Nick Zukin is a bona fide Mexican food maven, and owner of Mi Mero Mole on Southeast Division Street and in Chinatown. Michael C. Zusman is a longtime Portland food critic who collaborated with Zukin on The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, based on recipes they developed as early partners in Kenny & Zuke's delicatessen.
They targeted a several-mile stretch of Highway 99E and downtown Woodburn's Front Street taqueria row. They came, they noshed, they argued. They did the heavy lifting so you can head south with confidence. Here are their field notes.
1335 N Pacific Highway, 981-3131.
The scene: After dark, you're going to have a helluva time finding this place. Keep trying. It has the look of your average cheesy convenience store except for the murals of dancing produce and tacos. Inside, we first wandered the handful of cramped grocery aisles. Nick looked bug-eyed at the many exotic offerings; Michael just wanted to eat. We each grabbed a cold Topo Chico, which is basically a bottle full of CO² with just enough water to contain the gas, then headed to the other side of the store. There, a blender blasted a salsa-making shriek from behind cases filled with puffy rafts of chicharron, and we spied the true object of our desire: pans full of stewed meats known as guisados.
What we ate: There were eight guisados available. Knowing we had a few more stops, we only opted for four: birria de chivo (goat), beef in green salsa, pork skins in red salsa, and beef with nopales, or cactus leaves. Instead of regular tacos, we opted for picadas ($2.99 each), three-inch, thick-bottomed corn tortillas with rims that help hold the guisados' sauces.
What we loved: All the guisados were delicious and cheap. Michael hates nopales because they taste too much like green bell peppers. Nick loves them. The beef was a unanimous favorite, a luscious cut, probably cheek meat. Fresh green salsa with a good kick and crema (similar to creme fraiche) were perfect accompaniments. Michael may have also purchased a pint of chicharron trimmings—really fatty bacon bits—though he will neither confirm nor deny.
What was annoying: The vendor, while friendly, didn't shut off the goddamn blender for more than 30 seconds the whole time.
Tacos el Rey Uruapan
4903 S Pacific Highway, 515-2820, tacoselreyrestaurants.com.
The scene: A semi-dilapidated white taco truck in the corner of a Texaco parking lot. Next to the truck are a few picnic tables under a corrugated aluminum roof with a view of the vacant lot next door. Uruapan is just a tortilla toss from a monstrous Food Services of America warehouse and a flea market.
What we ate: Simple tacos and sopes are the standbys here. The latter start with an extra-thick tortilla base spread with refried beans, then topped with choice of meat, shredded lettuce, chopped tomato, Cotija cheese, crema and avocado. We shared four tacos and a sope—in hindsight, too much food, but Nick's idea. From the meats, we chose conservatively: lengua, delightfully gamey cubed beef tongue; asada, grilled minced beef; carnitas, fried shredded pork that Nick likens to a confit; and adobado, pork marinated in adobo (red chile, vinegar and seasonings) and fried on a griddle.
What we loved: We were both big fans of the adobado. And price was right: $8.50, total.
What was annoying: Nearby speeding cars and their exhaust fumes were augmented by drifting livestock smells.
Los Laureles Taqueria
611 N Pacific Highway, 981-0797.
What we ate: Nick wanted to try a tlayuda—which went for a princely $9. Think of Oaxacan pizza: 16-inch rustic corn tostada griddled to a crackly crunch and topped with refried beans and a magical elixir called asiento, which is the drippings and bits left from making carnitas. This is covered with a thick layer of shredded mozzarella-like queso Oaxaca, tomato, shredded cabbage, steak and avocado. We also had a squash blossom quesadilla and a pupusa, a 4-inch-round, thick masa tortilla, with beans and cheese in the middle.
What we loved: The tlayuda was fantastic. We might even have been willing to pay a couple more dollars, since one was enough to satisfy two average eaters.
What was annoying: It's squash blossom season, but here in the heart of the Willamette Valley they used jarred squash blossoms in the quesadilla. The big 10-inch corn tortilla itself was excellent, so instead try the quesadilla with huitlaocoche—corn smut, which is way better than it sounds.
