Alejandrina Felipe prepares food in the Mixteca Food Cart at Portland Mercado (photo by Anders Leagjeld)
By Ed Avis
The Pacific Northwest is rich with organic farms, productive fisheries, and people who appreciate that bounty. So it’s no surprise that the hip city of Portland has a thriving upscale Mexican restaurant scene that is tapping into the area’s farm-to-table ethos.
But there’s more to Portland’s Mexican restaurant scene than fancy restaurants serving healthy cuisine. There are also hundreds of food trucks, carts, and small family-run restaurants that create authentic regional Mexican dishes to feed a population that increasingly understands that Mexican food is more than burritos and beans.
Both types of Mexican eateries have a place in Portland.
“Portland has all types of Mexican, from trucks to Mexican-owned taquerias to hipster taquerias to joints specializing in combo plates and fajitas to more gourmet places,” says Nick Zukin, owner of Mi Mero Mole and a respected blogger and observer of Portland’s Mexican restaurant scene. “I think Mexican food in Portland has been part of a trend that includes other cuisines, like Thai, where people are willing to treat them with the respect they deserve and are willing to pay to have higher quality ingredients, a fancier restaurant, and more professional service.”
The Natural Angle
A major thrust in Portland cuisine in general is a focus on natural, locally sourced cuisine, and that has influenced the upscale Latin restaurants as well. Nearly all of the restaurant owners and chefs interviewed for this article noted that they strive to have their menus exhibit the farm-to-table ethos Portland diners expect.
“I think if you’re not sourcing locally, your restaurant just can’t get traction in Portland,” says Liz Davis, owner of Xico and formerly a manager at an Italian restaurant in Portland. Xico, an upscale Mexican restaurant, opened in August 2012.
Zukin concurs: “The more upscale places share an aesthetic, to some degree, that is very Oregon and Northern California for seasonality and locality. You’ll rarely, if ever, see a fish or meat that’s shipped in. However, you’ll see dishes that transform throughout the year so that perhaps they used root vegetables in the winter, then asparagus in spring, and then yellow squash in summer, and so on. It’s an aesthetic that … dominates restaurants here in the same way it does in Northern California.”
The menu at Xico includes several dishes with a Northwest influence, such as smoked salmon tostadas made with sockeye salmon and esquites made with locally grown sweet corn, epazote, queso cotija, and chile lime mayo.
Like with any locally sourced restaurant, seasonality plays an important role in Xico’s menu. “We change the menu a little bit every day, because we source from local farms,” Davis says. “For instance, when we can get fresh local corn we always put esquites on the menu, but in Oregon that’s a short season, only about three months.”
Davis and Xico chef Kelly Myers took the commitment to healthy cooking a big step beyond the basics when they had a molino – a mill for making masa – installed at Xico.
“Coming from Italian food, where there’s usually a pretty in-depth pasta or bread program, we knew how important it would be to Mexican food to have fresh masa,” Davis says. “And organic and non-GMO is important to us, and we knew we would have to make it ourselves because there wasn’t anywhere to get fresh organic, non-GMO masa in Portland.”
Another Portland Mexican restaurant that has embraced local, healthy sourcing is Tamale Boy, a restaurant that opened in 2014 in the Woodlawn neighborhood after several years as a food truck and catering business.
“When we opened the restaurant 70 percent of our menu was the basic tamales, tacos
and burritos,” says Jaime Soltero, the owner. “But then we started incorporating the Northwest trends, including fried brussells sprouts, pumpkin seed dip, and fried cauliflower. So we feature a mixture of traditional Mexican cuisine with familiar foods from our surroundings.”
As the name implies, tamales are Soltero’s most popular menu item. In addition to incorporating local produce and meat when feasible, he uses recipes far beyond what most tamale lovers expect. His tamale menu is divided among Oaxacan tamales, which are wrapped in banana leaves and feature a creamy, white corn masa, and Northern tamales, which come in corn husks and use fluffy, yellow corn masa.
“I think what makes our tamales special is that we use very traditional techniques all the way through, and different flavors,” Soltero says. “For example, the chile verde tamale is filled with pork cooked in a green tomatillo sauce, which is typical in the north of Mexico. And for one of the southern Mexican tamales we use chicken in traditional black mole.”
Taqueria Nueve is another well-known Portland Mexican restaurant that emphasizes fresh, local ingredients. Restaurateurs Billy Schumaker and Brent Richford opened the restaurant in 2000, though it took a five-year hiatus during the recession and reopened in 2014.
