16 Signs of a Great Mexican Restaurant

There is no good Mexican food on the East Coast. I didn’t really know the truthfulness or realize the extent of this adage before, as a native Angeleno, I moved out to D.C. Not only is it shockingly true, but it’s usually the first topic of conversation between California immigrants out here after asking where you’re from. The last California congressman I sat down with complained about nasty faux Mexican food (to which I heartily agreed) before we began talking legislation.

There are food trucks that line the squares at lunchtime, but not to tell tacos al carbon for a buck. There are a few mom and pop joints, but mostly Salvadoran. When I discovered La Loma restaurant near the Heritage Foundation, I thought it was the best find ever, though I realized it would be rated as OK-to-pretty-good Mexican food in L.A. At least you could mix the rice and beans to the perfect consistency, which is a start out here. But is it too hard to put some meat on two corn tortillas with cilantro and onions, with salsa verde and a side cup of spicy carrots?

This brings to mind a list I came up with during my midway stop from L.A. to D.C., at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. From SoCal to the Valley, the central coast to across the border, here are signs of a great Mexican restaurant:

  1. The menu lapses into Spanish without warning
  2. Our Lady of Guadalupe is behind the counter
  3. Tamarindo and horchata are on tap
  4. It’s safer to drink the beer than the water — and Corona is NOT the sole offering
  5. At least two German tourists have accidentally ordered lengua in the past month
  6. The restaurant name is not Chevy’s or El Torito (or, out here, Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food)
  7. The mariachi not only plays there, but eats there as well
  8. Telenovelas play on a TV mounted on the wall
  9. The music played includes copious amounts of accordion
  10. The salsa has never and will never come from a jar
  11. The tacos spill on the first bite
  12. There are no “southwest black beans,” just manteca-laden refried beans
  13. The number of tables usually doesn’t exceed ten
  14. The view leaves something to be desired, like an old carburetor shop or tacky mercado
  15. There is no menu item called a “Mexi-melt”
  16. The Health Department doesn’t always leave happy, but the customers do

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