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Paco’s Tacos

Fashionably nested between a barber shop and a paint store in Lacey’s strip-mall meadows is Paco’s Tacos. It might not be the most desirable location to visit — the ambiance takes a hit when your view is the rear of a Ford F-250 — but then, hole-in-the-walls often deliver the goods.

Paco’s, a purveyor of my latest obsession, the California-style burrito, is an example of the proverbial exception that proves the rule.

There is something sad about a bland the burrito. In your heart and mind, you have expectations for the San Diego incarnation. A mélange of all things good in life, the burrito should feature French fries in a harmonious dance with traditional Mexican flavors, each providing their distinct moves. Call it the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of burritos if you so like.

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Things did not go well at Paco’s. Soggy fries make the burrito instantly eligible for disqualification, and flavorless carne asada does little to help the situation. On the other hand, a decent guacamole did make its best effort to save the stumps. And give Paco’s this: You can take advantage of a very decent spice-bar. The salsas kick, and the pickled vegetables have the flavor and bite the burrito is missing. Utilize the bar, and the burrito becomes salvageable.

That, to me, is not enough. A burrito should exist on its terms, and performing salsa-based CPR makes for a moot experience. Assembling your own burrito is something to be done in the privacy of your own home.

Not every hole-in-the-wall delivers the goods, then, and Paco’s is a sad monument to that.

For a proper local California burrito, try Don Juan’s — they treat you right!

This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



Biscuit House

I’m a torn man.

I approached Biscuit House with the expectations of it being an entry in The Great Burrito Chase. My philosophy has always been, if it’s on the menu, it should be up to the standards of whatever cuisine they have specialized in, no matter if it’s something out of their comfort zone. Like the Biscuit House’s breakfast burrito. It is good, for sure, if not overly noteworthy. And that should be the end of it all. Yet…

There are too many things to like about this spot, even its location inside a Toyota dealership. That is admirable — who on earth opens a restaurant inside a car dealership? No longer are you greeted by a maître d’, but rather by three salesmen? (All of whom were very nice.) Madness!

No, this is one of the few times I found the need to get past a good, but not fantastic burrito. And by all means, if the mood strikes, you could do a lot worse. You get three eggs stuffed in a chipotle tortilla, with your token cheese and sausage, all very flavorful. The packaged sour cream and what I assume is La Victoria salsa pull the impression down. A good meal in itself, but quite possibly not worth the trek to a car dealership.

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It is all moot, though, as the biscuits are excellent. Sample a plain one, and you’ll find no need for gravy. The bite is good, and the flavor is pronounced. It’s something you’d want to take home and drape in any and all crazy toppings. Jam; ham; lamb; it’s all OK.

Yet, their signature dish, the Sunshine Pizza, is what it is about. The crust, as one would expect, is all biscuit; the sauce is all gravy. No surprises come with the sausage and ham toppings, nor the cheddar cheese. Where it all comes together, though, is the core of it all — two eggs, over easy, sitting right on top. The combination is delicious, and sure, I get how you might think this sounds like just another biscuit sandwich. It isn’t. It is so much more, and with each part prepared just so, you get a picture you want to get familiar with.

I don’t think it was downright wrong to go with the burrito — my points above still hold. If it’s on the menu, and you charge for it, the dish should be as good as any of your signatures. And the burrito isn’t bad. I don’t regret ordering it.

Luckily, our intern, who meticulously prepared the outing, did go with the recommended dish, and it has to be said: It’s the way to go.

Yes, it is bizarre walking into a car dealership for a meal, but whatever. When what you get is an excellent meal, then the indignity is more than worth it.



Gringo Maniac

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What drives a man to brave heavy rain and freezing temperatures? Love. Love for the tortilla. Love for the taco truck. And love for you, the fellow tortillaphile.

I also wanted to love Gringo Maniac — still do — but they aren’t making it easy.

There are a lot of things to respect about this taco truck at least. The menu truly is out there, with Thai satay tacos, Southwest Philly tacos, and egg foo yung burrito being just a few examples. The proprietor is friendly and gave good recommendations on which hot sauce — there are about fifteen to choose from — to use in my burrito.

So that is all good. This is clearly a shop run by tortillaphiles. Execution-wise, though, I can’t say the burrito did it for me.