The menu at Taqueria Nueve is heavy on tacos, as the name implies. All are topped with the traditional cilantro and onions, and Schumaker says a favorite is the carnitas taco make with wild boar. A non-taco favorite is the Caesar con Ceviche, which is a Caesar salad topped with lime-marinated ceviche. Oregon albacore is currently being used for the ceviche, Schumaker says, though other local fish, such as snapper and sole, are used when available.
Oregon ingredients also find their way into Taqueria Nueve’s Pescado de la Parilla, described as “grilled Oregon Albacore tuna served over fried fingerling potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hard cooked egg with a toasted pumpkin seed sauce.”
“Our cuisine focuses on southern Mexico, Oaxaca and Yucatan,” Schumaker says, adding that they’ll venture beyond local sourcing when necessary to maintain the authentic Mexican recipes. “We do some of that Portland farm-to-table sourcing of ingredients, but I still stay true to authentic Mexican recipes.”
While the idea of sustainable, healthy cuisine is most evident in more upscale Latin restaurants, many smaller players also appreciate the concept.
Take Aprisa, a three-location Mexican restaurant with a basic menu of burritos, tacos,
tortas, and salads. In addition to local sourcing of the fresh ingredients, Aprisa owner Kirk Lance makes a decidedly sustainable statement with his locations: All of them are recycled shipping containers.
“I like building things, so I wanted to build our restaurants in these containers,” says Lance, who also owns a small manufacturing company called Modular Building Systems. “It’s a full-fledged, real restaurant, but the building cost is typically one-tenth of what a normal brick-and-mortar drive-in restaurant is. We have done these for $150,000, whereas a typical brick-and-morter drive-through is $1.5 million.”
Lance is franchising the Aprisa concept – the franchisees not only get the name and menu, but they also get the building. He feels the idea will appeal to families that would like their own restaurant but cannot afford the costs of traditional construction.
Food Truck Traffic Jam
The story of Portland’s Mexican restaurant scene does not end with fine dining spots serving sustainable fare. Many more customers patronize Portland’s myriad family-run, traditional Mexican restaurants, including an unrivalled fleet of food trucks and carts.
“We definitely have a higher contingent of food trucks and carts than you’ll find anywhere else,” Lance says.
Zukin notes that some of the food trucks offer remarkable regional Mexican fare. La Catrina, for example, is a truck that specializes in tortas: “One of the best torta cubanas I’ve had in or out of Mexico,” Zukin says. Other food carts Zukin notes are Ely’s, which makes birria and handmade tortillas; Mis Abuelos, known for lamb barbacoa; and Flor de Guelaguetza, which specializes in Oaxacan cuisine.
Aspiring Latino food truck and restaurant owners have an ally in Portland Mercado, a one-year-old business incubator hosted by an organization called Hacienda, which originally was an affordable housing and after-school education provider. Portland Mercado is located inside and around a renovated bank building on Foster Road, in an area designated for urban renewal. The organization provides space, facilities, and guidance to 20 businesses, including nine food carts.
“Most of the food cart vendors had food industry experience, either in their home country or here,” says Jamie Melton, community economic development marketing manager for Portland Mercado. “Some of them, at least the most recent immigrants, needed help understanding the rules and regulations of foodservice. Others were just ready to take a risk and work harder for their family, and needed help taking the steps to do that.”
One of the carts at Portland Mercado is Tierra del Sol, operated by Amalia Vazquez and her family. Vazquez rents her cart from the organization, and she pays an hourly fee to use the Mercado’s commissary to prepare food for her stands at two other Portland markets.
Tierra del Sol is one of five carts that sell regional Mexican food; the others serve other Latin cuisine, including Colombian, Cuban, and Salvadoran. Vazquez’s cart features the food of Oaxaca, including memelas (thin, fried masa cakes topped with various ingredients), pumpkin quesadillas, and enchiladas de mole.
The cart’s most popular item, and one of the most popular items in the entire Mercado, is la tlayuda. Vazquez prepares her version of la tlayuda on a 14-centimeter corn tortilla, toasted until it’s crisp. She tops the tortilla with black beans, Oaxacan cheese, onions, cabbage, tomato, cilantro, avocado, and whatever meat the customer chooses.
“In the end is looks like a pizza, which is why some people call it Mexican pizza,” Vazquez says.
