In December 2011, Nick Zukin—the "Zuke" of Kenny and Zuke's, with which he's no longer affiliated—opened up a little Mexican spot on Southeast Division Street called Mi Mero Mole. (Disclosure: Zukin is an occasional contributor to WW.)
There, he served up the regional Mexican cuisine he was obsessed with—moles, scratch-made nixtamal tortillas, and the pineapple-and-plum-sweetened guisados of central Mexico. Zukin has led tour after tour of street food in Mexico, downed multiple Trump pinatas, and cooked in the kitchen of famed expat Mexican-food chef Diana Kennedy. When Mi Mero Mole opened, our reviewer called Zukin our new Mexican grandmother.
Related: Mexican Food Legend Diana Kennedy Talks Trump, Chinese Chiles and the Best Sauce You Never Tried
But in March, Zukin will close the little restaurant on Southeast 50th Avenue and Division Street. He's found a buyer for the space, who today came to an agreement with him on the terms.
In the meantime he's opened a second location in Chinatown, which means Mi Mero Mole won't go away—in fact, he has plans to expand both bar and breakfast offerings there. But as Division Street became maybe the densest and most visited restaurant street in Portland, we were curious why he'd decide to close so prominent a location.
"I just don't think Mi Mero Mole works there anymore," he tells WW, "or at least not well enough for the headaches of running a restaurant. I don't want to work 12 or 16 hour days to just scrape by."
In part, Zukin says, it's a function of who now lives there, in a tony neighborhood where new-build one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,500.
"Truth is, we're a niche restaurant and the menu scares off people with less adventurous palates or those with kids. We have people who really love our stuff. We have families from Mexico City who will travel hours for our food," Zukin says.
"But when you serve a residential neighborhood like our spot on Division does now, you have to have something more approachable. We get a lot of customers who come in and ask for carnitas or carne asada and when they find out we don't have it, they walk out… I'm not going to half-ass some grey beef trimmings from a bag just because a bro can't be bothered to try something new."
Related: Nick Zukin's quest to find the best Mexican food in Woodburn.
But the first reason he'll offer about why he's getting out of Division? Traffic.
The people who really want his food, he says, have a hard time getting there—he says no one will drive down Division Street anymore since the streets narrowed bit by bit to single lanes in each direction, and the cars started backing up single-file down the street.
"Ever since they narrowed Division to one lane, the traffic has gotten much worse even though fewer cars are on the street," says Zukin. "When we first opened, we had a lot of customers that would come across town. That doesn't happen anymore. Not only do most neighborhoods have more good restaurants, but it's just tougher to get across town, especially streets like Division or Williams that have been narrowed."
When asked whether the road construction was perhaps more to blame than merely the lane changes, Zukin says no.
"We actually did fine during the building construction until the road got narrowed, he says. "We saw an almost instant 20% drop after that which never recovered. My understanding is some very popular restaurants on Williams saw the same thing, at least for their dinner business, and we might be seeing a couple of those places relocate or close as well."
He's already accepted an offer from a food cart owner on the space, he says, which will be announced soon.
The Chinatown location of Mi Mero Mole will both focus and expand its offerings.
In the meantime, he says he's looking to focus on his most popular menu items like chicken tinga and brisket in pasilla sauce, while expanding to both breakfast and maybe even late-night bar hours to capitalize on his tequila and mezcal selection.
He plans in particular to serve the morning office crowd with breakfast burritos and maybe breakfast tacos—which he'd already served during the World Cup—along with chilaquiles, churros and Mexican-style spiced coffee.
"We've talked about doing some late night grilling outside on weekends during the summer, too," he says, "for the club crowd and gamers at Ground Kontrol. It's hard to find time for that kind of stuff with multiple restaurants."
But he also says he might kick back for a second.
"I've got a cookbook I've been working on for over a year and I need to go spend an extended period of time in Mexico for research, he says. "Pablo, my general manager, has an offer to go help some friends open a bar in Tequila, Mexico, too. So we may just relax a little after closing Division."
Expect to get your moles and guisados at Mi Mero Mole on Division through at least February.
"There were a lot more awful times when I was at Kenny & Zuke's," he says. "Off-hand, probably the worst I remember at Division was when our fridge died one month after its warranty expired. Not only did we have the cost of replacing the refrigerator, but we had to throw out thousands of dollars in food and shut down. That sort of the thing means the bank account goes down instead of up for a month or two."
"The best memories were probably fun with the staff. I had a cook early on who owns a taqueria in Gresham now. He had worked with me at Kenny & Zuke's. He always worked his ass off. I couldn't make him take a vacation. I literally tried and just ended up giving him a bonus instead. "
Related: We Ate at 27 Taquerias in East Portland and Gresham. These Are the Best.
"Somehow we got joking that if they just didn't have to go to the bathroom, they would be perfect employees," Zukin says. "I snuck out to the store and bought some adult diapers and awarded them to the employees and I think him and another staff member or two put them on over their pants and we took staff pictures. Everybody was laughing so hard they were crying. We don't have a lot of turnover and we have a pretty close-knit staff, but when it was just that one small restaurant, it was much more like a family."