Chalino Offers a Solid Rendition of Upscale New-Wave Mexican, With Great Sopes and Desserts

It's not a game-changer, but it's a pretty good version of a Portland tostaderia.

Consider the tostada.
It seems like there are fried corn tortillas topped with fresh seafood and exotic peppers everywhere these days. They’re so ubiquitous at Portland’s new class of upscale Mexican spots that I’ve come to think of it as a symbol of an entire genre of restaurant. The tostaderia distinguishes itself from the downmarket taqueria with modern furnishings, anejo tequila and no complimentary chips or salsa.
We’ve had corn tortillas topped with cheese, veggies and meat forever, of course. In the early days of this country, those tortillas were cut into triangles, making the ancient dish known as “nachos.”
But nachos are tacky gringo food for Corona bros, unless you make them with something weird, like “wonton skin.” Tostadas are much, much prettier on Instagram. Since our society is not yet ready to embrace the tlayuda, the tostada is the new star pulled from our continent’s thickest and richest recipe book.
The thing is, we also live in an era of splittable small plates. The tostada isn’t great for that. There’s rarely a nice melding of the flavors between tortilla and topping, and then they break all weird when you divide them. There’s no consensus about how to eat them—half the table goes with fingers, looking like hillbillies stuffing their maws with cornpone, while the others take up a fork, all prissy and precious until they drop mushy avocado in their lap.

That's a long wind-up for a review of chef Johnny Leach's four-month-old Chalino, the latest fancy Mexican spot run by an American-born chef situated among pricey new apartments. There are a lot of really nice, fresh flavors and fun ideas, and there are also some frustrations. Chalino strikes me as a pretty good version of the tostaderia, though not yet the game-changer I'd love to see.

What’s both right and wrong? Consider the $16 appetizer of chips, salsa and guacamole. That’s a large basket of chips with a cereal bowl of guac and three smallish cups of salsa. The guac is unremarkable. The brownish-red blend of peanut and ancho is far too sweet and nutty. On the other hand, the red salsa is great, and the blend of tomatillo and Thai basil is a very subtle twist on a classic that seemingly makes good use of what Leach learned in the bowels of the Momofuku empire.

But, obviously, there's that price. Sure, as a wise man once noted, there's no such thing as free rice—but at $16, it needs to be a showstopper, and it's not.

The tostadas ($6-10) have been inconsistent on our three visits. The best of the bunch was topped with rich carnitas ($7), amped up with cane sugar, fish sauce and a cashew salsa. Bean sprouts were added to cut the fattiness, but disappeared under the sweetness and umami in an unbalanced dish. A hefty dose of tomatillo and lime could make this a whole different thing.

On the other hand, a small plate of two small wild nettle sopes ($12) was beautiful all around. The sopes got their gorgeous green color and a pleasant earthiness from the nettles, and were then built up with blood sausage and Oaxacan cheese, then brightened with pickled serrano.

For me, those were one of four must-order items, along with dessert (more in a minute), a halibut ceviche ($16) with bitter orange and shiso, and a very tasty poloma ($10) that gets a round agave flavor from both tequila and mezcal.

The large plates, however, need some work. A batter-fried half-chicken ($22) served with extra-nutty arbol sauce and a standard taqueria escabeche didn't do anything for me. The chicken was unremarkable but for its heavy batter, and the salsas and escabeches didn't easily combine with the bird. Maybe fresh tortillas would help?

But there's a sweet ending in the form of the exquisite roasted pineapple ice cream ($6). Turns out, Chalino has tapped Le Pigeon pastry chef Helen Jo, and among her offerings is the best dessert I've had in a long time: a roast pineapple ice cream topped with mezcal-infused dulce de leche and toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds. There's even a little cilantro as a garnish—the sort of creative and effective flair that makes upscale dining what it is.

That pineapple ice cream ended up being the strongest argument I've yet encountered for Portland's tostaderias. More of that, please.

Chalino, 25 N. Fremont St., 503-206-6421, 5-10 pm Monday-Saturday.

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