All of the food carts that launched when the Mercado opened in April 2015 are still in business, and one was added later, Melton says. The organization hopes to find enough space to add two more food carts and more seating.
“There’s a lot of demand,” Melton says. “People are noticing the success of the project, and they see the ambience it brings to the neighborhood.”
Melton explains that the vendors are offered business development classes to help them succeed on the dollars and cents issues of the restaurant business.
“We always tell people it takes about three years to break even, but some of the carts are already breaking even,” she says. “And some are looking for a brick-and-mortar location. If a vendor leaves here, we hope it’s not because they are not selling enough. We hope it’s because they found a spot for a restaurant.”
Beyond the City Limits
Portland is not known for its diversity, but some of the surrounding communities are more colorful.
“Portland is one of the whitest cities in America,” Zukin says. “The suburbs are where Mexicans actually live in large numbers. The suburbs of Gresham and Hillsboro, for example, have over 20 percent Hispanic populations. As a result, the density of Mexican food is much higher in those ‘burbs.”
Amelia’s Rustic Mexican Restaurant has two locations in Hillsboro, the first opened in 2009. The restaurants are operated by Rafael Dueñas, his cousin José Mondragón, and Mondragón’s mother Amelia Ramírez.
“We are partners with my aunt (Amelia), and she is in charge of the restaurant’s recipes,” Dueñas says. “Our most famous dishes are our fish tacos and our three-pound burrito loco.”
Amelia’s also offers a number of more authentic dishes, including tacos al carbon; cochinita pibil; red and green mole poblano; mole Oaxaca; and leg of lamb.
While a large number of Hispanics live in Hillsboro, Dueñas says most of his customers are Anglos.
“Imagine, here in front of our restaurant is Intel’s factory, where they make computers,” Dueñas says. “There are 4,000 employees and most are Anglo-Americans and they come here for lunch and dinner.”
Like Mexican restaurants in all big cities, Portland’s have a number challenges.
For example, while Portland’s ubiquitous food trucks and carts are a great way for entrepreneurs to launch businesses, sometimes they encroach on the business of established brick-and-mortar restaurants.
“The food trucks and carts are a double-edged sword for a lot of people, especially restaurateurs,” Lance says. “We also have a food cart – it does well, and we’re excited to be part of that scene. But where I think a lot of restaurants get frustrated is when they spend $1 million to $2 million developing a location and go through all the rigamarole with the government to get it started, and they sell a sandwich for $7 to $10, and then a guy with a food truck who is not subject to the same regulations is also there selling a sandwich for $7 to $10.”
Another problem facing Portland Mexican restaurants, and restaurants in other parts of the country, is labor. Rates of pay for restaurant workers is rising, but that’s evidently not attracting enough new workers to the pool.
“Every year it’s getting harder to find people,” Schumaker says. “For two months I’ve been trying to hire someone.”
Despite the difficulties they face, those who own and operate restaurants in Portland are happy to be part of a community they say welcomes and supports their Mexican and other Latin-themed food businesses.
Zukin, in fact, says Portlanders now recognize Mexican food as gourmet-worthy.
“The culture has changed,” Zukin says. “There are enough people now that don’t think that Mexican food has to be cheap. While it’s still not given the respect that Italian or French food is given, there are enough people who will pay for quality regional Mexican cooking now to support more upscale restaurants.”
Perhaps Schumaker sums it up best: “Portlanders love food,” he says. “Overall, [Portland] is a great place to eat.”
Ed Avis is the publisher of el Restaurante. Jorge Rennella contributed to this article.
Sidebar: Beyond Mexican
Latin cuisine other than Mexican has also succeeded in Portland. Nick Zukin, an observer of the scene and owner of Mi Mero Mole, says Peruvian cuisine, especially, is hot in Portland.
The most famous Peruvian place in town, which has spawned others, is Andina in the Pearl District. Founded in 2003, the gourmet restaurant features tapas such as Mango Verde y Langostinos, green mango and pached prawns in a passionfruit deche de tigre; and entrees like Seco a la Norteña, slow-cooked lamb shank in a cilantro and black beer sauce.
Other Latin restaurants Zukin says are noteworthy include Pambiche, a Cuban restaurant, and Mama Leo’s, a Venezuelan place.
And of course Portland’s myriad food carts and trucks offer Latin fare from throughout South and Central America, including Salvadoran papusas, Colombian empanadas, and Venezuelan arepas.