Well, it's getting better. Portland has a handful of excellent working-class taquerias (Santa Cruz, Chavez, Taqueria Portland) and a few excellent upscale Mexican restaurants, including Nuestra Cocina amd Taqueria Nueve. Mi Mero Mole is sopping tortillas with authentic guisados. Even Montavilla will soon have high-end Baja Californian fare. And Northeast has just been blessed with two ambitious new Mexican spots offering up a regional twist.
Beyond tortillas and proximity, there's no obvious tie between Stella Taco and Pollo Norte. But look closer and you'll note that Cully's bodega-sized rotisserie chicken restaurant and the airy, modern taqueria on Alberta both get good mileage from dishes that start to become more common just three degrees south of here.
Norte is the runaway hit, already selling out of birds before dinner hours and inspiring a deafening have you been? whisper chorus.
With different spices and sides, spit-roasted chickens are popular throughout Latin America and locally represented by downtown Gresham's Pollos a la Brasa el Inka, which makes a killer Peruvian version paired with a rainbow of that nation's unique salsas.
No, Norte's birds aren't as good as El Inka's—yet. That might be because they're being pulled off the imported Valmex rotisserie before the skin can get a nice toasty crunch. Norte's birds get a light coat of nutty achiote powder, lime juice, chili powder and sea salt, seasonings that sit lightly on the skin while birds ($18 for a whole bird cut into eight chunks, $24 with two sides) leak their juices onto a bed of leafy cabbage that cooks under the rotating grill, collecting the drippings as the birds slowly spin over gas.
As in Mexico, the chicken is to be pulled apart and made into little tacos, and Norte serves up its own housemade rustic corn tortillas, thick with rough edges and nice lines of crust from the press. Grab a michelada (an extra $1 with any beer, but stick to $2.50 Tecate tallboys) and liberally apply the bright tomatillo and you're pretty much set. Side-wise, you want frijoles charros and the coleslaw. The bowl of charros is a hearty stew of plump pintos and shredded pork shoulder with a kiss of chili heat. The coleslaw is my new favorite in town, crunchy cabbage with lime juice, cilantro and red onion.
Down on Alberta, in a bright space with high stools and a children's table stocked with crayons, sits Stella. The menu they've Sharpied onto white paper is massive by comparison, running from classic lengua ($3 taco) and chile colorado ($2.50 taco, $7 torta) to vegetarian fried avocado and vegan mole (both $2.75 tacos). Everything I've had is solid—recipes seemingly have a home cook's singular perspective, usually heavy on favored ingredients and light on others—though the real gems are the dishes rooted in the owners' hometown of El Paso.
Breakfast tacos alone are a reason to go. Texas-style brunch comes on corn, and Stella has three offerings available until 3 pm. The first and best comes from Chihuahua, stringy machaca-style beef ($3) with scrambled eggs and soft white cheese. A spicy housemade chorizo ($3) taco with earthy grilled green onions, eggs and crispy little potato sticks is also wonderful.
If you've been under the weather, go for the muy rica posole ($9.50 with a mini cheese quesadilla), which I'll credit with shaving a few days off a recent cold. The soup is stuffed with plump hominy and stewy shredded pork, each spoonful of broth swimming with flecks of spice.
There are two other must-tries, both of which are addictively spicy. First is the horchata, a cinnamon bomb with Big Red bite, served on rocks in a pint glass. The other is the special extra-spicy hot sauce. You have to specifically request that little squirt bottle, a pistachio-green concoction that packs blinding heat. It's certainly the spiciest thing I've ever come across in a Portland Mexican restaurant—blame Ferdinand.