I have lived in California, Oregon and Washington and, in each of those states, invariably someone has said to me, “There are no good Mexican restaurants” above some arbitrary line drawn in the ether. Some say the line ends in San Diego; others pick Los Angeles — some even get generous and claim San Francisco. But I know it’s a line based on personal preference, or the fact that food evokes such nostalgia within us that, sometimes, there’s no way that a new dish can ever top the way your mother makes something, or “that one you had this one time.”
But I’m just a girl, standing in front of readers asking you to set aside all your ideas and notions of your favorite taco in your favorite place and make room in your heart for Lorena’s Kitchen in Georgetown.
Yes, it’s about to be winter and there is no seating at Lorena’s. In fact, it’s tiny — as in, it’s just a window that glides open silently when you appear ready to order. The menu is on that window, along with signs warning you that it’s only cash and only to-go. Despite these small potential barriers, Lorena’s is a marvel. Like a duck paddling furiously underneath a calm lake, one would never guess food this good could come out of an unassuming window. There’s magic happening behind that window, I just know it.
The menu is brief; tacos, burritos, tamales, tostadas, quesadillas and popsicles. There’s nothing over $8 and it’s open every day, except Sunday, from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. or until she sells out — which happens occasionally.
There is a Lorena — Lorena Ziga, and she is originally from Oaxaca. I spoke with her husband, Eduardo Reyes, and he told me that when it comes to the menu at Lorena’s, the only “Americanized part is the yellow shredded cheese on the tostadas.”
There are vegetarian and even vegan options, but there aren’t any extras like chips or guacamole, which is fine because you don’t need it. In a pinch, you could order a dozen homemade tostadas for $6 and a side of salsa — but I repeat, you don’t need it.
What you need is a bean tostada ($4) like this one — where you can tell the beans were smashed that morning and didn’t come from a can, and the tortilla shell is unbelievably light and crispy. Ziga makes the tostada shell — and nearly everything else, from horchata and tamales, to seasoned, baked pumpkin seeds, to the chicken verde — fresh every morning. The only thing she doesn’t make, according to Reyes, is the tortillas for the tacos.
Making corn tortillas from scratch — meaning from dried corn that has been soaked with lime and not just a masa harina flour — is labor-intensive and time-consuming. “If she can’t do it that way and have them taste like they do at home, she wasn’t going to do it at all,” Reyes says. Instead, she sources them locally.
The bean tostada features a freshly fried tortilla topped with the perfect layer of refried black beans, a smattering of shredded iceberg, a couple slices of avocado, crema and a shower of shredded cheese. There is a perfect amount of toppings on it where the shell maintains that delicate crunch without getting soggy and you can actually pick it up and eat it almost like a giant, flat nacho without it winding up all over your face. Yes, it comes with a side of different salsas, but after one bite I forgot all about them. This blissful tostada experience also comes in a chicken version for the same price.
I legitimately have thought about this tostada multiple times over the past week. But wait, there’s more! I haven’t even told you about the tamales yet.
I went after the pork verde ($3) and the chicken en rioja ($4). Other options were a black bean veggie ($2.5) and a chicken verde ($3). I’m of the mind that while fillings are important when it comes to tamales, good masa is the foundation that separates something that’s “fine” from something that merits a James Beard award, much like Union Gap’s own Los Hernandez.
The masa at Lorena’s is wonderfully smooth and creamy, encapsulating tender pork with green chiles in one and fiery red chicken in the other. There’s none of the dryness or graininess that plagues tamales of lesser quality.
The tacos feature the same handmade corn tortillas as the tostada, albeit just before a deep fry, and aside from the $2 vegan option, the tacos are $2.50 each, for your choice of carne asada, pork, chicken or veggie. Each features a double tortilla and a hit of onion and cilantro. Cheese, sour cream or avocado can be added for 50 cents each.
“She learned all this by watching her mom; the recipes are traditions from her own family. They aren’t hard, but they are so good because of the love and the energy she puts into everything,” Reyes says.
I repeat, there is no invisible line drawn somewhere in California, a mythical Gandalf proclaiming “good” Mexican food cannot pass. And Lorena’s Kitchen isn’t the only place in Seattle or its surrounding neighborhoods where you can swoon over a tostada, but it might be the only one I’ll meet you at in the rain.
11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 6150-6198 12th Ave. S., Seattle; 206-519-2868