Southwest By Northwest

The smoked pork shoulder quesadilla at Trigger—the Bunk Bar crew's new Tex-Mex-ish joint underneath Wonder Ballroom—is far from what one might expect from that classic modified grilled-cheese sandwich. But it's exactly what one would ask for from chef Tommy Habetz: a full-flavored, playful updating of a low-rent snack. With sumptuous hazelnut mole and chili crema, the dish blends local ingredients and Mexican flavors to achieve a subtle richness more at home in a savory crepe than in the brash, meaty world of Texas-style Mexican food.

Two months after opening, not everything at Trigger is so good.

A Tex-Mex place will always live and die by its fajitas, and it's here that Trigger's faults and virtues show most clearly. The strips of smoked hanger steak ($14) had beautiful charring and spice, the fresh guacamole was exceptional and the sour-cream sauce was delicate and citrus-y. But on a busy Saturday, the meat was served lukewarm and closer to medium than medium rare; the tortillas and veggies were likewise tepid.

In a restaurant that embraces the unabashed kitsch of Tex-Mex, it's a shame to lose the joyous spectacle (not to mention utility) of fajitas served sizzling on a platter.

Among the tacos ($4), the terrific fish taco—even with a substitution from rockfish to one seriously massive breaded shrimp—boasts welcome, unexpected flavors in an old standby, bringing the bright tang of pineapple and jalapeño slaw to bear on the shrimp's earthy, Southern-style breading.

The breading was a bit burnt on our fried avocado taco, however, and the hot dog-stuffed hard-shell taco was an unfortunate piece of whimsy. The flavors and textures don't blend at all: You bite into a taco only to discover you are eating a hot dog instead. What a strange and awful world.

Of course, it is also rare that a casual, midpriced Tex-Mex bar would be subjected to such scrutiny, and this is a sign of Portland's breathless expectations for Bunk-related fare. In its first weeks, Trigger also received pointed online criticisms for not using housemade tortilla chips; the restaurant responded, and the current chips are blessedly fresh and airy. 

The margaritas—fresh or frozen—are fundamentally sound and appropriately potent. The Side Pipe—not a Trigger innovation, but unfamiliar in these parts—includes a mini-bottle of Corona perched upside down in the 20-ounce drink. The beer stays magically inside its bottle until the margarita goes empty, at which point the beer takes its lime from the drink's froth as it empties into the chalice.

It is an almost affecting piece of alcoholic camp, and an indicator of what Trigger could become if it smooths out its inconsistencies: a cheerily populist balancing act, imbued with lowbrow sport and no small amount of wonder.

  1. Order this: Pork shoulder quesadilla ($9.50). Guacamole and house chips ($6).
  2. I’ll pass: Avoid that hot dog. 

EAT: Trigger, 128 NE Russell St., 327-8234, 11 am-11 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-late Friday, 5 pm-late Saturday, 5-10 pm Sunday. $-$$.