I tried the tri-tip with garlic-butter rice which sounded like it could have some potential. You don’t see basmati rice in burritos too often after all. Maybe there’s a reason for that, at least if this was anything to go by. The rice was a mushy mess, with no trace of any garlic.

The preparation of the vegetables, too, left a little to be desired. There were multiple cilantro stems thrown in with the stuffing, which isn’t exactly pleasant to chew on. On a more positive note, the steak was tender and cut into proper sizes.

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The true nail in the coffin was the lack of flavors. This would have been pretty tame had I chosen not to go with a sauce. The purveyor’s recommendation was Porki, a very good sauce, but not something that should be the only flavor.

Adding insult to injury, the burrito wasn’t particularly well wrapped and proceeded to leak almost straight away. Oi.

But you know what? I’ll be back. I am hoping this was just an off-day. This is a place I want to love. The menu is inspiring and the service friendly enough for Gringo Maniac to deserve a second chance.


This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



Quality Burrito

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Longtime Tortillaphilia followers will fondly remember our maiden post, a review of Quality Burrito’s tacos. Exaltation was hoisted upon the QB, with superlatives like loving and respectful strewn throughout.

Then there is their eponymous burrito. We came in with high expectations, which for the most part were met. There were some disappointments, but none so dire that we can’t wholeheartedly recommend a solid burrito.

We tried Jezebel’s Big Soft Taco1, the pork edition. Eclectic as QB’s menu is, this is a fairly conventional entry, with pico de gallo, cotija cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and romaine. The latter is the outlier, and downright healthy as far as a burrito goes.

Sadly, it’s also its one downfall.

I certainly have no issues with romaine, be it in a burrito or otherwise. If anything, it’s a refreshingly fresh addition. No, the issue wasn’t the romaine itself, but rather there being too much of it. We’re talking about half of the fillings, and during certain bites, it was the dominant flavor. Take a gander back at the ingredients, and you’ll see how that is pretty impressive.

During other bites, everything was as it should. The pork was delicious; soft to the chew without being mushy. I’ll also stake my considerable reputation on QB having the best guacamole in the region. It was pungent, with a good kick of what I will assume was lime2. A balanced pico de gallo closed out the party in a fandango with the cotija.

These were top quality fillings, most prepared freshly in-house3. Had only some restraint been shown with the lettuce, this would have been a top-rated burrito. Close, and thorough as researchers we are, we’ll be back for another check soon.

1 Despite its name, it is a burrito.

2 You’d be shocked, shocked if you learned how many places use lemon. One day we might have an exposé on it.

3 I can only assume the sour cream was not, but feel free to correct us on Twitter.


This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



El Guanaco

Think tortilla and many incorrigibly think of Mexico as its country of origin. Hey, it’s an understandable misconception, prolific as that cuisine is, but the tortilla’s history started with the Aztecs, thus making it Mesoamerican.

The Salvadorian variety used with their pupusa is a Tortillaphilia favorite, and here in Olympia, Wash. you can find some very decent ones at El Guanaco. The downtown spot dishes up fourteen different variations, with fillings ranging from zucchini to crushed chicken. I sampled the latter, in addition to one stuffed with cheese and pork. The combination plate was rounded out with a pork tamale, because why would anyone not have a tamale when presented with the opportunity?

Served steaming hot, pupusas are pure comfort food. The tortillas are thick, though El Guanaco’s weren’t quite as fluffy as those I’ve had in Belize. That is unfortunate, though they were still within the margin of what a tortillaphile would consider common decency. Not too dense, in other words.

The fillings held up very well, and the chicken, in particular, had a good zing to it. The spice combination gave the palate just a tinge of chile-smoke.

A tamale can, in my experience, be either good or bad — rarely do you find anything in between.1 El Guanaco’s were firmly in the good category, with delicate masa and a spicy pork stuffing. In all its simplicity, few things are more satisfying than a good tamale, particularly when the rain or snow is pounding the ground as often is the case during the season we’re facing.

And a special shout-out to the beans. The lard-base will make it a non-starter for vegetarians, but omnivores will be treated to a perfect amount of salt in a good semi-soft consistency.

Would I walk through the aforementioned rain or snow to enjoy a good El Guanaco pupusa? Maybe not the snow, but I’d certainly brave the rain. El Guanaco is a good and affordable spot, and while they might not serve the best pupusa I’ve ever had, it is still of high quality, particularly when paired with a good tamale.

