It's a well-known fact Californians have long questioned Oregon's taste in Mexican food. If you're looking to give someone from the Golden State a good chuckle, just show them the massive queue for twee tacos outside ¿Por Qué No?, or the soupy sk8er boi burritos at Robo Taco. We've certainly learned the hard way that wringing hands over gastronomical authenticity is often futile, but that doesn't mean most sensible diners are ready to turn off their bullshit detectors just yet.
On my first two visits to La Neta, the latest venture from the hospitality group behind Ava Gene's and Tusk, I sat at the bar and was flanked on both sides by Californians. They told the bartender they were staying upstairs at the Hoxton, the London-based boutique hotel chain whose Chinatown outpost now houses the restaurant, and that they landed there mostly because they didn't want to brave the bitter 35-degree air in search of dinner.
In theory, one could do a lot worse than spend an evening noshing on "Mexican-inspired" fare courtesy of the team behind two of Portland's biggest openings of the past few years. In practice, La Neta's take on upmarket Mexican food is, so far, a disappointment. After tasting one photogenic farm-to-table dish after another, it seems to me head honcho Joshua McFadden and executive chef Johnny Leach know they'll be serving a mostly captive audience. Considering the hype and location, who can blame them?
A cursory glance at La Neta's menu shows a handful of standards no Mexican restaurant should be without, like a spicy margarita (Pueblo Viejo tequila, Royal Combier, agave and lime; $12) and heaping bowls of chips with a trio of vibrant salsas ($9). Paying almost $10 for what many places serve for free is a tough pill to swallow, but it's not unheard of in New Portland, especially in a dimly lit lounge-restaurant hybrid adorned with vintage rugs, glistening tile and a fleet of overstuffed couches that make up about 20 percent of the room's seating. It's certainly an improvement over the deep red plus wrought-iron accoutrements that make similar spots look like a set from The Bachelor, at least.
Despite its best intentions, though, this isn't just a happy-hour chips-and-salsa spot. This is an Important Restaurant, and the "large" section of the menu wants you to know it. The collection of entrees hover near the $30 mark and include their own glossary of ingredients so gringos can get on Leach's level.
The problem with dishes like the beef cheeks in adobo ($28) or the acorn squash ($21) isn't fussiness, however. Though it had its own problems, Leach's former operation, the now-shuttered North Fremont Street tostadaria Chalino, at least offered a wide variety of piquant, familiar flavors. Here, rather than challenging eaters or coddling them with the salt, fat and spice they've grown accustomed to, Leach often lands in a void of flavor that feels condescending.
Both of the aforementioned dishes benefit from beautiful plating, courtesy of a vivid selection of fresh vegetables that is McFadden's calling card. But slogging through the bland, mealy textures of wild rice with mole poblano or whole chunks of hominy left me wishing for more complexity and zest. The quality is there, but it's difficult not to feel like a rube while wondering if it's uncouth to ask for hot sauce at a restaurant that charges $28 for pork shoulder carnitas.
This probably sounds familiar. In the early days of Tusk, the disconnect between presentation and flavor felt like a gaping flaw in the execution of McFadden's vision. Within a few months, he made enough minor tweaks to right the course, eventually resulting in a top-tier restaurant that's become the template for high-style Portland cuisine. It was a turnaround WW previously likened to the Fleetwood Mac album of the same name, in that it took a gradual reappraisal to eventually be appreciated for what it was.
At La Neta, the carnitas—a rather simple, hulking steak of pork shoulder with just barely enough char and seasoning—tease what Leach is capable of and hint at a brighter future that might be just around the corner. The most hopeful item is the Hamburguesa, which recently graduated from a specter available only at lunch to an all-hours standby. It's an exciting collision of smoky queso and tangy funk from dry-aged beef that comes alive once the three-chili "secret sauce" coats your mouth in its tingling warmth.
It's the most approachable dish by far, which brings us back to the question of what the big picture really is at La Neta. Is it a hotel bar with a supposed added bonus of a big foodie name attached to it? Will it coast on its high design and steady stream of hotel guests, many of whom are from our southerly neighbor and should know better? Or will it end up as the metaphorical equivalent of Fleetwood Mac's Mirage, the follow-up to Tusk that very little critical reconsideration has been kind to? Until Leach figures out a way to deliver on the promise of a truly exemplary concept that gives diners more than a pretty product with unremarkable flavors, it's best to wait it out.
EAT: La Neta at the Hoxton, 15 NW 4th Ave., 503-770-0500, thehoxton.com. 7 am-11 pm Sunday-Thursday, 7 am-midnight Friday-Saturday.