In the past decade, the number of Latinos living in Portland has more than tripled. Emigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries have always been the largest minority group in the state, with a double-edged history that stretches back to the Spanish explorers who sailed up the coast in the 17th century to the region's very first cowboys (buckaroo, the name for horse-riding, hat-wearing, beef wranglers in the dry western states, comes from vaquero) to the postwar labor force that made agriculture Oregon's top industry. But until their numbers began to swell right here in River City, they were pretty much invisible to the average urban dweller.
One of the most satisfying results of this demographic shift has been the proliferation of taquerias, the informal, order-at-the-counter restaurants that evolved from the street vendors and makeshift food stalls of Mexico. Along with a more substantial physical presence, the taquerias here in el norte offer more than just tacos.
Ole! Ole! typifies the new breed. Owner Luis Diaz comes from Cuernavaca, in the mountains south of Mexico City, and he's worked in restaurants in both Mexico and the United States. At his taquerias, Diaz augments the typical taco ($1.25) and burrito ($3.25) choices of carne asada and carnitas with chorizo, a chile-spiked Mexican sausage; lengua, a slow-cooked beef tongue; and machaca, eggs scrambled with shredded beef.
He also offers a sandwich ($3.50) and tostada ($3) stuffed with what he calls "my Mom's tinga," shredded chicken cooked with onions, bell peppers and tomatoes in a chipotle chile sauce that seems to have a little hint of clove. Another unusual menu item is the taquitos dorados ($3), crispy corn tortillas rolled flauta-style around a filling of mashed potatoes and topped with lettuce, tomato, guacamole, sour cream and the mild Mexican cheese called queso fresco. The tostada de camarones combines bay shrimp and avocado with lettuce and tomato, all piled deeply over a crispy, flat corn tortilla. The shrimp "cocktail" is more like gazpacho--prawns and avocado in a soupy tomato broth flavored with onion and cilantro.
The downtown version is popular with PSU students and staff, while the eastside spot draws a cross-section of its neighborhood. Mexican pop music on the stereo provides a bouncy atmosphere, and bottles of imported Jarrisco soda, in flavors such as gauva and pineapple, add sunshiny color.
San Felipe Taqueria's specialty is the fish taco ($2.50), the ubiquitous street food of the sleepy fishing village on the Sea of Cortes that it the restaurant's namesake. In a nod to the Pacific Northwest, the fish here is halibut rather than shark, and the battered filet, topped with shredded cabbage and a slightly sweet, mustard-flavored mayo, is crispy outside but still moist and tender.
Owner Shamady Aguirre Weed came to Portland in the mid-'80s at the invitation of a couple who had met her mother while driving their RV down the Baja Peninsula. She studied English, fell in love with the son of her hosts and stayed here to raise a family. Last October, she opened the taqueria with her mother, Marta Cordero (a.k.a. Mama Marta), who had run a popular fish taco stand in San Felipe. Cordero's recipes and her daughter's refusal to compromise on ingredients give San Felipe an extra edge.
From her two-month quest to select the restaurant's tortillas, which resulted in the use of seven different varieties, to hand-picking the best poblanos for chile rellenos, Aguirre Weed brings a contemporary awareness for fresh, local ingredients to her traditional cuisine. You can taste the difference in the tamales ($2.50), made every day and never frozen. Cordero's recipe adds raisins, carrots, potatoes and olives to the basic chicken and red chilies, and the corn masa, made with vegetable oil instead of the traditional lard, is so tender it doesn't require any additional sauce.
Enchiladas Mexicanas ($8) fills soft corn tortillas with the ranchero style cheese called queso casique, and the bright red sauce is made exclusively for the enchiladas. House-made masa is hand-formed to make gorditas ($3), sort of fried pies filled with beans, cheese and the same choice of the meats available for tacos and burritos. Topped with lettuce and tomato, the "little fat ones" make a great light meal. Sautéed prawns ($9.25), still in the shell so they retain more of their flavor, come with red chile (a la diabla) or loaded with garlic (con ajo). Mole ($7) is available only on Saturday, and it's worth the wait. Shredded chicken and big chunks of potato are cloaked in a sauce the color of weathered brick. Cordero combines five different chiles with chocolate, peanut butter, sesame seeds and cinnamon to produce deeply complex flavors with a satisfying chile heat.
E Burnside St., 230-1132
10 am-10 pm daily
1986 SW 6th Ave.,
10 am-10 pm, Monday-Saturday
San Felipe Taqueria
6221 SE Milwaukie Ave., 235-8158
10 am-8 pm, Tuesday-Saturday
We are getting more diverse, but don't get too smug. Oregon remains particularly pale: The 2000 census showed it to be 85 percent white.
¿Habla español? Taquerias tend to be bilingual, so try out that high school Spanish. ¿Dónde está la biblioteca?