Portland is often called "the city of transplants." Young people move to the Rose City for school, the low cost of living, the outdoorsy opportunities, the music scene, or just to live somewhere ever-so-slightly weirder than their hometown. Oh, and the food: Portland has a seriously killer culinary scene at prices that make eating out in New York or LA seem like extortion.
Ironically, in coming to a town increasingly known for its food scene, those transplants often leave behind beloved food and drink from their hometown—it's why there are so many restaurants dedicated to regional American cooking, and why you can probably find a bar here that serves the cheap domestic lager from your part of the country. Some regional favorites are harder to find than others, though: many Portlanders, myself included, are originally from California, and one of the most common complaints I hear from those folks is that there isn't any decent Mexican (or Mexican-American) food in this town.
Well, I'm here to tell you that that's simply not true. There's plenty of good Mexican cooking in Portland, but sometimes you have to look a little farther afield. After five years here, I decided it was time I did just that. Here's the best of what I found—some around the corner, some well worth the drive.
Tacos at Uno Mas
Building on the pedigree of his mid-scale Mexican restaurants Autentica and Mextiza, chef Oswaldo Bibiano opened this diminutive, brightly colored taco shack in a "micro-restaurant" development on NE Glisan Street that also features a burger joint, a vegetarian Indian food restaurant, and a meatball sub establishment. After coming here, I'll be hard-pressed to ever make it back to the other three.
Uno Mas' tiny kitchen puts out huge flavors, and few of the 20-plus options disappoint. Standouts include rich, earthy beef barbacoa, braised until tender and pulled apart, and carnitas ($2 each) that, while not as crisp as I might have liked, displayed the exceptionally porky juiciness that can only come from cooking meat in its own fat. Seafood lovers will want to try the pulpo ($3.75): tender, perfectly cooked octopus swimming in a bright sauce of red chili, garlic, lime, and epazote.
Carnitas and Cochinita Pibil at Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon
This family-owned mercado and taqueria didn't exactly hit the real estate jackpot: sitting on a drab stretch of NE Glisan Street, a stone's throw from Gresham and right next door to a plasma donation center, Leon's exterior doesn't quite scream "destination dining." The food sure does, though. Carnitas and cochinita pibil—Yucatan pulled-pork in a spicy citrus and achiote marinade—are my go-to orders at this counter hidden in the back of an otherwise unremarkable Mexican grocer, but I have yet to try something I didn't like.
Meats come served as tacos, ($1.50) on massive plates overflowing with rice and wonderfully lard-filled beans ($8), or wrapped up in enormous burritos ($6) with rice, beans, and pico de gallo. Pork shoulder in a mildly spicy chili verde sauce of tomatillos and green chilies, chicken in dark brown Oaxacan mole negro, and marinated cactus salad are all equally worth your time.
Posole at El Pato Feliz
The only thing more colorful than the bright turquoise walls inside this hole-in-the-wall on SE 92nd Avenue might be the deep, fiery red hue of their posole ($10.99). It's a no-frills version of the dish that satisfies simply: a massive bowl of pork and hominy in an intense, fatty, red chili-fueled behemoth of a broth served with diced onion, sliced radish, and lemon, so you can garnish as you eat.
The generous hunks of pork shoulder come apart with ease, and what fat hasn't already dissolved in the broth will do so the instant it hits your tongue. Plump, starchy hominy kernels anchor a hearty soup that all but the most gargantuan appetites would have trouble finishing. Go on a rainy day, settle into the deep booths, linger over this warm and delicious meal, and watch the telenovela or soccer game on TV. No matter how long you sit there, you'll probably still have leftovers.
Guisados at Mi Mero Mole
Nick Zukin might be best known as half of the pastrami-slinging Kenny and Zuke's team, but he's also a well-traveled and researched Mexican food enthusiast. He opened Mi Mero Mole back in late 2011 to highlight guisados, the stews and stir-fries common to Mexico City street food stands. The restaurant has a rotating selection of over 60 different stews on any given day, and your best bet is to order a few different options served over rice in a fresh hand-made tortilla ($2.75 for veg/pork/chicken, $3.25 for beef, and $3.75 for seafood).
