Machetes PDX Specializes in Colossal Quesadillas of the Same Name

Every one of the pop-up’s machetes comes draped across two paper plates, which barely contain their length.

It’s machete season in Portland.

No, that’s not a reference to Danny Trejo, or Jason Voorhees’ weapon of choice, but to the new pop-up Machetes PDX, which has been selling out of its Mexican street food all over town since July. Started by husband-and-wife team Diego and McKenna Palacios, the business gets its name from long, folded quesadillas shaped like a blade. And when I say long, I mean long. Every one of the pop-up’s machetes comes draped across two paper plates, which barely contain their length.

McKenna works white heirloom corn masa into psychedelic marbly swirls with pink hibiscus and green cilantro dye before flattening the tortillas in a big blue press and rolling them into their signature, unruly shape—a method she’s honed over the past several months. Then, she hands them over to Diego, who fills the thin, delicate pockets with queso Oaxaca and various guisados until crispy on the outside and gooey in the center.

The dish has steadily become one of the city’s most exciting new snack options, and demand is growing. At recent Machetes events, lines at least 15 customers long formed at opening and remained steady until the supply sold out hours later. The street food, believed to have originated in Mexico City, is available at only a few other restaurants in Portland, so it’s no surprise that people are turning out for what’s considered unusual fare in these parts.

The Palacios’ experience also lends some clout to the operation: Diego hails from OK Omens and McKenna from Gado Gado, restaurants that sit at Portland’s intersection of cheffy and playful. As such, their pop-ups have the efficiency of a kitchen run by industry vets plus an anything-goes quality that never makes things feel too serious.

Diego and McKenna are incredibly charismatic showpeople in addition to great cooks: It’s all big smiles and tattooed arms behind a table covered with actual machetes (like, the weapons) and patterned ceramics. The couple has two young sons, which makes one think about how quesadillas, that ubiquitous kids’ menu item, never really seem to have gotten their much-deserved glow-up. Just like fried chicken, soft serve, and any number of other treats that we’ve seen “elevated” by local chefs, the quesadilla is a nostalgia-triggering canvas ready to be injected with bold, exciting life.

Diego originally started making machetes for his children using recipes taught to him by his mother and grandparents. “All these recipes I learned growing up [in Mexico City] I was unable to find here. I’m trying to replicate those flavors away from home and share them with the community, embrace my culture, and make an effort to preserve my roots.”

All of Machetes’ guisados lean sweet and smoky, with additional heat coming from two scratch salsas: a salsa verde made with roasted tomatillos and a slightly bitter orange sauce of sesame and árbol. These flavors, commonly used in Mexico City street food, come across as vibrant and new in Portland’s current landscape.

The machetes’ size make them great for sharing, or for going on a solo tour of the fillings since you can request up to four. People will undoubtedly be split on their favorite part of the blade: Are you a Middle Person, aiming for tender masa and gooey cheese pulls, or, like me, are you an End Boy—all about those lacy, flaky edges and bits of meat and veggies poking out?

Recent fillings have included tender sliced skirt steak braised in morita and ancho peppers as well as chipotle-braised chicken with sweet onions, adapted from Diego’s mother’s recipe. “It brought tears to my eyes when I got it as good as my mom’s,” he notes. The menu’s highlight, however, is the salty and unctuous chicharron: shredded confit pork in guajillo sauce that’s been pressed and cooked in its own fat.

The vegetarian options are strong, too, like roasted poblano peppers in crema, which tastes like bougie queso dip. Specialty ingredients also get their time to shine, like locally foraged mushrooms in October and squash blossoms in July, as well as huitlacoche, the Mexican corn fungus vital to Aztec cuisine. It’s integrated into the machete with sweet corn and mushrooms to help bolster its flavor, resulting in a vegetarian dish that’s earthy, surprisingly meaty, and (important for a newbie like myself) unintimidating.

For many Portlanders, the use of huitlacoche will be a novelty, but for the Palacios, it means more. They’re importing it directly from Mexico, an expense they’re taking on to honor the ingredient and make it more accessible here.

“It’s traditional and has been consumed for generations, centuries, by the ancestors of Mexico City from the pre-Hispanic era,” Diego says. He adds that they use nopales (grilled cactus paddles) for the same reason. “They’re very attached to our roots. It comes from generations of trying to preserve our culture, you know? Just like pressing the tortillas. These are ancestral procedures.”

EAT: Machetes PDX, instagram.com/machetes.pdx. Follow the business’s Instagram account for pop-up locations and hours.

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