A stenciled portrait of a serious-looking man adorns a wall of Jared and Noe Velazquez Ayala’s restaurant, El Catrin. The subject is their father, sporting a pencil-thin mustache, his eyebrows cocked, as if he were appraising the carnitas coming out of the kitchen.
What would the patriarch think of his sons’ food?
I surmise he would be quite pleased, as I was.
Opened in the fall, this counter-service restaurant offers a menu that can get you in and out for less than $15. The chalkboard lists various guisados, or stew meats, and other proteins – most of which can be served with rice and beans or as sandwiches. But these fillings are better when cradled in corn tortillas. El Catrin hawks 15 different tacos, and about a dozen of them grade out between “above average” to “exceptional.”
That’s a pretty good batting average.
These are exciting times in White Center, which has seen a surge of shiny new bars and bistros pop up in the last three years. Two gay bars have opened on the commercial strip — The Swallow and Lumber Yard Bar, along with neighbors such as Good Day Donuts, Biscuit Bitch, Future Primitive Brewing and, soon, the Unicorn bar.
El Catrin sits off the main drag at White Center Plaza, where a spray-painted memorial of a murder victim remains drawn next to the front door. The brothers didn’t have the heart to paint over it.
As business decisions go, that might not have been the best way to drum up customers. But these are some of the best tacos I’ve had in the past 12 months. That’s no surprise, given that younger brother Jared was formerly the chef at critically acclaimed Fonda La Catrina and El Sirenito in Georgetown.
With El Catrin (a nod to their father’s nickname), Noe and Jared reproduce family recipes from their upbringing in San Luis Potosí in central Mexico.
The carnitas, especially, is really something — juicy, caramelized chunks of fatty pork, their shriveled edges so crunchy they could pass as chicharrón. Just squeeze a few drops of lime over the top and let that crispy, porky saltiness linger in your mouth. For $10, you can get five of these tacos and leave very happy.
Around town, too many bland guisados lack that deep chili base. Not here. The pork chunks in the asado de puerco are fork-tender, accented with a piquant, smoky, raisin-y zing.
The brothers’ “street tacos” of griddled pork, beef or chicken arrive with that requisite smoky charred taste, fortified with mounds of raw white onions, tomatoes and bright cilantro to cut into the salty meat (and — if you wish — a squirt of hot sauce for a kick). They are best washed downed with a fermented pineapple tepache or any of the other sweet aguas frescas on the rotating roster.
Not every taco fared as well. The chorizo and the gamy lamb were too dry and lean. And the stubborn beef in the stew-y bistec ranchero was still gristly, as if that skirt steak leaped out of the simmering pot two hours too soon.
In this family-run business, the brothers man the griddle in the back. Abinadi, Jared’s gregarious, bilingual 24-year-old son, works the front, schmoozing with patrons who are sometimes glued to a Spanish telecast of futbol. Other times, he’s giving a Mexican street-food primer to newbies who come in from the rain.
But you can coax chef Jared out of the kitchen with two words: “tripas tacos.” That’s the house specialty, as Jared yelled out from the kitchen upon hearing my food order. It’s also a favorite of his late father.
Fifteen minutes later, Jared paraded out from the kitchen, presenting the plate like a ring bearer delivering the pillow. “This one is the king. It gets its own sauce,” he said, ladling on something that tasted like a cross between a ranchero and an enchilada sauce.
You likely don’t wanna hear this, but tripas is cow guts, boiled with garlic and bay leaves and then fried. These intestines were not as elastic as chitlins I’ve had in the South. They’re extra crunchy and pleasantly salty and herbaceous. I liked them. A lot.
“Good, right?,” Jared said, eyeing me as I wolfed the taco down in three bites. “I told you. That one is king.”
El Catrin: 9641 15th Ave. S.W., Seattle; 206-708-6341; facebook.com/Elcatrinmexicanfood; Open daily 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Highly recommended for the tacos, especially the carnitas, beef cheeks, asado de puerco and the tripas.
Reservations not accepted, though the dining room usually doesn’t get too busy.
Prices: Tacos range from $1.80 to $3.50; guisados or stew meat plate costs $13.99 and comes with rice, beans, salad and corn tortillas.
Noise level: Tranquil, though if there is a soccer game on television with a large gathering, it could get moderately loud.
Service: Order from the counter. No printed menu; food is listed on the wall on a chalkboard. Note: the family-run business often has one person who works as host and server and also handles takeout orders over the phone. So service may be slow sometimes.
Drinks: No alcohol; sodas and rotating roster of aguas frescas such as tepache
Access: No obstacles, two restrooms, accessible; no stairs