Baking pastries at Yesenia’s in Hillsboro. See video below.
There’s something wonderful about the aroma of bread baking. Even Franz with its Wonder-soft loaves smells good when the ovens are on. But Mexican bakeries—panaderias—are a whole other world. They use cinnamon, anise and orange in their fragrant pastries, called pan de dulce or pan dulce, filling them with guava, pineapple, coconut and vanilla cream. Savory breads are often stuffed with ham. Cookies even come in the shape of a pig. While every Mexican market in PDX carries these kind of goods, a smaller number make their own breads and pastries. Of these, two are a step above the rest: Yesenia’s and La Espiga Dorada. Don’t be shy. Just follow the grandmother with toddlers in tow, or the day laborer picking up some quick fuel, or the professional getting a box of sweets for the office. Grab a tray and some tongs and load up from the bakery case or the racks. (Hint: Items from the rack are fresher.)
Whether you want to avoid seeing people making googly eyes and kissie faces at each other while you try to eat or whether you just want to avoid paying double for a meal served by a frazzled waiter, here are 10 options to escape the trappings of dining out on Valentine’s Day. They’re un-hip and non-trendy. And most are inexpensive and casual, too. Also, because most of these places are rarely slammed, it’s a good list to keep around for a Friday or Saturday night when waiting 45 minutes for a table sounds especially miserable.
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.”
In the wake of IACP, Eat Mobile, and Taste of the Nation, all within a week of each other, I almost missed the publication of Devour, Willamette Week’s annual shopping guide for foodies. Glad I didn’t.
This year’s Devour has to be the most comprehensive guide to markets, bakeries, coffee roasters, kitchen supply stores, and the like ever printed in Portland. And it’s broken down by dozens of categories from “Open Sunday” to “Meat Market” to “Japanese”. And it’s not just a directory; each store gets a small review with recommendations. And it’s free.
There are some places missing here and there (one of which is included below), but I plan to keep it in my car at all times, a cheat sheet to exploring places I haven’t been or finding hard-to-find foods wherever I am. However, I suspect a lot of people will just use it for the markets and shops closest to their homes or offices. Following are 5 reasons to do a little exploring of your own.
Forced to choose, I would rather eat the rest of my days in the suburbs and outskirts of Portland, than in Portland’s core. No, I’m no fan of sprawl and McMansions. And yes, I realize that means giving up favorites like Toro Bravo, Apizza Scholls, Le Pigeon, Wildwood, and even the restaurants I own part of. But I’d gain places like Yuzu, La Guanaquita, Nakwon, Pho Oregon, Ocean City, El Inka, and Puerto Marquez. These small ethnic restaurants are the ones with the foods that I constantly crave — the ones I go to week after week. If nothing else, I’d certainly save money. There’s also not a single great ethnic market in downtown or inner-east.
As further evidence, I submit Tigard Plaza. In one strip mall are an Indonesian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant, and a Lebanese restaurant serving some of the best dishes of their kind in the metro area — many that you can’t find anywhere else. There’s another restaurant serving solid fish & chips and another serving decent Vietnamese food. Add to that a Mexican market, an Indian market, an Asian seafood market, a cake decorating shop, and a homebrewing supply store and you’ve got a lot of foodie fun per square mile.
Willamette Week’s annual Cheap Eats issue came out yesterday. Despite a couple restaurants that I’d really like to see dropped from the list (cough…cough….Laughing Planet), it’s a very good list overall. If you want to browse the choices quickly before digging into the reviews, I’ve distilled them at Portlandfood.org.
Included in the issue was a fun listing of bites, snacks, and entire meals $7 or under. Following are 10 additions to the list — some of my favorites — from a whole new set of shops, some of which weren’t covered in the issue at all.
3 Hermanos (moved and renamed La Chiquita)
Last December, Robb Walsh, a Beard-award winning food writer from the Houston Press, contacted me about a project he was working on. You’ll notice one of his books has regularly been featured on my site in the left column. I own several of his books and respect his work a lot, so I was honored to have him contact me — to even know who I am.
The project? Taco trucks outside the southwest, how they provide “formerly virgin taco territories” the opportunity for some truly authentic comida — an article for Gourmet Magazine. Would I like to help? Hell, yeah.
Mexico Lindo’s Posole
Cinco de Mayo is one of Portland’s better festivals. It has a character. It’s not just another county fair on the waterfront. In 2005 I lamented the event’s cultural decline compared with the wonderful 2004 Cinco de Mayo, my first. There were fewer real artists. There were more commercial promotions selling credit cards and the like. And basically, this year’s is the same. There were only four to six real artists selling Mexican crafts. The majority consisted of the crappier Saturday Market vendors — bad jewelry, cheap imports, and caricature artists.
That said, it’s still worth visiting. The latin musical entertainment is worth the admission price, especially the folklorico and mariachi. And then there’s the food…
Version 2.0 of Extramsg.com’s dining guide and tip sheet for the Portland metro area is finally finished. You can visit it here or by clicking the link at the left under Portland Food News.
The tip sheet has been greatly overhauled. Categories, such as Indian and Sushi/Japanese have been added, but also many of the entries in each category have been updated or completely changed. There’s also a new listing of “Quick Picks” by neighborhood in descending order by price.
Hopefully this tip sheet will help visitors and new residents of Portland — or those looking to expand their culinary horizons. If you would like to criticize or comment on the tip sheet, please follow the link in the dining guide itself.
La Calaca Comelona’s mole verde
Cinco de Mayo isn’t much of a holiday in Mexico. But say “Diez y Seis de Septiembre” — the date of Mexico’s independence — to the average American and you’ll get blank stares. So Cinco de Mayo seems as good a time as any to highlight the set of six midscale Mexican restaurants in Portland offering their own take on Mexico’s regional and traditional dishes: Autentica, La Calaca Comelona, DF, Nuestra Cocina, Taqueria Nueve, and La Vanguardia.
A Note on Authenticity
Americans have become accustomed to cheesy Mexican restaurants with gawdy decor. Who hasn’t ended up at a birthday party, the honoree strapped into a sombrero only slightly smaller than the table, an oversized, fluorescent margarita in front of them while a band of mariachis sing feliz cumpleanos, happy birthday, or some especially noisy equivalent ending with whistles and ay-ay-ays? What’s funny is that this isn’t an entirely inauthentic Mexican experience. It may be a caricature of Jalisco culture, but it’s based on something real. You can fly down to Guadalajara right now and see much the same thing.
So what’s a gringo to do? Enjoy what’s put before them, for one thing. It’s difficult for any of us to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic, even Mexican-Americans who may only know their own region’s food, may not be familiar with current trends, or may just have bad taste. I’m in the Yucatan right now, for example, and on every little cocina economica’s menu (and these are the restaurants where most Mexicans actually eat) is spaghetti. The most popular street foods are hot dogs and hamburgers.
The six restaurants in this report vary in their commitment to Mexico’s traditions. But that will be a secondary concern for me and one that I’ll try to comment on here and there, but won’t affect my judgment of the restaurant. You can decide for yourself how important authenticity is. It’s enough for me that all of these restaurants are working with a Mexican culinary palette, making dishes that are ostensibily Mexican. I haven’t included Oba, for example, because its menu, while having many Mexican dishes, also has Caribbean, Central and South American influenced dishes. I consider it more Nuevo Latino, grabbing from all Latin American cuisines.
Sorry for the tangent, but the issue always comes up when discussing these places. On to the food…