My husband and I are typical restaurant patrons. If a restaurant’s good, we vote with our wallets … and if a restaurant’s bad, we vote with our feet. There are faaaaaaar too many good-to-excellent restaurants close nearby for us to go to a bad restaurant more than once …
… however, we also understand that–on occasion … and some occasions are more occasional than others … *chuckles*–restaurants change owners, menus, management, and–most especially–chefs. Any one of those changes can alter a restaurant experience rather substantially … or not at all. And note that I didn’t say change for the better … or change for the worse. Both can happen. It really just depends on the individual change … and the quality of the people involved in it.
We were riding around a few nights ago, trying to decide where to eat dinner. We both had doctor appointments late that afternoon–appointments that started at 5:15 that kept us there till about 7:15pm–so we had a rare opportunity: dinner at the same time most other people eat dinner … instead of our usual post-9pm dinnertime. That meant we had the chance to eat somewhere that usually closes before we we’re ready for food.
We decided to try a new Vietnamese place that recently opened nearby, so we hopped into the car, motored over … and discovered that the place closed at 7pm. Unfortunately, that’s pretty typical around here. Restaurants start closing early. By 9pm, more than 95% of Seattle restaurants are either closed or closing. It makes it tough to be a night owl in the PNW
Then we decided to go eat at our favorite Southern-cooking place. We knew they were open till 9pm … but as we pulled into the parking lot, they were black. We drove closer and realized they weren’t just closed for the evening … they were closed for good! Our dinner plans were foiled again … AND we were heartbroken about losing a favorite eating spot!
We were driving South on Aurora Avenue by this point, having that same discussion that I started at the first of this post: about how restaurants change. Suddenly, the very first Mexican restaurant we tried when we moved into this neighborhood appeared in front of us … like an omen. I turned to my husband and said, “Exactly … like, we tried Las Margaritas over there the first week we lived here … and we hated it. But was that because we’d just moved here from Austin … so we were spoiled rotten on excellent Mexican food? Or was it because they were just having a bad day? It’s been almost eight years … and they’re still there. I wonder if we should give them another try?”
We decided that was probably a good idea, and … besides … we were right in front of them by that point … and–with all that talk about food–we were getting hungry. According to their website, they have several locations, but–just for the sake of accuracy–we ate at their North Seattle location:
We got in and got settled with menus, and I noticed they were different right off the bat. The restaurant still mostly looked the same, but the menu was far more extensive than I remembered from eight years ago. And–BONUS POINTS!–they offered queso on the very first page! Two different varieties, in fact: a Queso Fundito, served with chunks of chorizo … and a plain old Cheese Dip version, too! That told me instantly that they’d at least changed the menu since the last time we were there … because–as I said–this was the first Mexican restaurant we ever tried in the area … yet, it took us almost five years to find a single restaurant in the Seattle area that offered that wonderful hot and melty Mexican cheese delight!
I make my own chorizo–and we love it–but the last couple of times I’ve eaten chorizo that someone else made, I’m sorry to say … it hasn’t agreed with me. It’s either been too hot … or too greasy … or too much of the combo of the two. Regardless, it was ugly for me … so we ordered the plain version of the queso to test drive, rather than the spicier Fundito.
Even plain, it looked good to us the moment it hit the table, very reminiscent of the great quesos we’ve eaten further south and east of here. Las Margaritas queso is white, but many of the quesos we ate in the Mexican restaurants in Texas were yellow cheese-based. What they don’t tell you is … many of them are made from (gasp!) American cheese. That’s really not surprising if you think about it. It’s fairly cheap, and it melts better than most other cheeses do. Many times, the white cheese version is made out of American cheese, too–just white American–but the best white quesos are made of asadero, chihuahua or oaxaca cheese: all different names for the same family of smooth-melting white Mexican cheeses.
Our Las Margaritas queso definitely looked and tasted like it was made of good Mexican cheese
Queso is not just melted cheese. It starts with a slurry of yummy things like chilies, garlic, onions, tomatoes, etc., cooked down together and then blended until smooth. You add in the cheese from there, and let it slowly melt together. Every queso chef has their own special blend of ingredients, and the one they make at Las Margaritas was tasty, too … with the cheese melted to perfection. The only problem is … they just put way, WAY too much garlic powder in it … and I mean WAY TOO MUCH GARLIC! It slapped you down the moment you tasted it, pretty much overpowering every other flavor in it. My husband loved it–he’s the garlic head in our family–but even he said it was a good thing that we were both eating it … else, one wouldn’t be able to stand the other’s breath
For my main course–on this cold, rainy, and frustrating day–I chose the Sopa de Albóndigas, described in the menu as “fresh minted pork meatballs and seasonal vegetables in a clear broth served with diced onions, cilantro and tortillas.”
