When you think of outstanding Mexican cuisine, Oregon is not exactly the first place that comes to mind. Before the great Californian migration, Portland's typical Mexican restaurant was a pink stucco storefront with a vaguely offensive name like "Little Pancho's Taste of Mexico," where spices, garlic and fresh vegetables made only rare appearances.
Given this history, local Mexican restaurants are already fighting an uphill battle against inertia and low standards, and Dingo's Taco Bar, on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, has the additional handicap of bearing the name of Australia's native dog. There just aren't too many pleasant associations one can make between dingoes and tacos--at least none that could count in the restaurant's favor.
Despite all this, Dingo's is actually pretty good. It's just not a Mexican restaurant. With its new Aalto Lounge-like décor, hip cocktail list and liberal interpretation of Mexican food, Dingo's is more of a gringo's taco bar--but viewed as such, it's well worth visiting. Gringos have a lot to offer the taco world--cole slaw, for instance. I admit, it wouldn't have been my first thought to smother a grilled ahi taco ($4.25) or halibut burrito ($6.25) in cole slaw, but it works .
The grilled ahi taco features spicy, moist tuna chunks atop a flat, pan-fried corn tortilla. Among the more interesting toppings are Tillamook cheddar, cumin sauce and "Dingo's spicy slaw," which is a creamier, less cabbage-intensive version of the familiar picnic denizen. For an extra $1.50 you get hefty helpings of refried beans and rice. Usually refried beans taste so lifeless that you have to wonder if they lost something essential the second time around, but these exceptional beans are intensely flavored and velvety smooth. The rice simmered with tomatoes is refreshingly piquant and fluffy.
Dingo's burritos are a lot like its tacos: Toppings, stuffings and accompaniments are all the same. Rolled up in the burrito's soft flour tortilla, though, the halibut could easily be mistaken for the ahi. Slap a little slaw on the chicken burrito ($4.75), and it becomes virtually indistinguishable from its aquatic peers. But if you're looking for breathtaking variety or authenticity, what the heck are you doing at a place called Dingo's, anyway?
So where should you go when you want that variety and authenticity--when you want real Mexican food? Oddly enough, your best choice for authentic Mexican cuisine is a restaurant that looks like a throwback to Portland's pre-Californication culinary dark days. El Sombrero, a pink stucco storefront on Northeast Sandy Boulevard with a big lime-green sombrero painted on its side, offers some of the best authentic Mexican food around (better than Catalina's on Northeast Killingsworth Street, and way better than the underground favorite, Hillsboro's La Flor de Michoacan). Like Dingo's, El Sombrero definitely caters to gringos, but it is like a missionary outpost of authentic Mexican cuisine on the way to the heathen backwater of TacoTime Gresham. Perhaps someone said, "Call it 'El Sombrero,' because our scouts have determined that the locals identify this clothing article with the false Mexican food they love." If so, their research is working. The natives are lured in by the friendly pink-and-green sign, the familiar name and the usual assortment of tacos, burritos and enchiladas. Once inside, however, they are encouraged to explore the traditional soups and entrees and are soon converted to culinary righteousness.
The number of choices is staggering: I counted 42 entrees (not including combinations), all of which sound appealing. My favorite dish is the camarones al mojo de ajo ($15.95): a massive platter of grilled prawns, shells on, served in a spicy red-pepper butter with slivers of sweet, mellow garlic. The hot peppers sear the tongue, and the fresh, luscious shrimp are more than a mouth deserves. Another house specialty is the banderillas ($16.95): festive shish kebabs of beef, chicken or shrimp, with onions and mild green peppers. Thin slices of cured pork layered between the meats impart a tantalizing smokiness as the skewers sizzle on the grill. Salsa verde, a tangy puree of tomatillos, jalepeños, garlic, cilantro and lime, is available upon request.
Of course, El Sombrero isn't perfectly authentic. The vegetables aren't as vibrant and ripe as ones that might be served in Mexico. The shrimp doesn't taste like it's been harvested from the ocean that very day. And the chips are not deep-fried to order from homemade tortillas. But given the geographic limitations of climate and season, El Sombrero's kitchen turns out dishes that taste surprisingly similar to their Mexican namesakes, and, even more importantly, dishes that are delicious and intriguing in their own right.
4612 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 233-3996
11 am-10 pm Sunday- Wednesday,
11 am-midnight Thursday- Saturday
Picks: grilled ahi taco, grilled halibut burrito, grilled chicken burrito
El Sombrero Restaurant
10820 NE Sandy Blvd., 257-9875
11 am-10 pm daily
Picks: camarones al mojo de ajo, banderillas, caldo de tortilla