I may never return to the original Caesar salad. Tijuana, where the Caesar was created by an Italian immigrant in 1924, is supposedly still safe for tourists. I'm not so sure.
That salad—long ribs of crisp romaine bombed with umami through anchovies, raw egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan—made a lasting impression. But so do photos of bloody bodies scattered by a beach where sunbathers lay in a disconcertingly like pose.
Why venture down Tijuana's Avenue de la Revolucion, risking pickpockets and the remote possibility of an errant bullet from warring cartels, when there's an equally impressive Caesar salad at Portland's Mextiza? At my table, that salad ($8) inspired a Mexican standoff over the last garlic-infused, lime-kissed crouton. Eyes narrowed and forks twitched before we halved it.
Mextiza is the second restaurant from Autentica chef and owner Oswaldo Bibiano. I can't speak to what Autentica was at its peak, but it now feels deflated, especially after a visit to its younger sibling. Two miles west on North Killingsworth Street, Mextiza's menu is much more adventurous, hitching out of Bibiano's native Guerrero to explore regional dishes from around Mexico, most tagged on the menu with their state of origin. The flavors are noticeably brighter and the prices slightly lower. Yes, the industrially stark exterior looks like a Chipotle, but the woody interior is warm and sexy. What's not to prefer?
Seven months after it opened, Mextiza also seems to be hitting pace. The wonderful emparedado de jabali ($13), a wild-boar sandwich slow-cooked until meat and juice meld with their chilies, was added last month. Served over bread with avocado chunks and an herby pico de gallo, it's the pen's prize pig. The open-faced sandwich isn't tied to any specific state, but it doesn't matter. I greatly preferred the boar to the local suckling in the lechon yucateco entree ($20), a bony pork chop topped with a slaw of cilantro and radish and served on a bed of plump and salty black beans.
The cabrito ($18), shredded young goat roasted slowly but finished with crispy tips and large slivers of red onion, is a better large plate. The meat, a speciality of northern Mexico, can stand on its own, and the accompanying orange chile vinegar sauce is better used to dip fried potato chunks.
There are a few rough edges. The $7 guacamole appetizer—mashed avocados with fried tortilla pieces—is not everything such pricey guacamole could be. We left half a bowl undipped, longing for the complimentary salsas and tortillas over at Autentica.
Likewise, the drink program is a little heavy-handed, offering tequila, mezcal, tequila, sotol and more tequila. If you love tequila—and aren't already a Matador regular—Mextiza has plenty. On the other hand, the first cocktail I ordered, a mezcal-based Morena made with chocolate bitters, cinnamon, coconut and chile was unavailable. I was pushed to the boring El Mayor, a Manhattan with tequila and cherry-bark bitters, but then retreated to a Bohemia beer. To pair with that Caesar salad, Tecate, Tijuana's local beer, would be more appropriate. Authenticity, however, isn't everything.
- Order this: Caesar salad ($8) and emparedado de jabali ($13).
- Iâll pass: We tried two desserts without being impressed.
EAT: Mextiza, 2103 N Killingsworth St., 289-3709, mextiza.com. 11 am-3 pm, 5 pm-"late" daily. $$ Moderate.