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I Should Have Had the Ostrich at El Puerto

The downtown Edmonds restaurant offers a familiar line-up of Americanized Mexican plates. With one exception.

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday celebrated much more fervently in the United States than in Mexico. However, in a nod to the upcoming fiestas of May 5, I felt it somewhat fitting to visit a Mexican restaurant for this week’s review.

As Edmonds has only two establishments specializing in Mexican fare and —my options were pretty limited. Taco Time and Taco Bell were excluded from consideration, as characterizing their menu items as true Mexican fare is like describing Burger King’s offerings as pub food.

It was thus that I chose—or rather, defaulted to— in downtown Edmonds for my pre-Cinco de Mayo dinner.

Like Chinese food, Mexican restaurant cuisine sadly is often presented as a diluted, Americanized version of the original. Authentic Mexican food is the symphony of spice and earthiness that is a mole, the tang of fresh white cheeses like cotija and queso anejo, and the vibrance of fresh citrus on the palate. Unfortunately, El Puerto steers clear of authentic with its predictable menu and tired presentation.

Of course, complimentary chips and salsa started the meal. I added on a side of guacamole ($3.95) for good measure. The chips were chips, serving their purpose to convey a pleasingly spicy deep red salsa lush with pepper seeds. My dish of guacamole was fresh but overly salty, crying for a splash of lime juice to round out the flavor profile.

Although El Puerto makes an attempt to create a tropical atmosphere with colorful varnished parrot decorations dangling from the ceiling, oddly I found myself staring straight at a Eureka cordless vacuum cleaner hanging on the wall behind my booth. The waitstaff cheerfully called out “¡Hola! ¿Como está?” to arriving patrons, their greetings returned with varying levels of competence in the Spanish language.

El Puerto offers all the expected standards of an Americanized Mexican restaurant—several varieties of nachos, tostadas, and fajitas, plus entrée dishes featuring chicken, meat and shrimp. The bulk of their menu is devoted to combination platters. The small combinations are priced at $10.75, the large variety at $11.75, and super combos ring in at $15.10.

Of note is El Puerto’s one off-the-beaten path offering, ostrich fajitas ($16.15). I seriously considered ordering the dish, but given my total lack of experience in the ostrich genre, I felt I didn’t have the appropriate knowledge base to review the fajitas fairly.

Ultimately I went big rather than wild, and in moments my congenial server presented me with a mammoth platter bearing  my choice of meats in super combination #31: a ground beef burrito, a chicken enchilada, a picadillo chimichanga, and de rigueur rice and refried beans. An unctuous layer of cheddar blanketed the spread, making it difficult to discern where my enchilada ended and my burrito began. No traditional cheeses were to be found here, which is a true shame for the diner who has been conditioned to think that Mexican food must be encased in neon orange.

Digging beneath the cheeseblanket, I first sampled forkfuls of the beef burrito and its flour tortilla. I suppose that the dish offered sustenance, but this hardly made up for its lack of seasoning. The chicken enchilada fared somewhat better with flavorful dark meat wrapped in a corn tortilla, though aside from tortilla type, it was hard to determine how it really differed from the burrito in terms of construction.

Though I had been eager to try the picadillo filling of my chimichanga, the shreds of tender beef didn’t come close to delivering the tangy, sweet spiciness I had expected. Like the burrito, the chimi was food to fill one’s stomach, but hardly much to entertain the tongue. Sour cream helped.

Dry, flavorless red rice and bland, viscous refried beans were little more than plate filler. I’ve had so many forgettable versions of this duo, and El Puerto’s arroz y frijoles are just one more for the list. Add an unremarkable margarita ($5.25), and that essentially sums up my meal.

In the end I wished I’d gone with the ostrich. At least it would have been something more than ordinary.

Brian Soergel April 29, 2011 at 05:19 PM
You must have gone on a bad day. El Puerto is my favorite in Edmonds. I grew up in Southern California and can tell you where to go to get authentic Mexican. El Puerto is authentic!
Jennifer Cox April 30, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Brian, I appreciate your comment. As cheddar is an English cheese, I'm curious to hear more about how it plays into authentic Mexican cuisine. Where do you suggest that I go locally for examples of authentic Mexican food?
Dee April 30, 2011 at 03:00 AM
I'd have to say, I've always considered Seattle a more fish-fresh locale than Mexican-food crazy. Not too shocked. You know, my sister from Australia insists immediately for Mexican when she arrives for visits as they have none either and rely on fish as their popular staple. Either way, if I had to pick either cotija or cheddar, cotija would win every time.
Jack Fleming May 02, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Our favorite authentic Mexican restaurant (hold the glops of melted cheddar and canned refried beans!) used to be Tacos Guaymas on 196th in Lynnwood - but recently we found Taqueria La Raza (also on 196th) and it's our new favorite. Homemade corn tacos definitely fit the bill. Thanks for your reviews Jennifer!

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