Chicken and Guns

1207 SE Hawthorne Blvd. (Cartopia), 503-234-7236, chickenandguns.com.

Chicken and Guns (Rachael Renee Levasseur)
Chicken and Guns (Rachael Renee Levasseur)

Stop all the rotisseries, and turn off the spits. Cartopia's Chicken and Guns' Latin-inspired birds have all places beat, with old-fashioned grilling over mesquite and oak. The birds are moist and smoky from bone to charred skin, dry-rubbed with spice and served with onion and tomato, smothered in spicy Peruvian-style jalapeño-vinegar sauce that bursts with freshness. We brought two whole birds ($24 each) back to our office, and cussed joyously at the sheer wonder of it. One writer went back there for dinner the same day. Small wonder it's one of our two Carts of the Year for 2016.

Pollo Norte

5427 NE 42nd Ave., 503-287-0669, pollonorte.com.

(Hilary Sander)
(Hilary Sander)

For $30, you can get so much food at estilo-Distrito Federal chicken shack Pollo Norte you won't know where to start. Alongside that expertly brined and seasoned whole bird, get a side of butter-smooth frijoles charros, and the cabbage, carrot and radish slaw is the crisp, tangy counterpunch you never knew you needed. Soon, there'll be a second location on Northeast Glisan Street right by Pambiche that'll also serve a world of cocktails.

La Taq

1625 NE Killingsworth St., 971-888-5687, lataqpdx.com. 5-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 5 pm-midnight Friday, 3 pm-midnight Saturday, 3-11 pm Sunday. $-$$.

(Hillary Sander)
(Hillary Sander)

The best way to experience Rodney Muirhead's Texas brisket? That'd be atop a San Antonio "puffy taco" ($5), a tortilla fried to airiness and lightly dressed with salsa verde. While we've found that the city's best barbecue now comes from two new carts (see page 77), we're not over what La Taq does with the brisket from Muirhead's flagship, not just coaxing out the requisite fat and smoke but also a gentle red fruit sweetness that makes it sing louder than at Podnah's Pit. And that taco ain't even the best thing on the menu.

That honor goes to the green chile queso ($4), the best cheese dip I've had in town, warmly spicy with green chile and almost gratuitously topped with guacamole, served with thick homemade tortilla chips. La Taq is as much bar as it is restaurant (no kids, folks), and although it has entrees, its menu works best as a collection of small plates. You'll want a selection of tacos both puffy and classic ($3)— the rajas poblanos with roasted poblano, Oaxacan cream sauce and guac being a close second to the brisket—and for larger tables, the Combination Plate #3 ($16), a big-assed oval plate of West Texas stacked enchiladas (get the brisket), a brisket taco, a queso cup (edible!) and a mess of rice and beans.

Pepper Box Cafe

932 SE Morrison St., 503-841-5004, pepperboxpdx.com.

(Michaela Fujita-Conrads)
(Michaela Fujita-Conrads)

Pepper Box's $4.50 New Mexican-style breakfast tacos are best thought of as hybridized burritos—pillowy, hand-sized wheat tortillas stuffed with eggs, pastrami, peppers, onions, cheese and chipotle crema (the Primo), or eggs, peppers, onions, avocado, mushrooms, cheese and green chile crema (the Farmer). Your move, hangover.

Nuestra Cocina

2135 SE Division St., 503-232-2135, nuestra-cocina.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday. $$.

(Emily Joan Greene)
(Emily Joan Greene)

Long before Division went crazy for bougie tacos, there was Nuestra Cocina.

Unlike all the new joints slinging slushy margs, it's remained a pillar of high-end Mexican food—a spot for second dates and trendy middle-aged couples and the place moms treat their high-achieving Cleveland High kids. Nuestra Cocina means "our kitchen," and it actually feels like a family kitchen, with a big patio, Mexican tile tabletops and stacks of warm housemade corn tortillas. It even offers cooking classes. And you might just want them, given that this is the best Mexican restaurant in town.

The cactus and mushroom tacos ($7) are among some of the best veggie tacos around, achieving a juiciness I thought impossible with these ingredients, and topped with tomatillo sauce and a handful of cilantro. The Achiote-spiced chicken is perfectly juicy, topped with Yucatan salsa and paired with crunchy sautéed greens.

The margaritas are made with both lemon and lime juice to achieve a perfect balance of sweet and tangy. If you're feeling more adventurous, the peach sangria is like a white-wine alternative to the house sangria, offering a lighter body with floral notes. For dessert, go for the chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, complemented by sweet and spicy cinnamon ice cream.

The Goose

2725 SE Ankeny St., 503-235-2222, thegoosepdx.com.

(Kayla Sprint)
(Kayla Sprint)

The Goose's mountains of New Mexican excess are so unabashedly American they make Guy Fieri look like Vlad Putin. The classic play is for the gargantuan chorizo queso and white cheddar-topped green chile cheeseburger ($12), but my money's on the stacked brisket enchiladas ($15.50): a take on beef enchiladas with a deeply smoky, sweet red sauce.

Angel Food & Fun

5135 NE 60th Ave., 503-287-7909.

(Emma Brown)
(Emma Brown)

Out in Cully is a little shack of a bar with pool tables, TVs tuned to sports, and an asada burrito ($6) that amounts to a masterpiece: a perfectly structured meat-rice-cheese-guacamole mashup with the wild card of lettuce that requires you to eat the burrito immediately and not save it for tomorrow. The asada quesadilla ($6), meanwhile, is crunchy and gooey in just the right measure, and the tacos ($1.50) are lovely little bites.

Mi Mero Mole

At his Chinatown guisado spot, Nick Zukin obviously has a soft spot for the day drinker—because this location offers day deals that best almost any in the entire city, not only $2.50 beers and $4 margaritas but nachos that drop to $5 and three-deep huitlacoche flautas for $4. That's not even counting the daily deals like all-you-can-eat taco Tuesdays for $14.75, or the all-day, everyday deal of a burrito, beer and shot for $10.

Xico

3715 SE Division St., 503-548-6343, xicopdx.com. 5-10 pm Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday. $$.

(Emily Joan Greene)
(Emily Joan Greene)

To the uninitiated, Xico's menu may seem intimidating. What exactly are totopos and chilorio?

It turns out totopos are delicious corn chips—made from scratch with masa made from corn that undergoes the nixtamalization process on premises before being hand-pressed into tortillas and fried—drizzled with salsa and crema ($7).

Chilorio is pork belly fried in chili sauce, a speciality of Sinaloa now prized across Mexico, the country from which Xico (pronounced CHEE-koh) draws the inspiration for its upscale menu.

On a recent visit the salmon pozole satisfied every food craving, the slightly blackened filet perfectly cooked with a crisp surface that melted into a bed of juicy hominy. A side of greens, radishes and cabbage offered extra methods for sopping up the sauce as fellow diners fought over the masa dumplings in the chicken with yellow mole.

Xico's other great feature is its patio, a large and tastefully appointed space nestled between neighboring buildings which makes you feel like you're at a hip new spot in Mexico City.