16/large) awakens weary taste receptors to the joys of young love with shredded beef, onion, and tomato on a fresh tortilla topped with green chile and colby cheese. A drink like the Santa Fe Café style margarita ($7.50) will keep your gullet icy throughout your magma-inspired meal so you’re still able to taste a dessert of amaretto and orange flan ($6.25) nightcapped with a Santa Fe coffee (Herradura silver, Frangelico, and a touch of red chile topped with whipped cream; $9.50). The restaurant’s comfortable décor of green-and-white tiling and brightly painted wooden seats will make diners feel like they’re dining al fresco in Albuquerque while sparing them the comic misadventures that befall those who fail to take the left turn there.
When to Go: Twice-daily happy hour (4 p.m.–6 p.m. and 10 p.m.–1 a.m.) includes more than a dozen snacks for just $5.
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Tequila Cheat Sheet
Tequila is produced by fermenting and distilling blue agave plants and legally can only be made in certain Mexican regions. Read on to learn more about the five levels of tequila:
Blanco: This spirit's smooth, fresh taste—great for cocktails—captures the flavor and aroma of the blue agave and is bottled within two months of being distilled. It's also called "white" or "silver."
Joven abocado: Blanco tequila that's colored and flavored with caramel; the color gives it its other name, "gold."
Reposado: It's aged 2–12 months in oak barrels that turn it a light amber color. It's more mellow than blanco and is also often used in mixed drinks.
Añejo: This is aged one to three years in oak barrels, which gives it its dark color. It can be used in drinks or sipped like a cognac or whiskey.
Añejo Extra: This is the newest classification of tequila. It's aged in oak barrels for at least three years, which gives it a rich, smooth, sometimes smoky taste.
What to Drink: Though La Isla’s main draw is its 60-plus varieties of rum, they also excel with tropical cocktails such as piña coladas, daiquiris, margaritas. It’s also tough to resist $3 mojitos during the late-night happy hour.
When to Go: Swing by for the weekly Rum Club (Tuesday at 9 p.m. in Seattle, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Redmond). For $25, you get a flight of three or more exotic rums with food pairings. But no matter when you visit, the restaurant stays open until at least midnight—or until the mayor declares it’s bedtime for the whole town.
Where to Sit: If you’re at the Seattle location during the summer months, grab a spot on the dog-friendly patio. All well-behaved (and leashed) pups are welcome.
Sofrito: a Caribbean and Latin American sauce that blends roasted garlic, onions, cilantro, aji peppers, spices, and the Caribbean herb, recao. Sometimes tomatoes are included.
Caipirinha: a Brazilian cocktail made with the sugarcane-based spirit cachaca and lime juice.