Hispanica Incognita

Rough-cut Mexican restaurant Prehispanica still excels in places.

Just one block south of Tasty n Alder and across from Saint Cupcake, at the dusty frontier of the past year’s West End restaurant boom, lies something vanishingly rare in Portland: an upscale-casual, family Mexican restaurant with aspirations beyond the counter taqueria or hot-plate-don’t-touch platters laden with salty-sweet enchilada sauce and soupy refrieds.

Prehispanica's interior is an airy and pleasant mix of white tablecloths, muted pink and bright orange, with burnished-wood floors and a charmingly domestic fondness for little butterflies as decorative elements. But from the exterior it's almost invisible, camouflaged into sidewalk brick and the mottled gray of its building; almost no one I've asked seems to know it's there.

This is a shame. While the restaurant is far from perfect, it's a lovely place to spend a lunch break or an early evening sipping a stiff margarita of lime or mango or grapefruit. The tomatillo salsa, served with fresh and fluffy tortilla chips, is one of the best I've had here or elsewhere, with a stems-and-all approach to cilantro that makes it almost resemble chutney.

The complimentary tortillas are thick and substantive, roughly granular in a way one associates with hand grinding. And the servers are a particular breed of friendly I've come to appreciate especially in the American Southwest: smilingly indulgent, but always a little amused with your existence, as if you've just asked for an extra piece of candy at bedtime.

Prehispanica, I should note, doesn't actually serve Prehispanic cuisine. There's cheese from fresco to Cotija to Oaxacan, beef at whim. The cuisine seems to range roughly from Veracruz around the horn of Mexico City and south to Oaxaca. A particular strength is the dinnertime pescado empapelado ($17), a whitefish served tender and juicy in paper, with tomatillo and mint, as well as a generously decadent bisteces rellenos ($11) stuffed with a bacon-and-pork roulade. A thick, flavorful cream of poblano soup with corn ($5) was enlivened by serranos.

Still, the restaurant doesn't seem to have garnered much business since it opened in June, and on one visit this meant that the mussel appetizer ($8) and shrimp empanada ($5) did not weather the wait for a customer; both smelled like a wharf. (The mushroom-poblano-oaxacan empanada fared significantly better.) The Mexico City classic carne a la tampiquena (Tampico steak, $18) was a bit tough of beef and gummy of cactus, however delightful the accompanying plantains.

The pollo en mole ($16) is its own beast entirely—one of the more intense moles I've yet encountered; sharp and spicy and as dense as a tan tan peanut sauce, with sesame sprinkled on top and notes so dark it's almost as if it contained soy. It is an ambitious dish with no small amount of decadence, and I'm very affectionate toward it. But bite after bite after bite, it still eludes me whether I like it.

The restaurant is probably best considered a work in progress, with some terrific highs and some perplexing disappointments.

But aside from Amelia's in Hillsboro or Loncheria Mitzil in Oregon City, Prehispanica is a model of  family restaurant much missed in these parts. This is reason enough to wish it well. 

  1. Order this: Either of the pescado dishes for dinner, a relleno for lunch.
  2. Best deal: A cheese empanada ($5) and black-bean or poblano soup ($5) is a full meal for dinner.
  3. I’ll pass: The freshness problems of the shellfish need to be sorted out.

EAT: Prehispanica, 1135 SW Morrison St., 224-1207. 11:30 am-2 pm, 5 pm-10:30 pm daily.

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