A Love Letter To The Pacific Northwest’s Strip Mall Mexican Restaurants


Editor’s note: The author and I grew up in the same region of the country, going to the same sorts of restaurants. Bear with me if I cut in to add my two cents from time to time.

Over the last few years, region specific Mexican cuisines have started taking a strong hold on American food culture. You can find Baja taco trucks specializing in Baja norte or Baja sud cuisine; authentic gordita poblanos are slung from behind craft tequila bars in hipster neighborhoods; and people have developed serious opinions about al pastor vs. carnitas.

There was a time not so long ago that going out for “Mexican” in the United States meant hitting a hole-in-the-wall joint downtown, or a restaurant in the middle of a strip mall. There you’d find a pan-Mexican menu of beans, tacos, enchiladas, nachos, burritos, chimichangas, dirty rice, sour cream, American cheese, sweet margaritas, and endless baskets of warm tortilla chips.

Those restaurants feel dated now and have taken a lot of slack with the introduction of “real” Mexican food into the modern consciousness. ‘Tex Mex’ — as it’s often called — is left out of the conversation about good Mexican food in 2017.

But isn’t there room for both? I’m not going to argue that my nostalgia for the Mexican joints of my youth means you owe them your business. If people aren’t going, they aren’t going. This is about the idea that maybe we don’t need to swing the pendulum so far all the time. Maybe there’s still a time and a place for shredded beef tacos with refried beans on the side.

A while back, I bonded with our fearless editor, Steve Bramucci, over our shared love of the Mexican joints our parents took us to as kids. It’s hard to beat the excitement of walking in the door of one of those “cantinas” to see baskets of warm chips being rushed to each table. We spoke about the flour tortillas kept in heavy plastic warming dishes, the pinnacle of fine dining. After a few minutes of reminiscing about combo platters of enchiladas and soft and crunchy tacos slathered in sour cream and red sauce, we decided we to trace this food back.

It turns out, none of it is particularly inauthentic… just more generic. Steve and my home states of Oregon and Washington make up two of the five states with the most agricultural workers. Many of these workers are Mexican and naturally restaurants sprung up to satisfy their food tastes. But as Mexican food became integral to American restaurant landscape, the hole in the wall Mexican places that Steve and I grew up going to had to please both real Mexicans migrants and interlopers — it was a tough gig and required plenty of recognizable dishes on the menu.

[Most of which were made with flour tortillas, even when corn was the traditional choice. — ed]

Question answered. But since Steve and I are both in the food world, we carried on lamenting at the decline of the classic Pacific Northwest Mexican joint. What was wrong with it? In an era of rustic food, why had hearty dishes meant to satisfy famers fallen out of favor? Why were beans and rice coming as side orders being dismissed by Mexican food purists?