Portlanders are sentimental. When a food-cart pod closes, they cry. When a bowling alley is replaced by a hardware store, they moan. When a goat pack is forced from a vacant lot to make room for apartments, they weep. (The goats did not become goat steaks—they just moved to a less desirable neighborhood.)
Despite nativist fondness for unevolved relics from the Golden Age of Belmont Street Heroin Dens, my encounters with them have been, let's say, Tacoma-esque.
So I greeted the return of Taqueria Nueve with more than mild trepidation. Portlanders sure do get excited for ultimately unsuccessful restaurant reboots. Remember Yaw's Top Notch? The New Notch closed after eight months. Macheezmo Mouse's Boss Sauce? The latest plan for resurrection seems to involve a food cart. The return of an upscale Mexican joint from the no-chips-here-es-muy-autentico glory days of gringo-chefed nuevo Mexicano? Ay ay ay.
And yet I'd count Taqueria Nueve Dos as one of my favorite new restaurants in town. Already, the 4-month-old eatery—previously in business for Dubya's presidency, minus a few months—sits at No. 3 on my informal Power Poll of Portland Poblano, right behind Nuestra Cocina and Tienda Santa Cruz.
Yes, there's an $8 margarita involved. Taqueria Nueve—"T9," the kids call it—was known for making the best in town. Es verdad: El Jimador blanco, lime, raw-sugar simple syrup and triple sec blended into an alchemy that's sweet, tart, salty and as thick as a barrel-aged stout. The sangria ($7) is similarly balanced and crisp, though please avoid the salt lick of a michelada, which hasn't scaled up as gracefully as its compadres.
From there you'll want the Caesar salad con ceviche ($10.25), topped with Cotija, anchovy, garlic and, on our visit, delicately marinated and fleshy white lingcod. The fish changes frequently—sometimes in the middle of dinner service. Oh, and the only tortilla chips in the house, which I gratefully repurposed for dipping in the red salsa made with nutty chile de árbol.
As appetizers go, the pancho ($4.50) and asparagus a la parrilla ($5.25) are also excellent. The former is a fluffy house tortilla, fried and topped with delicate hon-shimeji and maitake mushrooms, pickled onion, black beans and a tangy goat's milk cheese. The latter is four spears, fried, with sweet grilled onions and a squirt of a lime.
You'll also do well to go in hard on the tacos. Sure, they're pricey: $3.25 for chicken or vegetarian roasted poblano, $4 for lengua or wild-boar carnitas, with asada, brisket and cochinita pibil priced in between. But these tacos are worth the price, especially the smoky asada and extra-juicy carnitas.
Not everything was as good. The "enchiladas" ($10.75) come deconstructed, as is common in Oaxaca, with the meat above folded tortillas. The form was a minor problem compared to the grilled chicken, which was dry and stringy. Flattened and gutted tamales ($13) have a smoky black mole that almost makes the masa seem burnt—the masa itself is gooey—and the gamey duck was all but lost in the mix.
The desserts offered a similar mix of the merely serviceable and extraordinary. On my second visit, I found the limey dressing on the flan ($6) a little confusing. But I may also have been bitter about not getting tres leches ($7) numero dos. T9's tres leches is the best version of the dairy-intense Mexican cake I've ever had—spongy layers infused with sweet milk and covered in an eggy meringue frosting with sugared dwarf strawberries.
If Taqueria Nueve's reboot doesn't last, I'd pine for that cake. Until then, look for me with a margarita and a plate of $4 tacos, looking out the windows of the former Beaker & Flask toward where those happy little Belmont goats once frolicked, just blocks from the late-night cart pod that's soon to be apartments.
- Order this: Margarita ($8), carnitas tacos ($4 each), vegetal tacos ($3.25) and tres leches cake ($7).
- Best deal: Tecate with lime ($2) and cochinita pibil tacos ($3.25).
- Iâll pass: Enchiladas ($10.75), tamales ($13).
GO: Taqueria Nueve, 727 SE Washington St., 954-1987, taquerianueve.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday.