In the Oregonian’s recent anti-foodie invective, Lee Williams highlighted Taco Time as a place where patriotic, American-cheese-loving Portlanders eat Mexican food. Todd Pedersen, owner of two local Taco Time stores, though, laid down the gauntlet:
“A lot of foodies don’t want to go to chains even though they might actually have some good food, just because of the thought….They might go to (fast-food restaurants); they just don’t admit it!”
[Pedersen] challenges his menu against the few and favored Mexican carts, trucks and taquerias of the foodies: “Come on,” he says. “Let’s blind taste-test them.”
He doesn’t just claim that Taco Time can compete against some random mom and pop Mexican joint, taqueria, or taco truck. He says it can compete against the very best. Okay, as El Mariachi would say: “Let’s play.”
Growing up in rural Lane County on the edge of Fern Ridge Resevoir, the only fast food joints close-by were the Veneta Dairy Queen and Taco Time. Every Tuesday was “Taco Tuesday” and my friends and I would head down from Elmira High School at lunch for 49 cent tacos. In college, mexifries and a veggie burrito were a regular reminder of home. I’m quite familiar with Taco Time and its menu. I’ve always considered it a big step up from Taco Bell and most other fast food Mexican joints. Hell, I would say their tots are tops. You’d be lucky to find a tater tot in any bar or tavern that’s as good as the mexifries from Taco Time — and Taco Time’s would be half the price.
But taco trucks and taquerias don’t serve tater tots. They serve tacos. So in taking up Pedersen’s challenge, I focused on one of the few menu items that all taco trucks, taquerias, and Taco Times share: carnitas. I could talk about the mediocre ground beef, so fine that it could be sucked through a straw. Or their cheese, a mediocre cheddar, pre-shredded, and how when it sits out, it becomes plasticky and hard, even getting stuck in your teeth. Or I could mention their crisp bean burrito and how an internal layer of the flour tortilla stays uncooked, getting soggy and pasty as it blends with the meat juice. But I won’t. I’ll focus on the “street tacos”, specifically the pork, ie, the carnitas. And to be honest: they were better than I expected.
Before I move on to the reviews, though, we need a little background on carnitas. If you read the Wikipedia entry, you’ll get some common misinformation:
Carnitas, literally “little meats”, is a type of braised or roasted (often after first being simmered) pork in Mexican cuisine. Pork carnitas is traditionally made using the heavily marbled, rich ‘boston butt’ or ‘picnic ham’ cuts of pork.
In Mexico, everyone knows what is meant by carnitas: pork cooked in the style of the Mexican state of Michoacan. If you want to see the process, there’s no better step-by-step photo journal than My Life in Mexico by Rolly Brook. (A better source than Wikipedia in English, though it’s a a bit of plagiarism based on an out-of-print Spanish source, is the taco article on Mexconnect.) In Mexico, the restaurants and butchers that specialize in carnitas start with a whole pig. But more importantly, the parts aren’t simmered, braised or roasted; they’re fried. The most comparable dish that many Americans are familiar with is duck confit. But I like to think of it more like whole hog BBQ, but instead of smoked, the pig is fried until crisp on the outside, succulent and tender on the inside. While there are many shortcuts for carnitas, some better than others, if this contrast between crispness and succulence doesn’t exist, then the essence of carnitas really hasn’t been captured. It’d be like eating a doughnut that had been boiled instead of fried. Same shape. Might even be good. But just not the same.
For the carnitas showdown with Taco Time, I started by forming a baseline. I’ve eaten at scores of taquerias, taco trucks, carnicerias, and other Mexican food joints in Portland that the Oregonian considers elitist. But I felt it was important to focus on carnitas, take pictures, and carefully note the differences between the various tacos so I could make an honest and objectively-based comparison with the ones at Taco Time. I ended up going to six different spots, ranging in price and location: Por Que No, La Bonita, Lindo Michoacan, Ochoa’s, Ely’s, and La Catrina.
Por Que No: Por Que No is a mid-scale taqueria and hipster hang-out with two locations, one on upper Hawthorne near Apizza Scholl’s and Zach’s Shack, and the original on N. Mississippi. I’ve had my complaints about the place, mostly that they’re slow despite having a ton of people in the kitchen, and that while their meats and house-made tortillas are decent to great, their salsas can ruin a meal. (Ask for them on the side.) Meanwhile, they have the most expensive tacos in Portland, starting at $2.75 each. (And they charge a ridiculous $3.00 for chips and salsa, though the chips are excellent.)
That being said, they’ve consistently improved their tortillas through the years and they’re often among the best in town — thin, light, and moist, though they could use more color. The carnitas have one of the best caramelized exteriors. The meat itself is tender and unctuous. They come standard with cilantro, onion, and queso fresco, plus their green salsa, which is good, since it’s much better than their red salsa. Honestly, it’s probably their best taco and also their cheapest.
