Sampling El Chupacabra on Alki: A Californian's informed opinion

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Photo courtesy of El Chupacabra Alki
Photo courtesy of El Chupacabra Alki

Seattle is not in California. The weather makes that clear enough, even if the rolling hills of single-family homes in North Admiral and Alki would have us believe otherwise. The weather is somewhat less convincing of this fact during the summer, aside from the longer days and the shorter, colder nights.

But what defines California for me, a Californian, has less to do with weather and neighborhood; such qualities are significant but hardly limited to my hometown of Santa Cruz. West Seattle shares much with that city's West Side.

Indeed, what I miss most about California is the smell of Mexican food. It's everywhere. Whether you're in a small town or a big city, California has about as many taquerias as Japan does vending machines. Asking a Californian about their favorite Mexican restaurant prompts an account so nuanced and complex that it might as well be its own TED talk.

What I mean to say is that I know Mexican food, and I know taquerias. It's one of the few things in my life I can say with confidence. So when I approached El Chupacabra on Alki Beach, I knew I was encountering something else.

Taquerias back in California have a very particular set of qualities. First, they often have an open kitchen and a line to order at the register. If there's seating, you seat yourself after you get your number. If there isn't, you get your food to go. The portions are big (and bigger if you speak fluent Spanish), with humble presentation. And the food — if you find the right place, which isn't difficult — is hearty, rich, and well worth the price.

On the outside, El Chupacabra on Alki has the fortune of occupying a charming beachfront building that might have once been a duplex, given the stairs to a balcony overlooking Elliot Bay.

Inside, the first floor has a fully stocked bar and booths for seating. It was noon when I arrived and only a few people were dining or drinking, so I was told to sit wherever I wanted. The lighting, largely from round paper lamps with sugar-skull designs, was dim and red. Blurry art of stylized skeletons decorated the walls, and a sign made from the fragments of Guerrero state license plates read, "SAVE WATER, DRINK TEQUILA."

El Chupacabra's selection isn't purely Mexican food, though. It's Tex-Mex, which I am unfamiliar with, since Californians are forbidden by law from learning anything about Texas that isn't the Alamo, George W. Bush, or the existence of its capital city (Oslow or something, I can't remember).

Wikipedia tells me that Tex-Mex is basically Mexican food with a lot more cheese. I have a feeling there's more to it, but I ordered something I could give a more informed opinion about: tortilla chips with guacamole and salsa, three al pastor tacos, an horchata, and rice and beans on the side.

The chips weren't so fresh that they were warm, but they were crisp and not stale, which is what matters most in life. The guacamole was wonderful but unfortunately wasted on someone with a graze-as-you-go appetite; I wished, as it was placed before me, that I had brought a more voracious friend or two to help eat it. The salsa was good, if a little more liquid than solid, but I admit the guacamole overshadows it greatly in my mind.

The horchata came next. It wasn't as sweet as the stuff back in California, but it wasn't bland either; it might suit adults without sweet tooths a bit better. It came with an excess of crushed ice, and some cinnamon sprinkled on top, which wouldn't have made it into the mix without my stirring.

Photo courtesy of El Chupacabra Alki  

Then the tacos arrived, with a bizarre dressing I had never before witnessed. They were on a plate, as usual, but tortilla chips had been piled in between and on top of them — as if the larger mound of chips in the basket to my left weren't enough. I was puzzled. Was this a peace offering? Was the kitchen trying to get rid of any excess chips before they went stale in the evening? In addition, three chunks of lime were provided, as if there were one for each taco.

I was given a selection of three sauces on the side: a honey-based sauce, a salsa verde, and a third one spicy enough to offend my white-boy palate (as I am weak and didn't taste more than a smidgen, I don't remember its name). The honey sauce was the definition of mild, and I had to apply far more than a dribble to get a good amount of flavor from it. I have no complaints about the salsa verde.

Lime juice and sauces aside, for me, a good al pastor taco lets the meat speak for itself. It's meant to be tender, dripping, richer than life, and even richer for the presence of onions and cilantro. On that front I wasn't as impressed. The meat was fairly dry and less tender than I like, though it was certainly fresh. Maybe what they use there is too lean for what I was seeking.

Still, I finished the meal feeling full and satisfied. The refried beans and rice were a tasty supplement. I may not be the biggest fan of this al pastor taco, but I wouldn't be a Californian if I said that that was the be-all and end-all for El Chupacabra. Every taqueria has its best dish. I'll have to go there again to find out about theirs, and it's likely I will.