Oaxaca is famous for inventing one of the world's great cheeses. If you know how to pronounce the name of the southern Mexican state (wah-hah-ka) but not Xochitl or Tlaxcala, you probably owe it to the milky white cheese, which has the pliability and saltiness of string cheese with a little tang and a hint of farm.

Southeast Division Street's new modern Mexican joint, Xico—the waiters say "chee-ko"; Mexicans pronounce the two cities by that name "hee-ko"—was informed partly by a pilgrimage to Oaxaca. So maybe it makes sense that the best dish I've had at the restaurant run by Nostrana alumnae Kelly Myers and Elizabeth Davis is a vegetarian torta ($7) from the sliding window that services the shaded rear patio at lunchtime.

A fat stack of marinated red onions, black beans, avocado and cheese inside a toasted roll, the sandwich exploits the meltability of queso Oaxaca, which can seemingly be willed into a flow of white magma with nothing more than warm thoughts. At Xico, it's tossed directly onto the flat-top to give each gooey slice a saganaki-style char. The simple torta bests not only its pork-filled sibling and the "Sonoran" hot dog—a grilled kosher wiener topped with strips of bacon, beans and salsa that is tasty, if not authentic (see Papa-Pau review, WW, Sept. 5, 2012)—but most of the dinner menu.

Positioning itself between the refined Nuestra Cocina and street-savvy Mi Mero Mole, Xico is the kind of place where tortillas arrive wrapped like party poppers and an order of chips and salsa requires paying for tomatillo ($3) and going off-menu to get a little bowl of chips ($2).

Instead, dip into queso fundido ($10), a shallow cassolette of broiled Muenster topped with oily red crumbles of chorizo, big slivers of radish, cabbage and salsa. Or go for Xico's version of the Mexican breakfast staple chilaquiles, which they call totopos con chile—sauce-drenched tortilla triangles, fried and then topped with generous portions of sour cream and salty Cotija.

To the lighter side, there's a serviceable "sweet hot fall salad." Ours was made with romaine chopped from the pale stalks, along with two kinds of roasted squash, toasted pumpkin seeds and more cheese. Rainbow chard is made in the style of wild, leafy Mexican greens known as quelites, with peppers, onion, egg and a bath of cream. It was excellent, though off the menu on my second visit.

Entrees include a mix of Mexican standards (cheese enchiladas, pork quesadillas) and less familiar fare, like a roasted goat leg. Everything we tried was solid, if slightly flawed. The flank steak ($22) was cut into large, rare slices that looked beautiful but were far too chewy—a better cut or more heat would help. Roasted chicken and mole sauce ($20) did not come together as they should, with the rich, chocolatey sauce and moist meat remaining independently pleasant but refusing to coalesce.

A long list of rich, pricey desserts tempts—we tried a coconut flan melded to peanut butter mousse and rum-soaked brioche atop a light custard—but you're better off saving the $7 for one of those magnificent grilled-cheese tortas.

  • Order this: Salad, queso fundido, enchiladas.
  • Best deal: Vegetarian torta ($7). 
  • I’ll pass: Tortillas and salsa, sopapillas, bavette steak.

EAT: Xico, 3715 SE Division St., 548-6343, xicopdx.com. Lunch window 11:30 am-2 pm Wednesday-Sunday; dinner 5-10pm Sunday-Thursday, Friday-Saturday, 5-11 pm. $$ Moderate.