Pozole is one of the most traditional of Mexican foods and not easily found on restaurant menus in Seattle, the kind dominated by columns of tacos, burritos, and enchiladas of one variety or another.
A rich, peppery soup of pork and hominy (corn kernels softened with lye), pozole is a weekend endeavor that takes hours to simmer. It cannot be wolfed down or eaten on the run, so it tends to work against our mental grain of consuming Mexican food, which we tend to order from a window or counter, and eat with our hands, peeling away the paper wrapped around it.
The foods we adopt and embrace often tend to appeal to our love for speed. Pizza, moo goo gai pan, burritos, and tacos are fast. Tacos and burritos can also be easily assembled and accessorized, which make them ripe for conversion into combo meals and perfect for drive-through windows.
A good friend of mine, who enjoyed a brief but relatively successful career as a stand-up comedian, constructed a short bit out of his observation that Mexican food was not really different kinds of food, it was different shapes of food — wedges, cylinders, disks — all constructed out of tortillas, cheese, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and so on. Exaggeration is integral to humor, but he did not need much to make his point when it came to American-Mexican food, made from that same reliable rotation of ingredients.
Pozole does not fit so easily into this algorithm of lettuce-tomato-guacamole-sour cream. Hearty, rich, often spicy, it is satisfying the same way Vietnamese pho is satisfying. Why pozole is not as popular as pho is a small mystery, since Mexican food is at least as popular and has been around in America longer than Vietnamese.
Not all Mexican restaurants in Seattle serve pozole but many do, a marker of some authenticity because it is such a traditional dish and more likely to be ordered and eaten by someone from Mexico. La Carta de Oaxaca on Ballard Avenue has it on its menu. Burrito Loco, the Taqueria Tequila, and Rancho Bravo all make pozole. All are pretty good and set a decent standard, but when eating traditional food I almost never have the most memorable experiences eating inside the city. Venture away from the heart of the city, out to its back porches, and the same food is somehow more thrilling, more surprising, even if it is sometimes more off-putting.
Interestingly, some of the best cold-weather foods come from hot-weather countries, pho and pozole being two of them. I have tended to eat pozole on chilly, wet, and windy days. Another reason to recommend pozole in Seattle: gray skies contrast well with deep red broth, the color of the dried chilies cooked into the soup. Although pozole is not exactly chain-restaurant Mexican food, one particular chain makes some of the best.
The Taqueria El Rinconsito is a chain of 10 restaurants scattered outside Seattle with branches in Federal Way, Kent, Auburn, Tacoma, Everett, Lynnwood, and Burien among other places. The Burien store is a block off the main, downtown strip of Southwest 152nd Street, a stand-alone building with a roomy U-shaped dining room, a large and colorful menu board, a self-serve soda fountain, and a generous parking lot.
Rinconsito serves pozole only on weekends, a common policy among Mexican restaurants owing to the time-intensive nature of preparing the dish and the tradition of eating pozole on weekends. (It is one of those dishes many claim to be a hangover cure — really, doesn’t eating any kind of salty soup after a night of drinking feel good?)
Pozole at Rinconsito ($8.99) is served in a pho-sized bowl. It is plated with deep fried tortillas stuffed with potato, a potato taco if you will. With each bowl comes a generous boat of garnishes: chopped onions, chopped jalapenos, ground red chilis, dried oregano, and a wedge of lime. If this reminds you of pho, it should.
Both soups are best when garnished. They both impart a deep aroma. They both glisten from the fat rendered from pork (in the case of pozole) and beef (in the case of pho). While pho shops often let you choose the cuts of beef that come in your soup, you get what you get with pozole: often the rich, tender, off-cuts of the pig. I found pieces of what looked to be shoulder, as well as a piece of a joint of some kind, knuckle or knee perhaps, complete with cartilage, skin and bone.
Both soups are also deeply emblematic of their cultures. The roots of pozole pre-date Spanish colonization, and the dish is said to have had ritual significance for the indigenous people of Mexico. Its principal ingredient, corn, was a sacred crop to the Aztecs and Mayans.
On weekends, Rinconsito stays busy long into the afternoon. You will see similar crowds at the Rancho Bravo restaurant on Capitol Hill, with one difference. While most of Rancho Bravo’s customers are white, most of Rinconsito’s customers are of Mexican origin, a reflection of the unique, demographic mix in Burien, one of the few places around here where the professional class and the working class more or less mingle.
The city of Burien was incorporated in 1993, its citizens convinced the hamlet could do better for itself as a separate city. It elected a city council and a mayor who helped set in motion plans for a new downtown that are evident today. Its first mayor, Arun Jhaveri, served three consecutive terms of two years each.
“Our city is totally different now,” said Jhaveri, who earned about $500 a week when he was mayor, a part-time job in theory that turned out to be nearly a full-time job in practice. “People worried that taxes would go up if we incorporated, but they didn’t.”
The newly independent city built a healthy tax base and attracted development. The city spent millions to widen sidewalks, add lamp posts, landscaping and a grand arch at the east end of 152nd Street, the commercial heart of Burien. It built a new bus transit center. A striking new county library and a sleek condominium went up in the center of town. Merchants leased space in the revitalized downtown strip.
Jhaveri pointed out Burien’s growth spurt was stunted by the economic downturn, stopped just short of its highest aspirations. While the new library is well used, the condo, which was completed during the real estate downturn, remains mostly empty two years after construction ended. Top-floor units that once listed for about $700,000 can now be had for $400,000.
The project, called Town Square, was supposed to be a mixed-use structure with spaces for stores, apartments, and artist lofts. The idea was to turn Burien, a community with a downward-facing identity, into a hip destination like Ballard, Belltown, or perhaps Columbia City. Plans for a big-box bookstore and a luxury hotel were imagined, but thwarted by unanticipated financial realities.
The downturn, however, seemed to also allow for a bit of old Burien to remain. You can walk from one end of downtown to the other in less than 10 minutes. On certain blocks, you can imagine you're in Capitol Hill. There are quaint (and expensive) boutiques, a community theater, a Grand Central Bakery, upscale Italian restaurants, and a gastro-pub. There are also pho shops and Vietnamese hair salons, pocket groceries that sell Asian food, several taquerias (El Rinconsito happens to be the biggest and most popular), and a store that sells confirmation dresses.
Four years ago, the talk among city planners was of Burien becoming the new Brooklyn, a magnet for creative professionals and home to a thriving arts scene. Currently, Burien more resembles the Hispanic, working-class Sunset Park section of the borough, as opposed to the more hip Williamsburg.
Some might say that is for the better … if only for the sake of good pozole.
If you go: Taqueria El Rinconsito, 15101 Ambaum Blvd. S.W., Burien, 206-431-0663, www.elrinconsito.com. Open 9 a.m.-midnight Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.