Rodney Muirhead conquered the first. The Texas-raised chef started making 'cue in a cart before opening a brick version of Podnah's Pit, which claimed a buckle as WW's Restaurant of the Year in 2011. Now, with La Taq, a restaurant-bar opened in the cramped space next door to his flagship eatery, he tries the second.
When I heard Muirhead planned to open a Tex-Mex restaurant, two questions came to mind. How was Portland's undisputed barbecue king going to succeed where so many others—most recently Bunk Sandwich king Tommy Habetz's Trigger—have stumbled? And what the hell is Tex-Mex, anyway?
It's basically whatever the cook says it is. I say this only somewhat tongue-in-cheek after reading a Texas-size article on the topic by Houston-based culinary historian Robb Walsh. What is authentically Tex-Mex varies by time, place and opinion. Except at the Yankee Doodle fringe—chips and salsa, flour tortillas and bright orange liquid cheese—Tex-Mex is an evolutionary amalgam of the food of interior Mexico adapted and modified to suit the palates and pantries of those living north of the border. Shortly after La Taq opened, Muirhead told me his food was really Mex-Tex not Tex-Mex. The ambiguity was thus complete.
On to the more important issue: There is every reason to believe La Taq will flourish because its not-too-spicy, not-too-bland border fusion cuisine is simple, reasonably priced and delicious.
Highlights among the mostly familiar gringo-oriented offerings are a pair of warm, wet, winter fillers. The pork ribs in chili verde ($9) are the highest and best use of cartilaginous rib tips. They are first braised until yielding, then immersed in a piquant green chili-infused broth. Corn tortillas, from Southeast Portland's Three Sisters Nixtamal, accompany the stew, allowing dainty dipping, hearty heaping, self-indulgent slurping and whatever other chow-down tactics one might employ to finish every last bite. There is also chicken tortilla soup ($8), a prosaic tonic in other venues that owes a huge debt here to its nuanced smoked chili and tomato base. The portion isn't enormous, but the broth, with ample chunks of shredded chicken, white cheese and fettuccine-wide strips of crispy tortilla, makes it mouth-filling and memorable. Molten queso fundido is offered with the classic chorizo ($5.50), roasted green chilies ($5.50) or in a Portland-centric variation with chanterelle mushrooms ($6.50). A few salads, one based on nopales, the other a more tropical take with jicama, pineapple, peanuts, lime and arbol chile (each $7), offer your vegetarian and vegan friends a reason to come along for the ride. A slate that includes nachos, tacos, tamales and enchiladas—with Muirhead's tried-and-true smoked brisket an element or option in all categories—rounds out the menu.
The dexterous bar-side stylings of Kevin Ludwig, of the late and lamented Beaker & Flask, showcase tequila in twists on classic cocktails. Thinking Sazerac? Order a Claymation ($9), combining mezcal, tequila, grapefruit liqueur, Herbsaint and Peychaud's bitters. Or consider the Zanahorita ($9), La Taq's take on a carrot margarita punched up with cumin and orange liqueur. The house margarita ($8) hews closer to historical Tex-Mex libation.
In the less-than-grand Portland tradition, high comfort is not a highlight at La Taq. Backless gray-metal stools along the L-shaped bar counter are set cheek-to-jowl, and the same butt bruisers surround three high-top tables. Lucky winners may snag one of three wooden booths, each with a lone star light fixture winking from the wall above. There are a few other small design touches—including an outdoor corral for the distant sunny season—but you are unlikely to notice them amid all the satisfied sipping and supping and unruly food geeks arguing endlessly over authenticity.
- Best deal: Happy hour is 10 pm to close and offers discounted food and drinks that change nightly.
- Iâll pass: Not for leisurely or date-night dining.
EAT: La Taq, 1625 NE Killingsworth St. No phone, no website, no reservations. Open 5 pm-midnight daily.