Taqueria Madness Hits Portland
The hallmark of Mexican street food - the taqueria - has taken Greater Portland by storm. Before that the usual enchilada and burrito joints prevailed, serving watered down margaritas and Americanized Mexican fare as riveting as red sauce at a nondescript pizzeria.
We now have three serious taquerias to ponder: El Rayo, Taco Trio, and the newly opened Taco Escobarr. I can sum up the bunch as predictable, authentic, and inventive in that order. Here’s the taco low down.
The first on our shores, El Rayo is the most self-serving of the three. The food is reliably prepared if not bland and predictable. Best bests are the antojitos (small plates), particularly the smoky potato fritters.
I’ve gone to El Rayo many times since it opened and liked it well enough. It’s got great vibes, the brightly painted interiors are fun and there’s the convenience of parking. It also has the largest menu, offering everything from grilled Mexican corn to a Mexicanized lobster roll.
Tacos are priced high at $3.95 compared to the other two who offer them at $3.
In my most recent visit I had the Al Carbon taco - char grilled chicken with pico de gallo salsa and cotija cheese. It was served with a heap of shredded lettuce, covering a few morsels of chicken. The other taco was Carne Asada, presented with the same pile of lettuce shards suffocating scraps of meat.
El Rayo is the only one of the three that serves a lime rickey, an otherwise refreshing nonalcoholic drink. Yet the excessively intense lime flavor overwhelmed the food that it was meant to complement. I had to drink ice water and nibble on chips to clear my palate to taste the tacos under review.
The two different tacos were nearly indistinguishable and flavorless. Spices like ground cloves, Mexican oregano, and adobo or mole are typical flavorings for tacos; braised or grilled foods are generally marinated in onions, cider vinegar, chilies, and pungent spices. El Rayo’s approach held neither - a white-wash of tastes.
Taco Trio is a storefront/no-frills eatery in South Portland and the real deal: Mexican cooks behind the counter in the open kitchen show authenticity. The flavors were intense, the preparations genuine.
The stewed beef in the Masiza Taco was as homespun as long-braising produces with an abuela in the kitchen. The El Pastor - pork in adobo and pineapple juice - was another winner. The chicken mole, a special that day, was rich, very complex.
The tacos are $3.50 each or three for $9. They also serve aqua fresca - traditional Mexican refreshers made of various fruits like watermelon, hibiscus, and tamarind. The menu also offers burritos, tamales, quesadillas, and Mexican sopas - bowls of homemade fried corn dough with beans and choice of fillings.
I was looking forward to Taco Escobarr's recent opening on Congress Street in the grip of the Art’s District. It’s right across from their other restaurant, the highly regarded Nosh.
I was not mistaken in my assumption that the tacos here would be audacious and delicious.
The tacos are $3 each and the usual suspects are offered. The fillings are beef, pork, chicken, or fish. But the difference here is that everything is beautifully spiced and prepared.
What's inventive here is the variety of the house-made tortillas used in the taco preparations. The plain soft taco version is very good, but it’s the crisp or puffy ones that steal the show.
The crispy taco is like eating a great, greasy grilled cheese sandwich. The tortilla is fried, swathed in melted cheese and is a perfect foil for whatever filling you might choose.
The puffy taco is like eating puffed Indian puri. The fillings are not suffocated under a mountain of shredded lettuce but rather presented with an artful scattering of greens and sprinkling of queso de Chihuahua , a dry large-curd Mexican cheese.
Taco Escobarr is sure to be a hit for the nocturnal set because of its location, the extensive tequila menu at the bar, and its great food. Try it for lunch where so far it’s fairly tame.