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.
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.
Before diving into an entrée, Blue Water Taco Grill's regular menu lets you improve your ability to hold your breath under cheese with a heaping pile of nachos topped with cheese, beans, Pico de Gallo, sour cream, guacamole, fresh salsa, and veggies ($6.05), or meats such as chicken and beef ($7.30 each). From there, cast your mouth-net around a school of authentic fish tacos ($3.10) adorned with cabbage and lime tartar, or bomb your taste buds with a devastatingly delicious torpedo of prawn burrito (with rice, beans, Pico de Gallo, and fresh salsa; $7.30). For fusion-fueled humans, Blue Water's Taco salads, such as the shrimp and krab taco bowl ($7.30), fuel fusion-powered palates with a swirling vortex of beans, lettuce, Pico de Gallo, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, and fresh salsa, all harnessed inside a crispy tortilla chip bowl. Blue Water also whips up plenty of vegan options, such as the vegan-style fancy rice ($5.20) with Pico de Gallo, beans, cilantro, and salsa, plus a team of veggie choices. Breakfast is also served at select locations.
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.