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The sad truth about Portland's Cafe Azul


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The sad truth about Portland's Cafe Azul

byrdhouse | Jan 2, 2003 12:24 AM

We’ve been cooking regional Mexican food for 35 years, and the prospect of learning from a chef who worked with Alice Waters and studied with Diana Kennedy was exciting. Maybe we were expecting too much, because we traveled from northern California to eat there.

Claire Archibald certainly has some interesting combinations, ones not to be found in most Mexican restaurants in the US. And this is important, and a valuable contribution. But this is not BETTER Mexican food than you will find in Arizona, Santa Fe, or Texas. And it is far more expensive. Be prepared to pay $15 for a little appetizer plate of two tacos and a quesadilla (the tortillas are not, despite the claim, hand-made).

Pretty much everything alcoholic is overpriced too, with margaritas, at $7.50-8.75, representing a 700% mark-up. And the “magical pairings of Willamette Valley wines with regional Mexican specialties” touted by Gourmet Magazine simply did not happen: they were ordinary. As is often the case with Mexican food, beer would have been a better choice.

There were a handful of terrific things: a pumpkin-seed salsa and a salsa verde that were original, bright, and alive with flavor. An earthy, sweet, fiery ancho mole lamb stew with plantain, pineapple, and sweet potato. The quesadilla, with a combination of Spanish and California cheese, was delightful. But the overall inconsistency is greater than the flashes of brilliance, and prices are ridiculous for value received.

No restaurant at the standard to which Café Azul aspires should have as many unsuccessful dishes as we experienced. An undercooked, flavorless black bean taco, a failed signature beet salad, dry cochinita pibil, a dull chilpotle salsa...all unacceptable at so high a level. And while professing dedication to real Mexican flavors, the chef seems timid about using herbs such as epazote and chiles such as habañero.

Much worse, in our view, is the absence of hand-patted corn tortillas, one of the most wondrous of breads; all the more disappointing because they were advertised. Yes, they are labor-intensive, but we've had them in at least two restaurants in Los Angeles.

This is a case where the hype has gotten ahead of the food. Sadly, this seems to have been the doing of Gourmet, which this year picked Azul as one of the top 50 restaurants in the country. Chowhounds, Gourmet Magazine is NOT your friend. Of course, the chef isn't the one who proclaimed it “one of the 50 best restaurants in the country.” On the other hand, that review is posted in their window, talk the talk, you gotta walk the walk. And it simply didn’t.

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