If Wild Bill Hickok could have chosen his last meal, it might have been something like the bifstek a la parilla served at Nuestra Cocina. Gorgeous slices of grilled steak--pink and soft inside, dark and crispy outside--fan over a spicy chile sauce, next to a mess of tender, hearty beans ($14). If there's such a thing as haute cowboy cuisine, this is it.
But you wouldn't necessarily classify this new, urban-chic Division Street spot as Western in the traditional sense, as there are no stuffed deer heads or trophy antlers hanging on the walls. The restaurant's decor--the name is Spanish for "our kitchen"--registers closer to the Southwest-Mex end of the scale, with its earthy tilework and color-flecked stone mosaic bar. The menu features regional Mexican cuisine, not the familiar cheese-laden enchiladas but complex salsas and mole sauces that might remind Portland diners of the dearly departed Cafe Azul. The newcomer might not live up to that comparison quite yet, but the menu demonstrates buckets of ambition, and the chef pulls nearly all of it off with panache.
The imagination of the kitchen first shows up in creative and appealing drinks--order the rosy tequila cosmo or fresh mojito ($5.75-$6.75) if these specials are offered. But can there be a better summer beverage in the world than a margarita? Nuestra Cocina mixes several well-made varieties ($4.75-$6.75), all with fine tequilas and freshly muddled lemons and limes.
Along with drinks, the cheerful server delivers a dish of saucer-sized, freshly pressed hot tortillas--so good, for $4 you'll want to order more--with a New Mexico chile sauce that's mild enough for the capsicum-phobic but still flavorful enough for jalapeño lovers. There are no free chips, near heresy for a Mexican place, and the Atkins-approved substitute of chicharron, fried pork rinds ($4), are a poor substitute. The rinds are crisp to the point of hard and desperately in need of salt. A heavy appetizer of sopes, masa cakes with chorizo and black beans ($5), is also less than successful, the parts of the dish tasting better than the sum of the combination.
A much better appetizer--and it's still low-carb!--is the dish of grilled white prawns marinated in tamarind ($7), as the shellfish taste tangy on their own and even better when dipped in the bright green hot sauce. The red-snapper ceviche ($7) is refreshingly tart, and the tacos de puerco starter ($5) with a salad could easily make a meal: three simple shredded-pork-stuffed tacos made special by those excellent tortillas and the wonderful spicy, stringy meat. For greens, there's a creamy, garlicky Caesar (of course) and a spinach salad (both $6) in a chipotle dressing with nutty bacon bits and sour queso fresco.
Several entrees are fashioned out of surprising combinations--shrimp soufflés simmered in a chili broth with cactus ($10), for example, or meatballs with mint and rice in a rich broth with vegetables ($9), an elegant meatball soup. This is a terrific dish, made of richly flavored light broth, filled with crisp-tender vegetables and bites of meat the size of ping-pong balls, while the mint delivers mini-wallops of zing.
A more familiar dish--chicken in red mole with potatoes ($12)--isn't as appealing, as the chicken skin is limp, not crispy, with the unappetizing look of goose pimples. While the mole itself is tasty enough, the abundant potatoes are underdone and the dish calls out for the flavor of another vegetable. Instead, order the addictive cochinito pibil ($13), a generous hunk of fork-tender spiced pork spilled over a mess of black beans and topped with pickled pink onion.
Seafood is done well here, and on a recent visit, the featured tuna special was served in a terrific pumpkin-seed sauce. Another great selection is the huachinago ($14), mild red snapper cooked in banana leaves with not-so mild roasted poblano chiles.
The kitchen's creativity extends to a handful of sweets (all $5.50), including a creamy flan, which is baked with Grand Marnier. And then there's a chocolate pound-cake: What can be said about the flavor of this intense dessert? If you get to choose a topper for your last meal, this cake would suffice--just hope you're not holding a pair of eights and another of aces in your hand, like old Wild Bill, when the end arrives. The combination of chocolate and cinnamon, sweet with spice, richness with delicacy, is one of the flavor pairings that make this West Mex kitchen a welcome addition to a roundup of Portland restaurants.
2135 SE Division St., 232-21355-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 2-11 pm Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Credit cards accepted. $$ Moderate. No reservations.
Early happy hour! Nuestra Cocina recently began opening at 2 pm on Fridays and Saturdays for appetizers and drinks.
Executive chef Benjamin Gonzales owns Nuestra Cocina with his wife, Shannon. He previously cooked at Pazzo, Rock Bottom Brewery and Pavilion Grill in Beaverton.