Maya’s fish taco avoids the common fish-stick-in-a-tortilla syndrome.
Portland is lucky. Even in downtown, there are several taquerias, chain taquerias, and easily more than a dozen taco trucks. Few cuisines offer such a value — such flavor per dollar and calories per dollar. But are any of the downtown choices any good?
While working downtown, I never found a source for Mexican food I really loved. In an effort to provide a guide for downtown lunchers, and hopefully find a great Mexican among the high-rises, I am going to try to make a systematic survey of most, if not all, Mexican food in downtown over the next several weeks. I start with the four non-chain taquerias: El Grillo, Maya’s, El Pepes, and Mazatlan.
El Grillo’s infamous doorway to the twin Bs, el baño and breasts.
Is there anything a man don’t stand to lose,
When the devil wants to take it all away?
Cherish well your thoughts, and keep a tight grip on your booze,
Cause thinkin’ and drinkin’ are all I have today.
Oh, those El Grillo blues.
For a large number of Americans, their only experience with Mexico is in a border town. Tijuana, Nogales, Juarez, Laredo, Mexicali — capitals of underage drinking, cheap drugs, and brothels. I think this association with the “real” Mexico is the appeal of El Grillo, a dive whose distinction is due as much to the strip club next door as to its food.
It’s not that the food is bad. Working a block away for a time, I regularly found myself at El Grillo. It’s cheap, edible, and has a place to sit out of the weather, unlike the taco trucks. Plus, the entertainment value of watching college-age guys dare each other to use the restroom located in the adjoining nudie bar.
But the tortillas are mediocre and out of a bag. The carnitas are relatively dry without any crust. The fish tacos merely greasy fish stick tacos. Other meats, such as the al pastor (which never touched a spit) is saucy and mediocre as well.
In addition to tacos, you can buy tortas, burritos, quesadillas, huevos al gusto, etc — all at decent prices. After three o’clock, you can order the seafood dishes that seem to be favorites with the Mexican customers. They’re expensive by comparison and I’ve never ordered them based on the quality of the other food.
703 SW Ankeny St
Portland, OR 97205
Looking down on Maya’s open kitchen from the second floor dining room.
Being at the last Max stop in the fareless square, Maya’s serves an eclectic clientelle — suits, Mexican laborers, hippie white chicks with dreads, homeless looking for a cheap meal. A small bar serving up margaritas, plus two-level seating, adds another dimension to the clients: those who come for margaritas.
Unlike most Portland taquerias, several of Maya’s taco fillings are guisados (stews). Mole, chile verde, and chile colorado lay alongside beans waiting to be served up. Chicken, beef, and fish are cooked fresh to order. All of this is encouraging.
But ultimately, Maya’s can’t compare with the best taquerias in town. The flavors just aren’t there. The guisados don’t have the intensity or complexity of flavor they should. Salsas are average and tortillas are not made to order.
Their best option is the fish taco (a common special). It’s not great, and I’m not sure why anyone would want both cabbage and lettuce, but the lack of breading with a nice sear and relatively fresh taste goes a long ways. It’s just nice to get a fish taco that doesn’t look like a fish stick wrap. They also serve an inexpensive ceviche, starting at just $3.50, and a scallop ceviche.
1000 SW Morrison St
Portland, OR 97205
They may not taste that great, but they look and sound okay.
El Pepe’s may have the best menu of any taqueria anywhere in PDX:
· Carne en su jugo, that soupy beef, a specialty of Jalisco.
· Tinga, the smoky stew from Puebla.
· Picadillo, that “chopped” mixture of meat and whatever else sounds good.
· Mole, the soul of Mexican food.
Add to these the more common al pastor and carne asada, plus burritos, enchiladas, chile verde, chile colorado, machaca, albondigas, huevos al gusto, and even churros. You can see why I was excited to try this place. And it’s not in some far-off Hillsboro dive. It’s right on the Max line downtown.
Too bad the execution is so weak. As with all the downtown taquerias, tortillas are from a bag. Looking back into the kitchen, cans of Embaza this-and-that line the shelves. Tacos come topped with cheddar and iceberg. Their salsa roja shares a strong kinship with ketchup.
The mole tastes like it’s from a jar. (In fact, I’ve used mole from a jar, and it tasted better. At least the chicken was moist and tender.) I had a hard time distinguishing fillings for my tacos. Did I really order tinga? Could it be the entomatado instead? No, I double-checked. The tinga tastes like little more than chicken stewed in tomatoes. No complexity, little chile, no smokiness. Other stewed fillings such as the carne en su jugo and chile verde are equally bland and boring.
Does the cook lack a tongue? Did they think it was enough to use the names, but not the flavors? Do they just assume that no one downtown would be ready for real Mexican food?
I so wanted this place to be good. I even returned for more disappointment a few days after my first visit. Ni modo. Wishes for what could have been.
50 SW Pine Street
Portland Oregon 97203
Don’t worry. That’s salsa in those ketchup and mustard bottles.
Less than a block away from El Pepes, Mazatlan provides a more typical taqueria experience. By comparison, the menu is boring, but the execution is adequate.
Choose from typical fillings such as carne asada, al pastor, carnitas, and fish. The best of these is probably the carne asada which comes in large chunks nicely crusted and still moist inside. Carnitas, a little dry, seems boiled rather than simmered in fat. The fish tastes like Van De Kamps.
Mazatlan offers a daily lunch special for $5.50 on the white-board behind the register. They range from enchiladas to taco salads to chicken in mole. Prices on standard menu platters are similarly priced. For something a little different, you can get the nopalitos platter for $5.25.
116 SW Pine St
Portland, OR 97204