How the Old Amazon Cafeteria Got Me To Like Mexican Food

Back in 2006, it was an interesting bit of trivia that Amazon was headquartered in Seattle. I moved here and spent nearly 4 years working from the company’s headquarters in the beautiful Pacific Medical Center, or PacMed. The former hospital’s amenities included a manicured lawn for summertime lunches, a stunning view of the city, and a dodgeball court. The major downside: it’s surrounded by a park, a residential area, and a highway, so the on-site cafeteria was the most convenient food option.

The PacMed cafeteria was notorious for long lines, high prices, and food of wildly varying quality. One of my former colleagues spent $12 on an entree and a VitaminWater every day and claimed that it was cathartic to complain about the food. The most palatable options were those that customers made themselves and paid for by weight: cold-cut sandwiches, salads, and the burrito bar.

I wasn’t really into Mexican food before moving out West. I grew up an intolerably picky eater on the North Shore of Long Island, whose demographics resemble a tech company with more women, and then I lived in the meat-and-potatoes city of Pittsburgh during and after college. As unlikely as it would seem, it was that burrito bar, with my structurally unsound creations on spinach or flour tortillas, that opened my mind.

Seattle is only about 7% Hispanic overall, and of that Mexican is the most common ancestry. In all of Washington state the Hispanic population is growing faster than any other group with the state’s agriculture industry being a big driver. In the Central Washington city of Wenatchee, the “Apple Capital of the World” with a population under 35,000, my parents and I saw many new Mexican restaurants when we visited last summer. (Sadly, we visited during a holiday weekend, and these mom-and-pop shops had closed for a vacation of their own.) In Seattle proper, El Centro de la Raza has been an active voice for social justice since it was founded by Chicano activists in 1972 who occupied a disused elementary school. It now gives voice to some of the loudest, most constructive, and most peaceful protests on Seattle’s chaotic May Day each year.

And then there’s the food. The overstuffed, improperly-folded burritos I made were, as I later found out, Mission-style. California has a particularly strong influence on the Mexican cuisine around here, from the common fast food places — both Taco Bell and Jack in the Box operated on Broadway when I moved to Seattle — to the independent outlets like the incorrigibly mobbed Tacos Chukís, whose Tijuana-style tacos are served by staff wearing San Diego Padres caps. Capitol Hill had only a few Mexican restaurants when I moved here, including the Taco Bell that was name-checked in Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Posse on Broadway,” but now the total is closer to 20. That includes two Oaxacan restaurants in a two-block span of Pine Street. There’s also the legendary Rancho Bravo, which took over a derelict KFC in 2009 and still hasn’t replaced most of the bolted-in-place furniture that was there before. Bands of bros bring big bucks to Barrio, which still offers half-price tequila on Monday nights, and Poquitos, which went from 0-to-full immediately upon opening and hasn’t cooled off in the ensuing years.

Tacos also play a critical role in Seattle’s booming food truck scene. When my team at Amazon moved to South Lake Union in 2010, there was a small taco truck called Tacos el Tajin parked outside my building (now called “Fiona”) to sell lunch to the crew constructing the two buildings across the street (now Obidos and Rufus). Within a week, the line was down the block and its proprietor, Tomas Lopez, had set up a credit card reader. His quick lunches of four tacos or a sizable burrito for $5 (or an even larger “super burrito” for $6) became famous among a frugal employee base. Tomas’s truck galvanized dozens of competitors to come to South Lake Union, where even though the new Amazon cafeterias served better food, their high prices and intentionally low capacity compelled employees to seek other options. In 2011, when Mayor Mike McGinn signed a law to permit food trucks including Tomas’s to operate legally on city streets, he signed it in South Lake Union before an audience of people dining on food from a half-dozen local trucks. I’m told that Tacos el Tajin is still in business, now with two trucks and a standalone restaurant, and its legion of competitors has had an enormous impact on the region’s food scene. Even Bon Appetit, which wrested the Amazon cafeteria contract from the infamous Sodexo, has a fleet of food trucks of its own.

The old joke about where to find good Mexican food in Seattle (go to the airport and fly to California) still stands; I make no claim that we have the best or most authentic stuff here. Nevertheless I’m impressed by how small places like the old PacMed cafeteria, Chukís, and El Tajin crossed social, economic, and cultural bounds to appeal to Seattle’s ever-evolving eaters.

This is part 5 of 10 Years, 10 Things to Love, a yearlong series commemorating my 10th anniversary of moving to Seattle.