1 Although I suppose great, good, or bad would be more accurate.


This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



Don Juan’s Mexican Kitchen

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Here’s a tip you will want to keep to yourself: Don’t go to Don Juan’s new-ish Olympia location. Instead, make the pilgrimage to the original Tenino spot. It might not have the fun bar and quirky ambiance of its counterpart, but it also does not have a one hour wait. Calculate in travel time, and you’ll still be in and out of Tenino before you’re seated in Olympia.

What stays the same in both locations is the overall quality and professionalism. Many maintain Don Juan delivers the region’s best Mexican food, something I largely agree with. This is how a tortillaphile deserves to be treated.

Don Juan’s take on the California burrito — the focus of this dissertation — combines traditional flavors with a fairly unique twist on CaliMex. A burrito with French fries? Potatoes can be a staple in the California burrito, so I’m sure fries aren’t unheard of, but it’s an appreciated touch all the same, and not something you see every day.

The flavor profile works well, and the fries aren’t too soggy, even when snuggly wrapped in a blanket of beans. Flanked by rice and cheese, you get a clean base palate, with none of that unseemly mush we so often have thrust upon us.

It makes for a good foundation for the carne asada, but that can be irrelevant if the main attraction is bland and improperly prepared. That is not the case here. The meat is nicely charred with a good bite, and the flavors are — and I don’t care if this brings me to hyperbolic levels — exceptionally deep. Everything melds together in harmony, each note crystal clear by themselves, but angelic when brought together in crescendo.

This is why the Tenino tip is important. You don’t want to wait around to experience a burrito1 powered awakening. Put on your expedition pants, and venture to what could be Tortillaphilia’s regional temple. You just might end up becoming a Tenino convert

1 FYI — on the happy hour menu, though every other item holds the same quality.



El Sarape

El Sarape is a place you don’t want to find yourself, but you repeatedly will. That’s life, what with the number of its ilk around the world. You know the type, where the menu is the size of a book, proudly proclaiming suspect dishes like the Mexican pizza. I’m not saying there is no such a thing as a good Mexican pizza; I just have never had it, and I’m fairly certain I never will.

It’s not a book to inspire much excitement either, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you end up at the ever prevalent burrito section, where maybe, just maybe, you‘ll find something to at least soothe the most basic of your cravings.

And the carne asada burrito might not have been wholeheartedly horrible, as much as it was offensively average. The same type you get at any of these generic Mexican restaurants.1 I’m not expecting every burrito to jump up and dance the foxtrot in my mouth or anything, but come on… A bland tortilla wrapped around flavorless carne asada… Would it take that much to do something a little biy different? Kick up the guacamole a notch? Add something, remove something? Something, anything to differentiate yourself?

The problem isn’t you, of course. Or maybe it is. Maybe tortillaphiles have ourselves to blame, with our impossibly high tortilla standards? There aren’t enough of us out there, and thus the purveyors of Mexican food cater only to the proletariat.

El Sarape is another dull face in the crowd, a concept our friends at Arrested Development many times have touched on.

1 And there are many of them.


This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



Fish Tale Brewpub

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Our visits to Fish Tale have kind of accumulated to a roller coaster ride: some decent ups; baffling Applebee-quality downs; loops. At least we‘ve escaped any subsequent nausea.

Where on the ride are we today? I don‘t think anyone would mistake Fish Tale for a gourmet destination, but that‘s not to say it doesn‘t have its place. Among its ilk it‘s right up there1, though one could probably argue the merits of said ilk. I am not averse to keeping the spot in the rotation for the most part, albeit as something more of a semi-regular destination.

There are things Fish Tale truly gets right. The service, for example. It is consistently fast and friendly, and the servers are knowledgeable about the menus. Low of a denominator as it might sound, it is not something to be taken for granted.

The locale has a nice vibe. It‘s unpretentious and it‘s well laid out, feeling very much like the after-work happy hour spot it is. And the beer? I wouldn‘t rank Fish as one of my favorite breweries, but they‘re at least pretty solid. Their seasonals tend to be good, and you‘ll do better here than you would at McMenamins. Plus, they have Spire on tap for those who prefer cider.

