There is a food mecca located in the unlikely town of Centralia WA, approximately halfway between Seattle and Portland — an oasis known as La Tarasca. Nearly everyone who has made the pilgrimage universally praises this family-owned and operated, Michoacán restaurant for its authentic homestyle cooking. I wish I was one of those people. “But this is true Mexican soul food!”, you will undoubtedly object, horrified. I say, this is just another fairly obvious indication that I have no soul.
Heading south on I-5, take Exit 82 and hang a left under the highway. After several miles, you’ll eventually come to the end of town and see what appears to be an old-school Dairy Queen painted neon orange. You made it! Prepare to be disappointed! It’s actually not as bad as all that. The restaurant is quaint, and the waitstaff are ridiculously friendly. You can tell they love what they’re doing and what they’ve created, and multiple times during my visit I overheard the manager proclaim: “My mother received 5 Forks in the Olympian for her mole recipe!” And indeed, the mole is unique – a base mix of dried pasilla chile pepper with 26 herbs and spices. Served over chicken breast and leg, the rich sauce is very smoky, with minimal chocolate notes and almost zero heat.
And I guess that’s my main complaint. The beloved home cooking at La Tarasca is supremely mild, bordering on bland. And that’s just not terribly interesting to my palate. On a previous visit, I had ordered the chile rellenos – again with the ubiquitous mild pasilla pepper, roasted and stuffed with cotija, then dipped in egg batter and fried. It was soggy and boring, with very little to keep my attention after a couple of bites. This time would be different!, I convinced myself after again hearing the rants and raves from some fellow food enthusiasts. I’m no longer a vegetarian, I love pig and look, carnitas is a house specialty! Tender slow-cooked pork served with homemade tortillas and tomato salsa – what could go wrong? Well, technically nothing. The pork was tender, the tortillas were warm. There was spanish rice and traditional refried beans. I nursed a Pacifico… ate another bite of pork… waited for the epiphany. It never came. It was a plate of simple, well-cooked food, nothing more.
I guess I shouldn’t always expect fireworks, but I’m just not drawn to docile cuisine. Give me jalapeños and habaneros and tepins any day of the week. In all fairness, there was one dish that did pique my interest – a complimentary bowl of pickled carrots that was placed on the table when we first sat down. Instead of the usual chips and salsa, these carrots were crisp and tangy, swimming in a brine of onions and bay leaves. They were genuinely unique, and only managed to amplify my initial expectations.
I wasn’t necessarily unsastified when I left, but you can probably detect my ambivalence. Does essentially good food lose something without that spark of creative genius? Is that what I’m actually seeking? There were still plenty of miles ahead for me to contemplate these questions.