I described it as delicious! They brought me some add-ons (in the little bowl to the right) so I took a taste to gauge the flavor, then tossed about half the chopped onions and cilantro in my soup, too … topping it off with all the brightness I could squeeze out of that wedge of lime. The soup was pretty tasty before, but–when all those flavors melded together–it was just absolutely wonderful! The minted meatballs were tender and really tasty, and they held up really well when paired with the root vegetables and cilantro-scented tomato broth. All the extras helped it hit almost every taste bud on my tongue, and it was so good that I even took the last half-cup of it home, just to have it for lunch the next day!
As we were scanning the menu, my husband found something at Las Margaritas that caught his eye, too … something he was really excited about! You see, we frequented a half-century old, family-run Mexican restaurant back when we lived in Austin … though, I’m not sure if frequented is the right way to describe a place where they know you by name … because you eat at more than once a week. The place was called El Gallo, and his favorite dish there was their Alambres: a seasoned kebab of beef chunks, bacon, peppers and onions. Well, right there on the Las Margaritas menu he found something similar: Mexican Kabobs, described as “pieces of skirt meat, green onions, pepper, bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, seasoned and broiled on a skewer.”
His kabobs were excellent, too! Plus, they took an interesting approach to the dish as well, layering roughly 1-by-1 inch squares of bell pepper and bacon with mushroom slices, chunks of green onions, tomatoes, and 1-by-1 inch squares of beef … with a twist. Most other places/people would use 1-by-1-by-1 inch cubes of beef in this situation, but these were 1-by-1 inch squares of thin-sliced beef, each slice roughly the same thickness as the peppers, between 1/8th and 1/4 inch. What that basically means is–when they’re cooked, and the Las Margaritas version is grilled over open flame–the bacon, beef and veggies all brown nicely around the edges, plus they cook more evenly through the middle than the thicker pieces of meat do. I addition–if you think about it–the ratio of ingredients is a little different in this version of kabob, too. You get more veggies along with your meat this way–especially more pepper and bacon–and the mixture was awesome!
Something else that was pretty awesome on his plate were those beans! You can always tell the excellent, home-cooking kinda Mexican places from the restaurant supply store-kinda, cookie-cutter Mexican restaurants: just taste their beans. The restaurant supply store Mexican restaurants serve refried beans out of a can. They may have been cooked by a grand old Mexican Mamacita somewhere … but she wasn’t in the kitchen of that restaurant, and all her good work tastes rather tinny after living in a can for a while. On the other hand, the excellent home-cooking Mexican restaurants serve beans they cook low and slow in their own kitchen every day or so, just like momma used to do! You can tell the difference between the two as well … both in taste and texture. Refried beans out of a can taste/feel like soft bean- and tin can-flavored paste in your mouth … whereas, refried beans that have been reconstituted from dry and then cooked fresh taste like actual beans: the texture is still soft, but the beans are also more fibrous, almost a bit gritty on the tongue. Las Margaritas beans were an excellent example of that second variety: flavorful and perfectly cooked, just like the rest of the meal.
Bonus points: I love the chairs in their dining room! Big and rough-hewn, each one’s festooned with brightly painted designs: pink flamingos and more. If I had the room at my own house, I’d have a table full of them, too
Honestly, the only things I can really ding Las Margaritas about–beyond the excess garlic in their queso, of course … which my husband enjoyed … but I didn’t–are their chips and salsa. Their standard Mexican restaurant starters were both pretty average all the way around: especially the salsa. It was one of those heavily-cooked, completely-blended sorts of salsas that just look more like dark tomato sauce than anything else. I know it probably contained other ingredients, too, but that fresh from the blender, then cooked till dark texture and color did nothing for the overall experience … and, honestly, neither did the flavor. After I dipped a couple of their very average chips in it, it was really easy to push both serving dishes aside aside and just save room for my meal.
Final score: we’re really impressed with how much Las Margaritas has improved since the last time we ate there. Overall, I’ll give them an A- for their comeback. Not only are they close to home, but they also wowed us with this meal! It was such a pleasant surprise, and we’re definitely looking forward to exploring more of their menu … soon!