About a month ago, I reviewed a new Mexican joint on Southeast Gladstone Street. In the review, I bemoaned the lack of really good sit-down family Mexican places, those decidedly outmoded eateries with comfy booths, free chips and frozen margaritas in oversized glassware.
As it turns out, I'm not alone. Midrange family-style Mexican spots are something a lot of Portlanders think about. I received lots of emails and Facebook messages from readers who thought I might like their favorite spot.
So I went to them. All of them.
Understand: I wasn't looking for fine dining, let alone authenticity. I was looking for a place where the server calls me "amigo" and warns me to be careful because the plates are hot. A place where the big pool of purplish brown refried beans was somewhat appealing, and where the soda refills come before the glass is empty. A place where there's a hamburger for Uncle Dale who claims to be allergic to Mexican food.
The bad news: I did not find my platonic ideal, a place as perfect as Xochimilco in Detroit, Rita's in Phoenix or Mariachi Loco's in Akron, Ohio, before some asshat from ICE ordered a raid. On the other, I did discover a few places better than La Bamba, Tapatio and the Original Taco House.
La Carreta — BEST OVERALL, BEST DRINKS
4534 SE McLoughlin Blvd., 236-8089, lacarretaportland.com.
Atmosphere: This mazelike Mexican roadhouse on McLoughlin is fully immersive, with murals of caballeros and prickly pears painted on the stucco walls, and tiny Mexican and American flags on wood sticks have been tucked into the hanging plants. The tables are tiled and the chairs are upholstered with traditional blankets—don't worry, you don't actually have to sit in a chair, as slouch-friendly booths are plentiful.
Bebidas: We were left wanting for refills, and there are no tap beers. On the plus side, the frozen strawberry margarita tasted like it actually included juice, and there's a huge selection of alcoholic coffee cocktails, including a very nice La Carreta coffee that blends the beans with Frangelico, Bailey's and Kahlúa, then tops them with whipped cream and a cherry. If you sit at the bar, you can get $1.99 margs and 99-cent beers until 6 pm on weekdays. Also, La Carreta is open until midnight on weekdays and 2 am on weekends.
Comida: The salsa is way too watery—spilling right off the chips—and not very spicy. However, the beef enchilada was excellent. Chile Colorado came as big hunks of pot-roasty beef, but the server forgot the tortillas. The rice and beans are nothing to get excited about. However, every meal does come with a free scoop of ice cream with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
10543 SE Fuller Road, 653-5094, mipueblorestaurant.net.
Atmosphere: Expect a wait, as the tiny Mi Pueblo sits in a neighborhood where other options include Outback and the 'Bee's. It does a brisk takeout business, and the waiting area is decorated with a few knickknacks, while the cramped dining room is all business.
Bebidas: It's open for breakfast, so there is an extensive selection of fruit juices, plus horchata and Choco Milk, the popular and vitamin-rich Mexican "milk modifier." After that, it's your usual selection of Tecates and Modelos, plus margaritas in flavors from cranberry to sour apple. The frozen strawberry marg had a neon pink glow and slushy consistency, and tasted like a Starburst.
Comida: Dark brownish-red salsa and small, thick tortilla chips stood out from the pack. However, the pollo ranchero ($10.50) was absurdly bad, a mix of stir-fry vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots) and rubbery chicken covered in a ketchupy glaze.
517 NE Killingsworth St., 288-5911, catalinasmexicanrestaurant.com.
Atmosphere: Catalina's is a dim cave with gray tile floors and rickety wooden chairs. There is no music, just the echo of a TV showing the Blazers game in a distant nook. The menu is one laminated page.
Bebidas: You can get a pitcher of a housemade agua fresca for $7, a bottle of Corona for $3.50 or a sugary marg made with sweet-and-sour drink mix for $4. Stick with the regular marg, as the dark purple strawberry version tasted like cough syrup.
Comida: Nothing had much flavor, starting with the sugary-sweet salsa (a hotter salsa available on request tasted like burnt sod) and continuing with volcano-hot beans and rice next to limp enchiladas.
Iron Horse — BEST CHILE COLORADO
6034 SE Milwaukie Ave., 232-1826, portlandironhorse.com.
Atmosphere: This taverny Tex-Mex spot is one of the most welcoming restaurants in the dining desert of Sellwood. It plays classic rock, and there's not much in the way of decoration beyond a few strings of Christmas lights and some sombreros.
Bebidas: It's more like a dive bar than a Mexican restaurant, with Coors Light and classic craft beers on tap (Widmer Hefe, Deschutes Mirror Pond), plus pint classic margs ($7.95). The strawberry version ($8.50) was softly sweet and quite tasty.
Comida: The encyclopedic, cheese-heavy menu includes everything from Dungeness crab enchiladas to a pesto chicken quesadilla. There are three salsas, and servers will bring you little containers of each, but good luck with refills. Chile Colorado was made with sirloin and came inside a cheese-smothered burrito ($13.95) on a plate with Spanish rice and plump black beans.
Acapulco's Southwest Gold — BEST ENCHILADAS
7800 SW Capitol Highway, 244-0771.
Atmosphere: This homey storefront in sleepy Multnomah Village has a cute little bar lined with hot sauces and an exposed-wood beam hung with piñatas. On our visit, it played a Fleetwood Mac supermix and flipped the sign to close a half-hour before the posted time.
Bebidas: Everything from pineapple juice to milkshakes. I drank one of the finest pints of Boneyard RPM I've had all year.
Comida: The chips, oddly, tasted like Saltine crackers, but you can't beat the enchiladas. A plate with two burrito-sized rolls of deeply spicy ground beef and stewy shredded chicken ($10.95) in a rich red sauce hit all the right notes.
3939 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 278-5414, lacocinaportland.com.
Atmosphere: The newest spot here, La Cocina opened last year in a concrete-floored modern space on MLK. Discordant lighting fixtures appear to have been salvaged from the set of Cheers. It was recommended not by a reader or friend, but by Yelp: La Cocina is currently ranked only behind Nuestra Cocina, the high-end Mexican joint on Southeast Division Street that also tops my personal list of the city's best.
Bebidas: It's the kind of place that serves Ninkasi IPA and mojitos. It didn't have strawberry syrup for margaritas, so we got raspberry.
Comida: The only spot here that charged for chips and salsa ($3.50), La Cocina has papery chips that nearly dissolve when dipped in pico de gallo. An enchilada plate came with a pyramid of rice and a dollop of guac. Sadly, the chicken was dry and stringy. A San Francisco-style chile Colorado burrito ($7.25) was rice-heavy but had a nice complement of warming spices.
Raul's Family Mexican Restaurant — BEST CHIPS AND SALSA
4820 SW 76th Ave., 203-2999, raulsrestaurant.com.
Atmosphere: The most upscale of the restaurants reviewed here, Raul's sits in a plaza behind the Raccoon Lodge brewery and across from Fred Meyer. It's got high ceilings with skylights, tasteful tile accents and carved wood booths.
Bebidas: Very classic, from a full line of Jarritos to ice-cold Negra Modelo on tap to margaritas with a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry skewered on a wee plastic sword.
Comida: This spot was recommended by a pescatarian couple, and you can see why—the large menu includes not only menudo and fancy bacon- and avocado-topped burgers for Uncle Dale, but shrimp chimichangas. The chips are thin and ultra-crispy and come with an impressively spicy dark red salsa (with a little carafe for refills) and a little bowl of refried beans. But the enchiladas and chile verde lacked punch.