The menus are in Spanish and the food's billed as Mexican at Trébol, which opened in June on Northeast Albina Avenue. The walls are painted in Frida Kahlo colors of chile and maize, the bar boasts over 75 different tequilas, and there's even a pleasant little patio for the brief moments our weather approximates Guadalajara's. Yet in many ways, Trébol sings "Roll On, Columbia" more loudly than "Cielito Lindo"—no surprise, considering chef-owner Kenny Hill spent eight years at that temple of regional cuisine, Higgins.
At the very least, the restaurant is a hybrid—and a generally convincing one—combining Pacific Northwest ingredients and culinary philosophy with influences from a number of Spanish-speaking cultures. Trébol's website offers not a word about the chef's approach to Mexican cuisine. Instead, Hill finds it more urgent to tell patrons about what he calls his "ideology," promising organics when possible, a composting system, "no genetically modified anything," and even eco-friendly cleaning products. "We're trying to keep [the restaurant] as true to the cause as possible," he concludes.
I can forgive Hill his earnestness, because his food is darned good, and the restaurant is a comfortable, professionally run place for a meal or a drink, with a menu that changes nearly every two weeks. In fact, the bar here is one of the strengths, with all those tequilas and a roster of balanced, imaginative cocktails (most $7-$8). The house margarita sparkles with fresh lemon and lime; delicious variations include the Rosada with rose water, the Azul with lavender liqueur and a refreshing version made with cucumber. The bar does a lot with fresh juices and fruit purées, coming up with combos like the Mango Calentico, made with serrano chile-infused tequila, mango purée and cilantro, or the Gallo Rojo, with aged tequila, tamarind purée, cranberry juice and a splash of soda. (Non-drinkers, usually ignored in restaurants, can order house-made aguas frescas in flavors like prickly pear, tamarind, jamaica and mango; $3.) Don't expect the NFL on the large-screen TV, which is reserved for late-night screenings of classic Mexican films.
Among starters, we enjoyed the simple guacamole ($8) with fresh corn tortillas, even though the taste of the promised serrano chiles didn't come through. (The bitter fried garlic chips sprinkled on top aren't such a great touch, but luckily they're easy to avoid.) Mussels steamed with Hood River apples, serranos and apple cider could never happen in Jalisco, but they tasted great; an equally appealing mussel preparation made use of a Spanish flavor combo of sherry, almonds and onions ($11).
Pacific oysters are jazzed up in various Latino-ish ways, one night with herbs, spicy chorizo sausage and a brightly flavored red mole, another time with a scintillating cucumber and jalapeño ice ($10.75). When a sublimely fragrant dish of wild Mexican tiger prawns with garlic, lime juice, white wine and cilantro arrived ($11), a low-key shoving match ensued to see who'd get the last bite.
Standout main courses that showed up recently on the seasonal menu included slow-braised beef tacos ($12), peppercorn-encrusted halibut with cilantro cream sauce ($19.50) and tamarind-glazed pork loin ($18.75). The cross-border marriage works well much of the time, but I'd love to see Hill dial up more of the Mexican flavors, and tamp down Oregon touches like ubiquitous root vegetables. And what in the world is eggplant doing in a Veracruz-style seafood stew?
Our least satisfying dishes were the tamales that are presented as a changing house specialty ($14). One evening, tamales with a picadillo-style sweet-and-savory ground-meat filling had the consistency of wet sand, with barely a mouthful of filling. Another time, Veracruz-style tamales in a banana leaf came with masa as soupy and tasteless as Cream of Wheat. Other clinkers included chilaquiles, which at their best are toasted tortilla strips stewed with salsa, making a yummy combination of crisp and soggy. Trébol's version, with pulled beef and "drunken" beans ($14) was just hard and dry. And a complex-sounding enchilada, with aged cheese, wild mushrooms and spinach, topped with a fried egg ($14), proved to be dull vegetarian glop.
Every time I went to Trébol, I was impressed by the highly skilled, well-informed servers. On one visit, when my companion ordered a margarita, she asked our waiter, Tony, if the house-pour tequila was 100 percent agave. (Less-expensive tequilas are mostly grain alcohol with a small percentage of blue agave; all-agave tequilas are more expensive but smoother and more complex and flavorful.) He told her that the house pour was not 100 percent, and when she named an all-agave tequila to substitute, he didn't hesitate to say, "Hang on, I don't want to charge you $11 for a margarita." He then suggested a different tequila, explaining that it was also all-agave and would be just as good in a mixed drink as her more expensive choice.
You gotta love a waiter like that, especially since he was also knowledgeable about the food, funny and nailed our table's mood perfectly. About a half-hour into the meal, my friend said: "I want this guy to always be my waiter. Not just here. I want to take him with me to every restaurant."
OK, so it's not Mexico. But with cooking and service this smart, it doesn't have to be.
Trébol, 4835 N Albina Ave., 517-9347, trebolpdx.com. Dinner 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. Brunch 11 am-2 pm Sunday. $$ Moderate.