GCF Readers Choose: EL ZOCALO

14 Mar

You voted, we listened. We visit El Zocalo in the Lincoln District for some tasty tortas and Mexican pastries.

It is with some embarrassment and a healthy dose of humility that I must confess: my first torta ever was had here…this year…in the Lincoln District walkthrough video. The one you watched before you voted on this place. Remember? I’m not sure how I managed to avoid them for so long, perhaps the thought of having a sandwich at a Mexican restaurant was so much less intriguing than having something smothered in delicious sauces, served alongside roasted vegetables, beans or rice with a side of warm fresh-from-the-griddle tortillas. After all, sandwiches are a downright invasive species in this country, why bother with another one? El Zocalo is why.

On the corner of 38th and G, tarted up like a piñata sits El Zocalo. The Mexican bakery and restaurant is in the midst of the Lincoln district surrounded by a sea of Vietnamese restaurants, shops, and offices (two exceptions being neighbors Taqueria La Fondita and Uncle Thurm’s Barbecue – both favorites of ours). We targeted this neighborhood for our first readers’ choice because one could happily eat exclusively within this two block radius for months. The restaurant has an amazing 16 different tortas, some select special dishes, and a full bakery complete with sweet and savory pastries, breads, and huge flan cakes for little Lucy’s Quinceañera.

Tortas D.F. Style

Carnitas. This lil' piggy went to Adam's tummy

El Zocalo’s selection of tortas can be intimidating. There are just so damn many. You can keep it simple and go with the regular torta: your choice of meat, avocado, tomatoes, jalapeños, onion and mayo served on bakery fresh bread; you can go big and get the Cubana with breaded steak, pork thigh, sausage, ham, mexican mozzarella, cheddar, egg, avocado, onion, tomato, jalapeños, and mayo; or you can go with any number of variations on the basic theme of meat + bread + onions, tomatoes, avocados + more meat…all on bakery fresh bread. Essentially, it all comes down to a bunch of similar items, with similar veggies, on bakery fresh bread. Delicious, but deceptively simple.

I think I’ve cracked the system. This just lost all of the mystery and intrigue.

The sandwiches are huge and easily shared, each coming wrapped in individual yellow paper that packages easily for leftovers. On a few separate trips we sampled a good portion of El Zocalo’s offerings. Every torta was consistently good and balanced with fresh bread and good portions of filling, although I could do without the mayo on most. The breaded meats are moist and flavorful, but our favorites were the stripped down carnitas and steak. If you go with the single meat torta, go with one of these. The sauces offered at the restaurant are tasty: a creamy chili sauce and a smoky chipotle. Both have a kick, and both are worth asking for before leaving with your brown paper bag.

The vegetarian at our table loved the Suiza: a torta loaded with Mexican mozzarella, white Mexican cheese, cheddar, and all the veggies. Every torta is served with a side of crispy homemade potato chips. Very standard fair-style fried. Meh.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all sparkles and South-of-the-border sunshine. The carnitas while tender and flavorful, weren’t crisped on the edges like perfect carnitas [we think] should be. The steak (had in the very tasty Deliciosa) is thinly sliced and tender, but again, would be better a little blackened like a good carne asada. The other meats all fell in line behind these two: flavorful, but could have used more time in the fire, or some more oomph.

The D.F. style, so often referred to in the menu, relates to the Distrito Federal in Mexico, or Mexico City. This is regionally apart from Northern Mexican cuisine famous for its blackened and flavorful carne asada, and may be an indicator as to why the steak is so different on these tortas. It all may come down to a region thing, which makes sense. But, our palates have become so accustomed to the thick grilled flank steak and roasted peppers. It might take some time to adjust.

The entire back page of the menu is devoted to an admirable selection of Mexican soft drinks, including Jarritos, Sangria, and that ironically sought after Coke in a bottle. We didn’t get around to trying the Mexican style milkshakes or fruit cocktails. Perhaps one of you can impart your wisdom in the form of a comment?

Beyond the Torta

The non-torta page is brief, but worth visiting. We ordered a round of tacos – fairly standard, and definitely less exciting than those being served across the street and the La Fondita taco truck. The Zocalo burrito looks great, but we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the torta menus to try it. The Huarache With Meat was a standard item. Sort of a glorified quesadilla, or a flat burrito.

What to avoid
The one thing I’d recommend against getting….the Pambazo. It looked intriguing (the menu photo is of a huge brightly colored bun loaded with chorizo and potatoes) and I often find myself playing the role of the food adventurer, and occasionally I strike out.

This was a massive strikeout. And I mean massive. The sandwich came, glistening in greasy glory and completely overflowing with fresh cheese and a potato-chorizo blend. The thing was impossible to pick up, when I first attempted half the filling spilled out onto the table. Undeterred I scooped it up, put it back between the bright red buns and aimed for my face. Greasy and one-dimensional. I could just feel my arteries clogging while forcing this one down. The bread, saturated in a “special sauce” left my fingers pink, and mouth coated in smoky oil. I’m fairly certain the special sauce was just chorizo grease, but I’m not one to draw conclusions haphazardly. Needless to say, unless your stomach has sprung a leak, avoid this digestive anvil for the foreseeable future.

Note: Being the cheap bastard that I am, I took the second half of this home, and while it was far from delicious, it was certainly better the next day.

The Bakery

Concha

We were such easy sells on this one. Our experience with Mexican bakeries is embarrassingly limited, and for all we know there could be several far superior ones in town….but we were such easy sells. Constituting roughly half the public area of El Zocalo is a full bakery. In it you will find six standing cases of sweet and savory breads, pastries, and a bakery case of colorful cookies. The pastries are absolutely dirt cheap, coming to about $.50/ea, regardless of size, and some are serious monsters. Selection seems to rotate regularly, but the classic favorites seem to be in good supply. Here are a few that caught out attention:

  • Concha (shell): a sizable light sweet roll with brightly colored swirls (pictured above)
  • Marranitos or Cochinitos: delicious pig shaped molasses cookies. Heavenly layers of flaky gingerbread-like cookie with a sugary skin.

    This lil' piggy went to Derrick's tummy

  • Orejas (ears): crispy puff pastry
  • Payasos: Tri colored cookies
  • Plus all sorts of empanadas, muffins, cinnamon twists, apple filled, cream filled, and savory. My personal favorite was the custard sandwich, a sugar doughnut sans the hole with a custard filling. Amazing.
The pastries here are notable for their lack of overt sweetness. They are sweet, but not sickeningly so like your standard grocery bakery variety doughnut. Makes them way more palatable, and far more dangerous when they’re so cheap. Amazing.

The Wrap

A new GCF favorite. Go soon, just avoid the Pambazo, your stomach will thank you later.

***

As always, mention us and get…nothing! Deep fried in chorizo grease.

701 S 38th St
Tacoma, WA 98418
(253) 474-9000

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One Response to “GCF Readers Choose: EL ZOCALO”

  1. Greg March 14, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    Their horchata is super bomb!! For a $1.80 you get a huge margarita glass (easily is enough beverage for 3 people), very reminiscent of my days in B’ham acquiring the “Big Mama”, but a non-alcohol version. It’s milkiness may scare a few who haven’t tried it, but just do it. Tasty and refreshing, hands down.

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