The Founder of Nico’s Ice Cream Is Opening a Cantina in the Cully Neighborhood

The new restaurant takes its inspiration from the traditional barrooms of Mexico.

The man who helped popularize New Zealand-style ice cream in Portland is now about to bring us some authentic Mexican flavors and ambience.

Nico Vergara, founder of Nico’s Ice Cream, is opening Nico’s Cantina at 4318 NE Cully Blvd. The space previously housed Dick’s Primal Burger and is just a 10-minute walk from his soft-serve-and-real-fruit dessert shop.

The new bar and restaurant takes its inspiration from the traditional barrooms of Mexico, some of which have been around for more than a century and serve complimentary botanas, or snacks. But they’re more than just a place to grab a quick beer. Vergara, who has family in Guadalajara, lived there for about a year and was taken by the cantina culture.

“I fell in love with the whole cantina vibe,” he tells WW. “It’s hard to put into words, but cantinas have a deep and rich history. They’re establishments. It’s a gathering place to go with your friends and family, and meet people, too.”

Since Vergara’s experience with food is limited to the ice cream business, he found a mentor in Miss Delta chef and owner Marcus Oliver—his second wholesale account—who is helping shape the recipes and menu.

You can expect those customary botanas—here, they will be dishes like peanuts, chicharrón, and cucumber with lime, all on the house. More substantial offerings include beans topped with queso, chips and salsa, and seven different tacos, with a variety of fillings, including tripas, lingua, shrimp, carnitas, asada and nopales. There will also be two desserts, one naturally being Nico’s ice cream served by the half pint.

This being a cantina, tequila and mezcal will be the focus of the bar program, which is being curated by Adriana Alverez. Nico’s is also planning to serve at least four different draft beers from Xicha (chee-chah) Brewing, which opened in Salem’s underserved west side in 2017. Eventually, there will be a custom collaboration brew for sale in six-packs. That partnership will not only introduce Portlanders to a brewery whose product is difficult to find in the metro area; it also helps Vergara build his commitment to supporting as many BIPOC-owned businesses as possible in the Cantina.

Construction is currently underway, but once the site opens, there will be indoor space with about 50 seats, a long bar and TV sets (often tuned to soccer), as well as a patio with room for 25 to 30 tables surrounded by string lights.

“It’s been really special,” Vergara says of his expansion. “I started Nico’s ice cream just a little over a year ago, and fully from the support of Portland itself has allowed me to open another business that I never thought was a possibility. With the support of the city and the community it’s come to fruition and it’s amazing.”

Nico’s Cantina aims to open the last weekend of August.