It's nice having an excuse to spend way too much money on food this week since we've emptied out our refrigerator and don't want to make any messes before Mexico. Last night we just got salads at Pizzicato, but tonight I was SW Portland at a clients so we decided to try El Palenque.
There's a modest selection of dishes on the menu, and few ala carte items. I didn't look too closely at the Mexican dishes, although what I saw didn't look too bad, maybe slightly more interesting than most Mexican places. I didn't look too closely at the vegetarian options either. I did notice that nachos were included, so I don't know how hard they're trying. They do have vegetarian tamales and pupusas, though. Instead we looked at the Salvadorean choices. You can order pupusas or empenadas with beans and rice for under $8 as a dish, but for $22-something you can order a mixed platter for 2 (and for $28 you can order a mixed platter for 4 that has more stuff). Our came with:
2 pork and cheese pupusas
2 loroco and cheese pupusas
Refried black beans
Salvadorean cheese bread
Salsa and pickled onions
It comes out taking up an entire large pizza dish. It's really a gigantic amount of food. And by now I'd already eaten my share of some pretty tasty housemade chips and salsa. But by-golly I had a job to do, and that job was stuffing my face, and I did so happily (well not quite as happily now that I've got heartburn).
The pupusas were good, both of them. I was mistaken the other night at Santaneca when I said they were spinach and cheese pupusas. It's obvious they were the same as the loroco ones I got. Loroco, apprently, is a Salvadorean edible flower bud much like flor de calabaza for Mexicans. A similar flavor, too. Like a tangy sauteed spinach maybe. Good stuff.
My wife really enjoys fried plantains and she loved these ones. They were soft and carmelly with that nice banana flavor with some added depth. There was actually a pretty good pile of them, too, maybe 2 or 3 plantains worth.
The black beans were awesome. Excellent beans. They're made much like refried beans at most Mexican places, but with more unmashed beans than probably most Mexican restaurants. They had wondeful, flavorful creamy texture. If these weren't made with lard then the cook deserves a hell of a lot of credit for making some really great vegetarian beans. I didn't ask. I'd be interested to know.
The rice was decent. I wouldn't say it was anything special, but it had a nice flavor.
The beef tamal was a bit of a mixed bag. The masa had flavor and a surprisingly light texture, but the beef is probably too dry. It had an okay flavor, but I'm not a big fan of dry tamal innards. Masa is dry enough. It was still decent, though.
The cheese bread was weird -- and not in a good way. It was like a very light and moist corn bread or almost like a cake (I don't know what it's made with; I would guess wheat flour). On top is a very thin layer of cheese. Some people might like it; I don't know. But neither of us did at all really. To make things worse, the bread itself tasted a little off, like it had been stale and they decided to rewarm it or something.
Off to the side they provided some extra salsa and a little bowl of pickled onions. I like pickled stuff like that and it went really good with the cheesy pupusas that really are a little bland and can use a little extra flavor. There was also a little cup of cream or something in the middle of the platter. I don't know what it was good for. It seriously just tasted like cream, not sour cream or crema.
You're going to think we're crazy, but we also ordered a side order of empenadas. There were two empenadas filled with plantain and custard, I think. Though since they were sitting on the plantains they may have just been flavored by them. They also had a nice cinnamon flavor to them.
It was decent stuff. I think in some ways Santaneca is better. But Palenque is a nice little restaurant with a pleasant interior in a pleasant part of town. The family there was really nice. And the food is decent. Prices were similar at both. I think it's a toss up after one visit to each.