New, the Noun

La Panza Cafe serves the best New Mexican in town.

New Mexico is a state of many enchanting perils, with meth and frybread at the top of the list. The state’s cuisine—cowboy meets Chicano in a smoky haze of fresh-roasted local chilies—doesn’t draw a lot of water in this town compared to, say, Tex-Mex. But, if you’ve spent any time in the Southwest, you start to crave the stuff.

Which brings us to Southeast Portland's La Panza Cafe, a new New Mexican joint that's far from perfect, but should still expect some of my money. Now, it's true that I'm a sucker for New Mexican cuisine, though it's also true that I've eaten one meal at Southeast's other New Mexican restaurant and don't anticipate a second. But once you've developed an itch for a green chile cheeseburger, it needs to be scratched. And La Panza, a tiny six-table restaurant tucked next to a Plaid Pantry where employees take their smoke breaks on the front sidewalk—sincerely, a perfect touch—has it cornered.

To drink, you'll want (seriously, folks) the purple prickly pear frozen margarita. La Panza does a michelada ($5) that's a little heavy on tomato, a gold margarita that needs more of a citrus bite, and a few Mexican beers. But the frozen margarita ($8), which comes out of a slushy machine, channels the gritty sweetness of cactus flesh and is, despite its iciness, not to mention its purpleness, of heartening strength.

The chips and salsa ($5.95) includes three salsas, though I wish I could just get a big bowl of the nutty arbol. The ceviche is seasonal, presently a cocktail glass filled with a simple preparation of lime-soaked cod and chopped cilantro that will set you back $11.95. I'd skip both in favor of either a salad or a bowl of chile. The NM chopped salad ($9.50) has ribbons of lettuce, chunks of tomato, a few bits of chopped green chilies and a generous sprinkle of pine nuts in a thin lemon vinaigrette.

The red chile ($7.25), a stew of pinto beans, simmered peppers, shredded cheese and a big plop of sour cream, needs a little more heat for my taste—owner Andy Razatos is related to the owners of Santa Fe's oldest restaurant and flies in frozen chilies, so batches vary in heat and flavor—but it's tasty, especially when scooped into the sopaipilla.

Like other fried breads, sopaipillas tend to be touchy. I've now had four at La Panza, finding them to be consistent but a little thicker and gummier than preferable.

Then again, you need a hardy shell if you're going to stuff a 12-ounce chopped steak in it, which pretty much seems to be the recipe for the carne asada-stuffed sopaipilla ($12). That dish is a one-plate welcome center. The puffy frybread square is filled with pinto beans and cheese under a bath of chili sauce—red, green or a combination of the two—and topped with a layer of cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese. On the side, you get a ladle-full of stewy pintos and a small heap of the house pozole, swollen kernels of hominy with tender chunks of pork in a mild chili sauce. For some reason, they give you a flour tortilla, too. The burrito ($8.25, add $2.95 for chicken, steak or squash) is a flour tortilla that's similarly outfitted.

The green chile burger is a New Mexican staple, and it's nice to have a proper one with a char-grilled chile pepper on top, even though my "medium" came out rare and lacking the seared shell I look for, and with floppy fries. Still, it shows promise.

For dessert? More sopaipilla. No, not with honey. La Panza—now seems like the right time to mention its name means "the belly"—turns the frybread into a fluffy receptacle for vanilla ice cream, fresh whipped cream, Mexican ganache and decadent pine nuts. It's vaguely obscene, and a must order, though it's an unhealthy habit to take up. Better than meth, anyway. 

  1. Order this: Carne asada-stuffed sopaipilla ($12.20) and a frozen prickly pear margarita ($8).
  2. I’ll pass: Ceviche, chips and salsa.

EAT: La Panza Cafe, 2425 SE 26th Ave., 236-5005, 9 am-2 pm, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday.

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