La Bonita: When people ask me for a taqueria recommendation in Portland — unless I think they’re willing to travel to Gresham or Woodburn — I send them to La Bonita. It’s my favorite spot in Portland-proper for a cheap, sit-down Mexican meal. It has a lot of competition, too, even on its own street, NE Alberta, where at least five other taco trucks and taquerias beat it on price. But La Bonita seems to prioritize quality more than its neighbors, earning the modest premiums.
The tacos at La Bonita — including the carnitas — start at $2.00 each. They come on excellent hand-made tortillas dotted with flavorful brown spots, each containing an air-pocket in the center, the result of the tortillas puffing while on the flat-top, a sign of a skilled tortilla-maker. The carnitas could have a better crust, but they’re nicely lubricated with their own fat and well-seasoned. They even have the faint flavor of citrus. Their green salsa has a nice tartness from tomatillos which effectively cuts through the richness.
Lindo Michoacan: Lindo Michoacan, located at the culinary corner of Divsion and 34th, must be one of Portland’s most popular (and best) taco trucks. It’s been around as long as I’ve been searching out tacos in Portland — which is close to a decade. With a heated indoor dining area, it stays busy year-round, too. My only serious complaint about the place is that it’s not open on Sundays, which seems to be the day I most want to go.
Tacos are $1.50 each, but come with unnecessarily doubled-up hand-made tortillas. The tortillas are very good, nicely browned, but could be more delicate. The meat, while not as crisp on the edges as some, is among the most flavorful and rich. I got it with the cilantro and onion on the side so that you can see how it glistens in the picture above. Lindo Michoacan offers three house-made salsas, all of which are quite good.
Ochoa’s: While quality at Ochoa’s (and its lesser, related location down the street in Hillsboro) has waxed and waned through the years as different members of the family have taken over the reins, it’s currently putting out some of the best food in its history and some of the best Mexican food in all of PDX. Ochoa’s also sells carnitas by the pound, which they slow-fry in-house and put on display in a large glass case on their counter along with house-made pork cracklins. As a result, you can not only get shoulder meat (maciza) and ribs (costillas), but also offal, such as the skin (cueros/cueritos) and, my favorite, buche, the stomach and intestines. (Buche has a wonderful texture, somewhere between meat and fat, without the gamy flavor of beef intestines. In the photo above, you can see the buche to the back right and a little bit of cueros that snuck onto the maciza, or typical carnitas, taco in the front.)
Tacos at Ochoa’s are only a dollar each, yet still come with hand-made tortillas. And most of the time (they have a big staff), they’re terrific tortillas — light, delicate, puffed center, with a nice bit of browning. The carnitas have moderate to heavy caramelization with a subtle citrus flavor to balance the succulent pork. Ochoa’s has four to five house-made salsas every day, each one unique and delicious. One of their best is a pico de gallo that includes diced nopal cactus paddle. (Oh, and there’s free self-serve chips.)
Ely’s: With two locations, one at 185th and TV Hwy, and the other roaming Washington County, Ely’s is probably the best set of taco trucks west of the hills. In the days when they still served birria de chivo (braised goat), they were even better, but they still put out some of the best tacos in Portland, easily beating out the two other taco trucks sharing the Aloha Shopping Center parking lot.
Tacos are an inexpensive $1.25 each. They come on hand-made tortillas, charred better than any other in this survey, though they’re a bit too thick, leaving them a little undercooked in the center. The carnitas are well-seasoned and moist, though there’s little caramelization. Salsas are excellent, especially their fiery and creamy taqueria-smooth guacamole.
La Catrina: I can remember when La Catrina had one truck, specializing in giant tortas, on 82nd. Now they have three trucks, plus a restaurant on Killingsworth, and just purchased the Ole Ole on SW Jefferson. And still they make the best tortas in Portland and put out quality tacos into the wee hours.
The trucks often have 99 cent taco specials, but their normal price is $1.25 each, still among the cheapest in town. The meat is luscious and well-seasoned and -crisped. The only thing that holds these tacos back are the tortillas, which come from a local tortilleria. They’re better than what you get at the grocery store, but not a lot better. At least they refresh them well, lightly frying them before stuffing them with your choice of meat. This is a common practice in Mexico, but usually the tortillas are dipped in the drippings of meats that have been simmering in fat for hours, also giving them some flavor. That’s not the case here. La Catrina does offer near-perfect renditions of the three most common American taqueria salsas: smokey, orange-colored chile de arbol, tart and vegetal salsa verde, and creamy smooth guacamole. They also do an excellent job with buche.
At Taco Time, you get two street tacos per $3.50 order. (You cannot order the tacos individually.) Each taco should be familiar to anyone who frequents a taco truck or taqueria. They’re merely two white corn tortillas with shredded pork, cilantro, and onion. I had expected the meat to be terrible: dry, stringy, and flavorless. But it wasn’t. It was actually tender and somewhat moist, despite being heated in the microwave. It was over-salted with a strange blend of herbs, more European than Mexican, to my palate. It wasn’t crisp or truly succulent. It appeared to have been braised or roasted, rather than fried. It didn’t have that unctuous quality that the best carnitas have. And it wasn’t crisp or even golden-brown. But still, the meat was tasty enough and the best part of the tacos.
