By Martin Cizmar and Matthew Korfhage
When it comes to tacos, the higher the stakes, the hotter the takes.
Or so we've found from discussing bougie tacos. You rarely hear complaints about a dollar taco. But run that up to $3.25 and people get both picky and partisan. Some of the most contentious debates we've ever had about food in this city have involved ¿Por Qué No?, Xico and Taqueria Nueve.
So, on a recent Thursday night, we decided to settle things, once and for all.
We assembled a crew of eight avowed Mexican-food snobs and hit all the top spots in Southeast, focusing on Division Street, which has in the past year become home to a constellation of bougie Mexican places rivaling anything outside Los Angeles.
At each we ordered the available tacos and margs, along with a few assorted bits that struck our collective fancy.
In the end, there was a clear winner—one expected by two members of our party and grudgingly accepted by two others. Here's how it went.
Best Overall: Xico
Biggest Disappointment: Taqueria Nueve
Best Drop-In Spot: Stella
Best Margaritas: Xico
Strongest Margaritas: ¿Por Qué No? ($9 for large)
Most Fun Margaritas: Chelada at Stella ($5), a frozen marg topped with an upside-down Pacifico.
Best Vegetarian Tacos: Hongos y nopales at Nuestra Cocina ($7 for three)
Best Meat Tacos: Brisket from Stella ($2.75)
Tell Your Friends: "Nah, let's just go to ¿Por Qué No? again instead of that Honky Tonk place."
2135 SE Division St., 503-232-2135, nuestracocina.com.
This decade-old spot predates the existence of Division Street's restaurant row as we know it, and has long been our favorite fancy Mexican spot in town. It's a warm, avocado-colored room filled with the smell of housemade tortillas and the tequila-aided laughter of large groups sipping extra-salty margaritas from blue-rimmed tumblers. Maybe it was the hour—we arrived promptly at 5 to avoid the often huge lines—or the fact that we passed on the $23 steak plate in favor of a pair of $7 taco plates, but on this visit the experience was missing something. The crowd was mostly middle-aged, sober and attired for tourism (think Andina), and the margaritas were overly citrusy with a bitter bite that didn't refresh. One very bright spot was a vegetarian taco, stuffed with meaty mushroom bits and crisp, bright fresh cactus strips.
727 SE Washington St., 503-954-1987, taquerianueve.com.
This was an upset—in that it was upsetting. This is a place whose tacos we have loved in the past, one of those spots whose meat-filled, handmade corn-tortilla tacos can make an "upgrade" on street food seem like a great idea rather than a condescending fiction. The salsas remained uniformly terrific, especially the verde.
But on this visit, that $3 wild boar carnitas taco ($5 when not happy hour) was less flat-top seared into crispness than dried into jerky, the "vegetal" veggie taco was an undersalted scattering of greens, and the fatty brisket was both overdone and underseasoned. At a spot we know is capable of much better, T9 seemed asleep at the switch. And the margaritas showed the perils of being "fancy." More than in tropical climes, fresh-squeezed limes are highly variable in Portland—and so were the fresh-squeezed-lime margaritas. One salt-rimmed glass was perfection, while another was super-tart and the next sadly tepid.
3060 SE Division St., 503-206-5446, stellatacopdx.com
Stella opened its second shop in the former Pizza Maria (RIP) space in May, and on visits since has been consistently good. The lines here are short, and the menu has a nice, wide range of options in food, drinks and sauces. There are five types of margarita, including a fun frozen marg beer float that delighted our table, and they're a buck off between 3 and 6 pm.
The tacos run $2.75 to $3 (just $2 during happy hour) and are big compared to their brothers, with large hunks of meat contained in a traditional double layer of corn tortillas. Our favorites were the meaty shredded brisket with bright pickled onions and marinated jalapeños and the batter-fried avocado, essentially fried fat that got extra good with a spritz of the tongue-whipping habanero salsa.
Honky Tonk Taco
3384 SE Division St., 503-384-2259, honkytonktaco.com.
Before it was playin' George Strait and servin' $4 Shiners, this brand-new Texas-themed Mexican spot was Andy Ricker's Sen Yai, where the Pok Pok proprietor sold a dish that included instant ramen noodles for $9. Well, the big, sun-drenched patio is in the hands of Clyde Common's Nate Tilden now, and he's aiming for a people-pleaser. As such, there's free chips and salsa (don't dare upgrade to the $6 guacamole, an unenthusiastically half-mashed and unadorned avocado) and a deep drink menu headlined by palomas ($8) and slushy margs ($9).
The first problem is that every cocktail we've had on two visits—six of the dozen available—has been substandard, bottoming out with a seasonal margarita that tasted like the juice left over after you wash strawberries. The second problem is that the tacos are both teensy-tiny and extremely dry—as though the kitchen anticipated complaints about greasy meat from yoga moms and decided to head them off at the pass.
You'll find all the grease on a chorizo-based queso fundido ($9), but it's overblown and fake—like some weird one-off Doritos flavor. This is the only place on the crawl we never plan to return to, but your mileage may vary.
¿Por Qué No?
4635 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-954-3138, porquenotacos.com.
¿Por Qué No? is sometimes easy to think of as a place where tacos come as a side to boozy margaritas. The salsas are awful—a rojo like burnt water, a verde like a sweet mud puddle—and the tortillas are a little funny-textured, so bowls and salads often trump the tacos. But that two-margarita house maximum almost always feels like a minimum by the time you finish one, and the fact the restaurant serves these drinks while you're still waiting in the never-ending line—and fan-spray water vapor on people stuck on the hot sidewalk—makes ¿Por Qué No? seem run by geniuses compared to others in the fast-casual set. In stark contrast to the highs and lows of most other bougie taco spots on the crawl, the proteins at ¿Por Qué No? are notable for their heartening consistency, rarely amazing but generally solid. And damned if the rich, pretty queso fresco on that barbacoa wasn't one of the highlights of the night.
Related: WW's 2005 ¿Por Que No? Review
3715 SE Division St., 503-548-6343, xicopdx.com.
Xico is expensive—a meal of corn and beans with a price tag that makes it the McGuffin for a south-of-the-border O. Henry story. Late night service can also be inattentive. But then you take a single sip of the graceful margaritas—a marvel of citrus and lightness and smokiness, with booze that comes on not as heat but fullness—and all is forgiven. "We had a lot of margs tonight," said one of our diners, "but only one margarita."
The happy-hour taco, only available just before closing, is $5 (makes 2-3) and rotates nightly. The tortilla had the lively punch you expect of freshly shucked corn on the cob, but tonight's albondigas (meatballs) had about the same texture as the tortilla and were a little low on seasoning—making them both hearty and unremarkable. On the other hand the salsa was lovely, the chips were a strange marvel of corn-crisped cloud, and certain bites of the chile relleno were soft-breaded heaven with a delicacy unusual for the dish. And after that hilarious Honky Tonk fundido that tasted like the inside of a hot pocket, Xico's came on as all deep-throated cheese—a refreshing swim in the moneyed bins of richness.