I still lament Cafe Azul's passing. Still the best Mexican food I've had in the United States. But I have to admit that the pain has been steadily reduced by the growing number of midscale/regional Mexican restaurants in Portland. Most are rather good and have at least a few great dishes. Compared to other restaurants at their level, they're relative values, too, with rarely, if ever, a dish over $20. Here's my survey of the six midscale Mexican restaurants in Portland:
Autentica: Started by a cook at the now defunct Basilico who is from Guerrero. Lives up to its name by making food very similar to what you get at better homestyle restaurants in Mexico, but with top quality ingredients. Makes fresh tortillas. Has pozole on Thursdays only. Quality seafood. Lunch is a very good value. Great octopus tostada, quesadilla with epazote, and mole. Most consistently good, though maybe doesn't reach the highs of some of the others.
La Calaca Comelona: Oldest of the restaurants in this survey, but still as good as any. Most Mexican in style with lots of central Mexican specialties. Makes tortillas by hand. The botanas menu has many wonderful dishes and values. Makes its own chipotles. Moles are great, but spendy. Ceviche is mediocre. Some other dishes fall short, such as their tacos, but they have many terrific items, like their pambazos. Cool, funkily decorated restaurant.
DF: Taqueria Nueve's fancier sister restaurant in the Pearl. Menu is more consistent than when they began. Really good empenadas with huitlacoche. Their mole poblano is better than Nueve's. Really good trio of ceviches. Doesn't make their own tortillas. Shrimp soup sucks big time. Pretty good desserts.
Nuestra Cocina: The challenger to Nueve for popularity. It's less consistent, however, on its dishes, though some are really good. And it may beat Nueve on the quality of its desserts, which are terrific. Also, unlike Nueve, they make their tortillas fresh, a big advantage. Best with antojitos like the gorditas, sopes, and tacos. However, their pumpkin soup and mojo de ajo are very good. Use their guajillo sauce on too many dishes. Unbelievably bad ceviche has the texture of cat food but tastes worse. One of the few true failures, its inexplicable why its still on the menu.
Taqueria Nueve: Popularity of this restaurant may be responsible for showing others how they could succeed with quality, regional Mexican in Portland. Rotating rellenos can be interesting and tasty. Duck confit for mole makes the dish special. Great wild boar carnitas are crispy and a little gamey. Very classic ceviche is a very good value. Doesn't make their own tortillas. Great desserts, especially the tres leches.
La Vanguardia: Newest and least consistent. Also cheapest. The only two dishes I've had that were clearly good were the chorizo and potato taquitos and the ceviche. I guess you can count the horchata ice cream, too, which is fantastic. Other dishes either need some tweaking or are misconceived. Has potential, but it's not living up to it and I suspect, given how slow it is, that it will fail like its previous incarnation, Cobras & Matadors. Doesn't use fresh tortillas and doesn't live up to its name, whatsoever. Charges $5 per order for chips and salsa.
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