El Cubo de Cuba
3106 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 971-544-7801, facebook.com/elcubo.decuba. Lunch and late dinner Tuesday-Sunday.
El Cubo de Cuba looks more lived-in than most of Havana. Just a year into its residency, the restaurant is home to an absolute wealth of language, as scrawled on as Gibraltar or a wedding guestbook. RR calls the food "yummy," while Mateo says "graisias." Another well-meaning couple would like to attest, on the wall between the window and the ceiling, that the resilience of our Cuban neighbors should inspire us all. Another loves the plant that winds through the rafters of the ceiling, a year's growth or even more.
One commenter writes that pickles never tasted so good, and here it's easy to agree. The pickles used in El Cubo de Cuba's hallmark Cubano—the customary mess of roasted pork shoulder, ham and swiss served on a flat-toasted baguette—are mustardy, offering a brightness and acidity that carries the sandwich. For a sandwich too often weighed down by an oversupply of condiments, the Cubano here feels sunny, light and citric—as does much here, including the batidos ($3.50) made with mango, banana, pineapple or an earthy fruit called "mamey" that the guy behind the counter swears is like an avocado. It is not, but it is delicious.
But the real flavor wallop comes in the meat plates—pulled pork, pulled brisket, chicken thigh and drumstick. Each is sauced with bright, citric, complex flavors, although the tomato sauce with the beef offers the most depth. And the brisket's texture is so marinated and so tender, so slow-cooked under the lid, that it becomes almost like pulled pork, a warm and comforting stew of umami and rich acidity.
The beans and rice served as a side to each dish are filler, sure, but they do the job—and they become very necessary if you're out on the back deck with a mojito or two, or—in perhaps the best addition to the menu—a sipper of Jamaica's Appleton 12-year rum. It tastes as complex and as oaked as whiskey, but like much that comes from the islands, it is twice as sweet. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
48 NE Division St., Gresham, 491-0323, elinkarestaurant.com. Lunch and dinner daily.
[ROTO WORLD] This family-run Peruvian chicken shack is decorated like a 5-year-old's birthday party at a rec center, with cartoon chickens hanging from the ceiling. But what you'll stare at—and also eat—are those chickens impaled on the mammoth spits. Half a bird with salad and a mound of fries, plus a multitude of sauces, is $12.49, and serves two. The cumin-rubbed chicken will somehow be both smoky and dry-charred on the outside and succulently moist on the inside. The birds wheel close to the wood fire to char as they rotate, then spin slowly away to cook under lower heat for an aching tenderness. It's like the furnace in The Dark Crystal, and you'd give your soul to it just as easily. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
La Panza Cafe
2425 SE 26th Ave., 236-5005, lapanzacafe.com. Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Friday. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday-Sunday.
[POZOLE AND HOMINY] New Mexico's state cuisine—cowboy meets Chicano in a smoky haze of fresh-roasted local chiles—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. Last year, Portland went from one New Mexican restaurant to four, including this little gem tucked in next to a bodega on Division. The one must-order dish is a one-plate welcome center for the Enchantment State, a carne asada-stuffed sopaipilla ($12) with a 12-ounce chopped steak, pinto beans and cheese inside puffy frybread 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 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. MARTIN CIZMAR.
1503 SW Broadway, 901-0421; 2880 SE Division St. (Tidbit Food, Farm and Garden pod). Lunch Monday-Saturday on Broadway, dinner Wednesday-Saturday at Tidbit.
[NICE RICE] Keeping things simple is hugely important in Belizean cooking—a lesson that Tiffany Love has kept in mind even as she's expanded her menu and opened up a tiny brick-and-mortar place to complement her cart. The signature Belizean chicken ($8-$10) remains a highlight, with thigh's skin blackened before being stewed to tender perfection then served with coconut rice, salad and red beans (and a choice of 11 Sharps hot sauces). Meanwhile, an impossibly juicy, thin-sliced tri-tip ($10) strikes a balance of sweet and spicy courtesy of roasted red peppers and onions. Even the simple vegan stewed red beans ($7) explode with curry and coconut flavor. There are no flourishes or over-the-top presentations. Just a simple to-go box overflowing with stewed protein and, well, love. AP KRYZA.
Pepper Box Cafe
932 SE Morrison St., 841-5004, pepperboxpdx.com. Breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday.
[THE OLDEST NEW NEW MEXICAN] If you're looking for the truest Albuquerque experience from any of the four New Mexican restaurants now in Southeast Portland, it comes delivered to the Formica tables at this counter-service dinerette. Go early. The best items on the menu are three large breakfast tacos on rustic housemade flour tortillas, especially the aptly named primo ($4.50), made with spicy pastrami, pickled peppers, lightly fried white onions and scrambled eggs in a smoky chipotle cream sauce. The original taco with the house chorizo blend and earthy red chile ($4) is the best bargain, almost a meal on its own thanks to shredded sharp cheddar that melts over crispy squares of fried potato. MARTIN CIZMAR.
Southwest 3rd Avenue and Oak Street, 971-258-2845, polli-tico.com. Breakfast, lunch and early dinner Monday-Thursday; breakfast, lunch and late night Friday-Saturday.
[REAL BIRDS] Psst. Here's what's up: I got this place downtown with Peruvian-style rotisserie birds. These are the real deal, off a charcoal rotisserie imported from Lima. Peel these plump breasts apart ($8 for a half with a wing) and it's wet and steamy like a leaky sauna. Here's how you know good pollo a la brasa: It's been on the fire so long you can bite off the crispy bones at the tips of the wings like chicharrones. My spot has only one dipping sauce, an aji amarillo with mayonnaise, sour cream and earthy yellow peppers. Get the wide fried papas on the side, and dip 'em in it, too. And you can order a whole to-go bird online with two sides for $20. Order by 2:30, pick up by 6 pm. Easy. MARTIN CIZMAR.
1615 SE 12th Ave., 971-888-5281, teotepdx.com. Lunch and dinner Monday-Friday. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday, Sunday.
[BAREPAS] Even though the owners started out behind Venezuelan cart Fuego de Lotus, it's hard to imagine Teote's signature interpretation of arepas were ever intended as street food. Hearty, thickened corn cakes are piled too high with sumptuous, succulent helpings of maple-glazed pork belly and roasted poblanos (El Diablo, $6.50) or gouda-topped, verde-slathered brisket (Pabellon, $6.50) for easy consumption—imagine sopping up an impossibly meat-intensive stew with only cornbread patties—and even the dessert variety ($6.50 for four small arepitas mixed with brown sugar and cocoa or cinnamon) arrive swimming in whipped cream and caramel. Better to find a space around the bar upstairs and shamelessly gorge. You'll still make a mess, but a rum-spiked agua fresca rather mutes the embarrassment. JAY HORTON.