Which leaves the food, best described as… generic. After a recent downswing, that‘s a change for the better, and if this brewpub is more of a laid-back happy hour spot, then passable can be good enough. You‘re not really here for the food (I would think); that‘s more of a bonus.

The rockfish po’ boy I tried during our visit was for the most part fine. I mean, the fish could have stood being quite a bit less salty. It completely outflanked the remoulade which only function was to add calories. The pickled shallots made a decent effort to restore some sort of balance, and the bread wasn‘t too bad either — it managed to hold its contents without getting soggy.

As a meal there really isn‘t much more to say about it. It was fine as far as being something to nosh on with a beer, but not exactly something you‘d travel from New Orleans to sample.

A destination spot Fish Tale is not, then, but I really can‘t fault it for being a local stand-by. You won‘t have much of a memorable meal here, but the potential for a good conversation in a good space is definitely there.

And isn‘t that what it‘s all about?2

1 Not that Three Magnets generally holds a lot higher standard, spotty service aside.

2 I could argue that it‘s not.



Rush In Dumplings

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Rush In Dumplings. Russian dumplings. Get it?

Awesomely ridiculous moniker aside…

Rush In Dumplings truly does live up to its name. You might not consider dumplings1 particularly take-out friendly, but they really are a quick, viable option to your standard Mexican or Thai fare. I can’t say for a fact that Putin grabs some on his way home in the motherland, but I like to imagine he does.

As for the dumplings themselves, they are what they should be: simple and hearty. You pick your filling—beef, potato, or a combo of the two—and then the style in which they’re served. The «Siberian classic» comes in a nice Sriracha vinegar, topped with cilantro and butter, and sour cream to mix in. Nothing earth shatteringly complex (nor should it be), but certainly a good combination of flavors.

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The dumplings themselves had a proper bite, and were not mushy at all. No sogginess to be found, even when dunked in the semi-spicy vinegar. The accompanying rye bread was good for soaking, too.

Somewhat surprisingly, the potato filling had a bit more of an oomph than the beef, so go the vegetarian route if you’re in the mood for something spicier. Plus, you can always add your own Sriracha2.

Rush In Dumplings might not be haute cuisine, and that’s a good thing. I don’t think we really need artisan dumplings. For a quick dish, you get exactly what is advertised here, with the added benefit of tastiness.

1 Aka «pelmeni».

2 And there are also curry and jalapeño cheese styles for those who want to go off the beaten path.


This post is part of Tortillaphilia, a category for those with a special relationship with anything tortilla related!



The Creperie

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You know, maybe I just don’t pay enough attention, but as awesome as the new 222 Market—an «artisan food hub»—is, its opening surely seems have been kept a deep, hidden secret. The Olympian stories aside… The word of this spot should be slapped all over our faces, Sean Connery style. Which is what we’re doing now.

So! The Creperie is among the first places to open in the hub, and that’s good for all of us. Crêpes are awesome, and having the Bread Peddler open a crêperie just makes sense.

And it all is quite excellent. I mean, really good. Up there with something you’d find in a food mecca1.

The savory pancakes2 here are made from a buckwheat batter which comes with just a touch of sweetness to it. The end-product is something with a bit more substance than what you find in your standard wheat crêpe.

I tried the «Complete», served with an egg on top, and ham and cheese inside. Jarlsberg cheese at that, and bravo to whomever made that decision. Really. Jarlsberg is a nice, nutty cheese, always versatile, and it pairs well with buckwheat.

As far as a crêpe goes, the «Complete» was filling, and enough to be a meal in itself. Simple and somewhat rustic. Très chic!

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The seasonal special, a pumpkin crêpe—made from wheat batter—held a similar standard. An autumnal palate for sure, and while there probably was a touch too much cream (luckily served on the side), the dish wasn’t too sweet, thanks too some well balanced spices.

While a bit lacking in assertiveness, the service was friendly, and the interiors—French meets Pacific Northwest—made for a good surrounding. Inviting and classy.

All in all, then, a great experience, and a great way to kick off the 222 Market fact finding mission. The Creperie is something Olympia needs, and you should do us all a favor and make the spot a destination. It will make you a better human being.

1 A term annoying enough to be second only to «foodie».

2 Yes, crêpes are pancakes. Look it up if you don’t believe me.