523 N Front St., 981-8437, luisstaqueria.com.
The scene: Any "foodie" dumbass who has been to Woodburn will tell you Luis's, which sits on Woodburn's main drag, is the best in town. They don't know any better. The place looks like a party room for a kid's 6th birthday. There are sparkly, streamer-festooned cartoon-character piñatas hanging everywhere from ugly acoustic ceiling tiles, and the fluorescent lighting is bright enough to induce a migraine. Or maybe this was just Michael getting a little cranky under the weight of the crawl. Nick was still feeling strong and lithe and proceeded to order from the billboard-sized menu above the cash register.
What we ate: Nick picked five tacos: cabeza, barbacoa, birria de chivo, lengua and Luis's version of chicharron in red chile sauce. On top of that, he ordered a chavindeca, which comprises two large, grilled corn tortillas stuffed with mozzarella and meat topped with Cotija, cabbage, onion, tomato, crema and guacamole.
What we loved: We didn't go bonkers over anything. The barbacoa, with a pleasant gaminess, was the best.
What was annoying: Overall, Luis's was disappointing, especially the SpongeBob piñata. Grouchy Michael groused that the "chicken in mole" in his chavindeca tasted more like Chef Boyardee.
3724 Pacific Highway, Hubbard, 982-5118, mariscosmorales.com.
The scene: This spacious seafood specialist is just north of Woodburn and marked our last meal on the road back to Portland. We hustled inside from the parking lot as an evening thunderstorm broke the day's heat. The place is run by a family from Nayarit, one of Mexico's seafood-rich Pacific Coast states. The menu has plenty of non-seafood choices, but for our money, if a restaurant has "mariscos" in the name, that's what you order.
What we ate: Even Nick was groaning at this point—after Luis's, we stopped at El Paisanito, a nearby paleteria, and sampled a dozen or so unusual Mexican ice cream flavors. Michael is a seafood fanatic, but he barely had the will to order his favorite: a mixed seafood cocktail ("campechana") packed tight with plump shrimp, octopus and "crab" in a shrimp/tomato broth made in-house. Nick, who doesn't like most seafood, balked at ordering pescado sarandeado, a whole butterflied sea bass that's been coated in a combination of chili sauce and either mayo or butter, then grilled crispy.
What we loved: The small seafood cocktail, served in a typical beer schooner, was a great value at $9. What we really loved was the custom tile tabletop showing two hot mermaids wearing no more than seashells.
What was annoying: Fake crab sucks. We'd rather pay more for the real deal.
There's a possibility something's missing, but about a month or so ago, I tried to visit every Mexican joint in Hubbard and Woodburn for a business card and eat at all the ones I hadn't eaten at before (about 3 or 4), so it's pretty damn close to complete. There are a couple carnicerias, markets, and fruterias not included, but I don't think any of the ones not included serve tacos.
Nick Zukin also contributes to an unrelated, Texas-based taco blog called The Taco Trail.
The Woodburn Taco Directory
561 N Pacific Hwy #B, Woodburn, 982-3838
Del Sol Market
397 N Front St, Woodburn, 981-1441
Taqueria, Chinese food, market
553 N Front St, Woodburn, 981-3219
Taqueria, grill, bar.
Fruteria El Recodo
595 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 971-338-1268
Juices, snacks, fruit
1335 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 981-3131
Los Laureles Taqueria
611 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 981-0797
Taqueria, Oaxacan food
523 N Front St, Woodburn, 981-8437
311 N Front St, Woodburn, 982-0483
3724 N Pacific Hwy, Hubbard, 982-5118
El Original Taco Loco
694 N Pacific Hwy, 983-1205
429 N Front St, Woodburn, 981-9087
Paletas, ice cream
954 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 982-0465
573 N Front St, Woodburn, 896-3961
3075 E St, Hubbard, 982-0389
360 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 971-388-5983
4515 Pacific Hwy, Hubbard, 984-4367
Tacos El Rey Uruapan
4903 S Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 515-2820
160 S Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 971-338-1643
1032 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn, 902-0661
430 N First St, Woodburn, 981-3000
Mexican-American and Mexican food
450 N First St, Woodburn, OR981-9000
Taqueria, Oaxacan food
1032 N Pacific Hwy, Woodburn982-1717
Taqueria, seafood, fresh juices