Unfortunately, the tortillas were awful. To me, there are at least five levels of tortillas, commercial tortillas, like you’d get at the supermarket, being the worst. These were a bad version of those. I’ve had drier corn tortillas, but I don’t think I’ve ever had worse tasting corn tortillas. They had a strong sour, or even metallic, aftertaste. I went to a second and third Taco Time location, ordering more of the tacos, just to make sure. They were every bit as bad. I think the most unsophisticated palate would notice the off-flavors, especially if given a quality tortilla for comparison. I couldn’t get over the flavor and ended up finishing the meat while leaving most of the the tortillas.
I did have some hope for the salsa. I remembered their salsa as being decent, more like homemade than the cayenne-spiked ketchup packets that Taco Bell offers. And it was better than Taco Bell. But overall, the salsas were flat-tasting. The green salsa lacked the tomatillo tartness that most taqueria salsas have, even when using a commercial jarred version, such as Herdez. And “The Original” salsa had some odd ingredients in it, such as celery, and tasted more of chili powder than fresh ingredients.
Maybe I was a bit taken in by their marketing. They make much ado on their promotionals about how their salsas are made fresh every day. But they didn’t seem especially fresh. So I asked. Two of the three salsas come pre-made in containers from some central commissary or factory somewhere. The third, “The Original,” is indeed made, if not every day, then most every day, in each store, 10 gallons at a time.
But I pressed on. “What does making a batch entail? Do you use fresh tomatoes, canned tomatoes, what?” The answer was worse than I expected. The cute and bubbly gringo girl at the counter wanted to help, but she didn’t know. The young Mexican guy in the back put it succinctly, rolling his eyes. The “freshly made” salsa consists of three things: tomato paste, water, and seasoning packet. That’s it. They put it all together, simmer it for two hours, and out comes “fresh” salsa.
First of all, the language on their website and signage suggests that more than one salsa is made fresh. Secondly, they’re really dumbing-down the meaning of “fresh”. By Taco Time’s standard, Rice-a-Roni or Kraft Macaroni and Cheese would be “fresh” products. At least a place like Baja Fresh, actually makes their salsas from fresh ingredients. You can watch them roasting tomatoes. Tomato paste? Ewww.
So overall, Taco Time’s tacos were mixed. You can get worse meat if you randomly choose a taqueria or taco truck. However, I’ve visited scores of taco trucks and taquerias in Portland and very few would be worse. All of the carnitas in this survey were much better. None had worse tortillas or salsas. None, not even La Catrina, which uses tortillas from a bag.
Wrapping it All Up (You Know, Like a Taco)
Todd Pedersen is full of shit. I doubt he’s ever compared his product to a taco truck’s or a taqueria’s. Either that, or at best he’s self-deluded, at worst a lying tub of dreck from his stores’ grease traps. I believe strongly that most people can tell the difference between good and bad food; they just don’t have sufficient experience with what’s good to tell when they’re getting something mediocre or sub-par. (Or they’re just concerned with something besides the quality, such as price or convenience.)
The really frustrating thing, though, as with the steak challenge, is that the Oregonian’s food editor, who should know better and shouldn’t have such delusions or prejudices, validated Pedersen’s bullshit claim. It’s a disservice to their readership, and not only us American-cheese-haters. And how do they justify it? By insinuating that someone who buys a taco at a taco truck or taqueria is an elitist.
First, nearly all the tacos in the survey were cheaper than the ones from Taco Time. Only the tacos from Por Que No, which is a trendy, somewhat upscale restaurant, were meaningfully more expensive. La Bonita’s were only 25 cents more each, yet come on hand-made tortillas (and taste a lot better).
Second, other than La Bonita and Por Que No, the vast majority of customers at these “elitist” taco vendors are working-class Mexicans. When you start asserting that a place filled with the people who wash your dishes, cut your lawns, or pick your fruit is “elitist”, you’re insane in the membrane.
The Oregonian blew an opportunity to do what I’ve tried to do here. They could have reached out to a broad audience, many of whom probably enjoy Taco Time on a regular basis, and showed them how they could get a better taco maybe even at a better price, pretty much anywhere in PDX. But that would have taken thoughtfulness and not given them the opportunity to lash out at “foodies”.
Ironically, the following week the Oregonian came out with an article on Mexican food in Vancouver, claiming that two gringo-oriented places in downtown Vancouver were the best north of the Columbia.
Por Que No
3524 N Mississippi Ave
Portland, OR 97227
4635 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Portland, OR 97215
2839 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
3360 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
943 Southeast Oak St
Hillsboro, OR 97123
Ely’s Taco Truck
185th & Tualatin Valley Hwy
La Catrina Tortas Gigantes
Over 300 Locations
Founded in Eugene, OR
Headquartered in Scottsdale, AZ