A recent visit yielded excellent chicken cloaked in a deep and layered chocolate mole, as well as lengua with cactus and potatoes simmered in a bright tomatillo salsa. But the real stars of the meal were meat-free: rajas con crema (roasted poblano, Anaheim chiles and onions in a seriously rich sour cream sauce) and a vegan stew of mushrooms, potatoes, and kale in an earthy red chili colorado sauce flavored with hot dried chilies and garlic. While the latter might seem like a Latino take on a hippy commune's curry for a crowd (kale isn't the first thing that comes to mind when I think about authentic Mexican cooking), Zukin's not simply pandering to dietary restrictions—you'd find most of the other ingredients throughout the Mexican capital.
Sopes at Taqueria El Cazador
This Foster Road taqueria is a bright spot on a stretch of road that seems to only get more depressing as it carves its way southeast. The massive menu offers everything from tacos to hamburgers and Denver omelets, but it's (unsurprisingly) best to stick to the more traditional fare. The sopes ($2.75) are fantastic; the thick, handmade, dense-but-not-heavy rounds of masa combine the best things about tortillas and fried dough. El Cazador's versions are heartier than many I've had, and come slathered with savory refried beans, covered with your choice of meat (carnitas and al pastor are worthy options, both sporting beautifully crisped crusts and no shortage of fatty pork juices), topped with shredded lettuce and chopped tomato for a hint of freshness, and drizzled with tangy crema and salty cotija cheese. Two make for a cheap, filling, and delicious meal, perfect preparation for a game of Ms. Pac-Man on the ancient arcade system in the corner.
Tortas at Güero PDX
This trendy little Airstream trailer is parked in what's easily the highest-quality food cart pod in the city (Pod 28), and they make some of the best tortas around. The crowd favorite carnitas torta ($8) is a stellar sandwich, with layers of tender shredded pork shoulder, cotija, avocado, cabbage and zingy pickled red onions crammed into a light yet sturdy torta roll from Vancouver, Washington's Veracruz Bakery. You can understand why the folks at Güero go out of their way for these rolls—the perfectly crisp crust gives way easily to a soft, slightly chewy interior that makes the ideal base for a torta.
The vegetarian refrito torta ($7) is no slouch either. These are simply some of the best lard-free refried pintos I've ever had, sporting the perfect textural contrast between firm whole beans and starchy, creamy crushed ones. They're complemented by an outstanding roasted serrano and poblano crema for a killer meat-free sandwich. Guero may be a bit preciously hip (taco tattoos reportedly used to net their owners a free taco), but one of these tortas, eaten on a sunny day with a beer from the beer cart next door, explains why people of any age would retire to Portland.*
Yeah, that was a Portlandia reference. No, I don't consider myself a serious writer, why do you ask?
Lamb Barbacoa at Oregon Flea Market
The average Portlander probably doesn't have a ton of reasons to go to Gresham, but one visit to this immense indoor Hispanic flea market on SE Stark might be enough to change that. Not only can you find everything from underwear to jewelry inside, they also boast one of the best traditional taquerias on the east side of the river tucked into the side of the building. The specialty is lamb barbacoa,, marinated with chilies and garlic and slow-roasted in banana leaves until tender and juicy. Order the lamb with light and pliant handmade tortillas ($2 per taco), and garnish with cilantro and onion from the generous tray brought to your table.
As good as the barbacoa undoubtedly is, don't be afraid to branch out: this is also the only place I've found serving quesadillas de huitlacoche (pictured at top, $8), the corn smut prized as a delicacy in Mexico. The slightly sweet and earthy fungus is sautéed with onions and healthy corn kernels, and stuffed with queso fresco into a gigantic pillowy handmade corn tortilla.
