Finally a Real Mexican Restaurant
Finally real Mexican fare has arrived in Portland. Along the way it’s been a jokester’s playgroud of facsimiles scattered throughout the region with plenty of burrito, taco, and enchilada misnomers in the guise of Mexican comestibles.
The worst of these had to be my experience a few years ago at Westbrook’s Fajita Grill, a deplorable notion of Mexican cooking straight out of an old shoe. It had the authentic look of a dive in the worst neighborhood of Mexico City, but beyond that the food was a hodge-podge mess meant for those still too young to have discerning taste.
The closest thing I’ve found to dependable Latin cooking has been at some of the mom and pop storefronts offering native home-style preparations. The rest are Margarita and taco factories and a few taquerias in Portland and South Portland that attempt authenticity.
But Zapoteca, which opened on Fore Street about two weeks ago, is pretty much the real deal at last. It’s not merely an elevated version of tex-mex grub in a northern clime but rather authentic haute Mexican regional cooking—or as close as we can get to it without being on the farm.
Zapoteca offers a sleek, upscale dining room with accoutrements to match. There’s a buxom hostess with a very thick Mexican accent to greet you at the door followed by a tequila impresario who is there to guide diners through an extensive list of tequila varietals.
I don’t remember which tequila we settled on. We left it to our resident expert. The resulting Margarita was strong and effective. Of course we paired our drinks with the house guacamole. Serious Mexican restaurants are often judged by their guacamole, though I don’t always think it’s a fair standard. There are many variations and it becomes a matter of taste. I make it often using cookbook author and restaurateur Rick Bayless’s version, which is heavy on cilantro, lime, and charred grilled chile.
Zapoteca’s rendition is beautifully served on a banana leaf. Though delicious it lacked the intense flavors of cilantro and lime, which I prefer (or am used to) and the chef went overboard with salt. Still, with a second round of Margaritas the three of us finished it in record time.
The rest of the menu is intriguing, with dishes you’re not apt to find anywhere else north of Boston.
There’s a wondrous choice of appetizers including guacamole, taquitos, and a salsa sampling. Also mussels simmered in a broth of garlic, wine, Mexican chorizo, tomato, jalapeno and cilantro, all of which is finished off with a shot of tequila.
We chose the chicken taquito,pork taquito, and the mussels. Each was beautifully prepared with complex flavorings and a genuineness of taste that was revelatory.
For full disclosure I prepare Mexican food at home quite often. The biggest challenge is finding the ingredients, which are mostly available through internet sources. I’m glad Zapoteca is here to do the work. Mexican cooking is complicated and time consuming, with many dishes requiring 20 to 30 different ingredients, mostly in the variety of chilies, seasonings, and pastes.
The menu has a great ceviche selection--various fish combinations that are basically cooked by infusing the fish in citrus juice. We shared the ceviche Veracruzana—whitefish marinated in a tangy lime juice with tomatillos, jalapeno, olives, and avocado. I thought it was served with too much marinade liquid but it was delicious nonetheless.
For the main course we stuck to the enchilada specialties. I wanted to judge these first and explore the more complex entrees on another visit. The entrée offerings read very well, though. Such dishes as game hen in a mole poblano sauce of chiles, chocolate, and sesame seeds sounded fabulous. Other entrées include a rack of pork, carne asada made with Pineland Farm’s rib eye, and halibut roasted in the wood oven with a tomato, olive, and raisins.
For the enchiladas we had the pork, which is roasted in the oven and made with caramelized onions and a mild tomato habanera sauce. It was gorgeously flavorful as were the chicken enchilada with a richly ethereal mole poblano sauce and a stuffed poblano chile with mushrooms, and very assertive herb flavors.
By dessert time we were stuffed and shared a rich and complexly derived flan topped with fresh raspberries. It was beautifully prepared.
The arrival of Zapoteca is a monumental, long needed culinary event for Portland. Though some of the preparations are only mildly Americanized, it’s still the real deal and rounds out the international offerings available in a city tightly packed with an orbital roster of dining options.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.