Tacos and Burritos at Taqueria Hermanos Ochoa's
The outer-west suburb of Hillsboro—affectionately known as "Hillsburrito" by many Portlanders—has plenty of destination-worthy taquerias, and Ochoa's might be the best of the bunch. The bright orange restaurant boasts a deep menu for people with shallow pockets. It would take years to work my way through everything they offer, but $1 tacos and a $7 burrito plate are a good enough place to start. Tacos come with generous portions of meat on slightly larger-than-average tortillas, with onion, cilantro, and lime on the side. A visit to the excellent salsa bar is mandatory, and a rainbow of chili heat awaits you. The burritos are carefully filled with your choice of meat and the usual rice, refried pintos, and pico de gallo; as if that wasn't enough food, you get even more rice, cotija-sprinkled refried beans, guac, and some ancillary roughage on the side.
The umami-rich, juicy and tender braised lengua is the best meat I've tried there; it's also the only time I've heard someone say "it's like kissing a cow" and mean it as a compliment. I'd heard tales of the al pastor, but I haven't yet managed to catch them on a day when the trompo (spinning vertical spit) is up and running. Luckily, though...
...this Latino supermarket right across the street has an equally excellent taqueria in the back, with a spinning trompo in full view. Tacos ($1.35) come out automatically topped with onion and cilantro, ready to be doused in one of the many salsas available, of which the aguacate, a bright, medium-heat avocado-based sauce, was the standout. The delicious al pastor is served particularly browned, and the carnitas get an extra fatty kick from bits of pork skin mixed in with the crispy shoulder. Hispanic grocery stores with carnicerias and taquerias in the back are everywhere in California, but they're comparatively rare in the Portland area—I'm glad to have found this one. Grab a laughably oversized Styrofoam cup of whatever aguas frescas they have that day, maybe even get a pound of carnitas to-go, and don't forget to check out the vast array of Mexican snacks and pantry staples on your way out.
Nachos Al Pastor at Robo Taco
If the name of this inner SE taqueria doesn't immediately sound the gringo-alarm, then the interior certainly will—replete with toy robots, cartoons on the TV, and a kitschy decor that straddles the line between tiki bar, taco shack, and hobby shop, no one would mistake this joint for a beacon of authenticity. But the name is actually a reference to the kitchen's trompo, which is responsible for Robo Taco's claim to fame: al pastor. While the pork's marinade might not be quite up to what I've found out in Hillsboro, the texture is unrivaled, thanks to plenty of time roasting on the trompo before getting a nice crisping on the grill just prior to serving.
For my money, though, the restaurant's other must-order is the Super Nacho platter ($10.75). These nachos are anchored by fantastic tortilla chips, which are magically ever-so-slightly greasy yet perfectly crisp, not to mention big and sturdy enough to stand up to a deluge of cheese, pintos, guacamole, and crema. This is a structural marvel of a dish in which every chip—every chip!—gets in on a piece of the action. Order the nachos topped with al pastor, and you'll be glad these gringos chose to set up shop so close to all your favorite bars.
Chilaquiles at Xico
Chilaquiles are a breakfast for the morning after. They're the perfect meal for when your head is pounding, you need grease and starch pronto, and you've only got some leftover chips, salsa, and a couple eggs in the fridge. So if you're hesitant to believe me when I say that the best version in town comes from a mid-scale Mexican restaurant with modernist decor on trendy SE Division Street (from Chef Kelly Meyers of Nostrana fame, no less), I'll understand why. But a dish like this—not to mention its $12 price tag—is a far cry from a poor-man's hangover cure. Freshly fried homemade tortilla wedges get simmered in a chile de arbol salsa until slightly softened, retaining just enough crunch to support pillowy scrambled eggs with chorizo. Covered in crema and cotija, and served with both tomatillo and avocado salsas, this is a brunch dish for those fancy-booze hangovers.