Best for: Mammoth tortas and a mezcal-heavy cocktail list.
Sometimes, when carts graduate to brick-and-mortar respectability, they lose the spark that made them burn. Not so for Güero, which got its modest start a few blocks south of its current location on Northeast 28th's restaurant row. Come for the tortas ($12): Güero's by-now-famous ahogada, which bathes tender, generous helpings of Carlton Farms pork in an achiote-tomato sauce; or the pollo pibil, chicken roasted over a banana leaf. The cart bowl ($9) is packed with enough salad, beans and other vegetables to qualify as health food, while the cotija, poblano crema and meats (which cost extra) satisfy any craving for the strong, substantial flavors that make Mexican food irresistible. Everything comes to the table with a little extra thought: Pickled carrots, a sprinkle of cotija and a dash of guajillo chile oil turn chips and guacamole ($7) into a treat. At maybe 1,000 other Mexican restaurants, the horchata ($4) is too sweet, and the agua de jamaica ($3) is thin and tasteless. Here, like everything else, they are just right. NIGEL JAQUISS.
La Osita PDX
Best for: Fast Mexican breakfast fare for a steal.
La Osita opens at 7:15 am on weekdays and 8:30 am on Saturdays, which means anyone headed to Mount Hood or the Gorge will be delighted to find a relatively quick and easy breakfast here, as well as a slew of espresso drinks like a Mexican mocha ($4) that's far richer and spicier than what you'd find at most other kiosk coffee stops east of Interstate 205. Alongside a small selection of breakfast bowls is the brunch taco ($3.50), a small but mighty mix of Tillamook pepper jack, fried egg, colorful veggies and a long slab of applewood bacon that's a good 2 inches longer than the flour tortilla it's wrapped in. If you're looking for something more substantial, consider the Osita burrito (eggs, chorizo, black beans, pico de gallo, pepper jack, sour cream and salsa; $7.75). The total package can be a tad difficult to wrangle while on the run, but this is one of the tidiest such offerings we've eaten in recent memory. PETE COTTELL.
La Panza Cafe
Best for: Not needing to decide between red or green New Mexican chile sauce—it serves both.
In Portland, it's easy to forget about the sun for half the year, but not inside La Panza. Hidden discreetly off Southeast Division Street behind a Plaid Pantry, the place is a starburst of color and warmth, and there's an inviting aroma of baked chiles. The cuisine is New Mexican—a blend of Spanish, Native American and Mexican cooking styles. Staples include blue corn tortillas, red and green chiles, sopaipillas and posole. For $10, you can get a substantial serving of stacked enchiladas, filled with your choice of meat and smothered with red or green sauce, or both. Plopped down in the small restaurant, across from flaming grills and under myriad colorful flags and murals, you'll feel as if you're lying stomach-down on the sun-warmed sand of a much brighter place. ELISE HERRON.
Best for: Tex-Mex classics (nachos, queso, enchiladas), and brisket from next door.
The refried beans at La Taq are to die for, and if that isn't enough to get you in the door all by itself, you're not sufficiently in love with Tex-Mex, which in its highest form is a standalone fusion cuisine that is neither Mexican food nor the stuff of U.S. chains. At his bar next door to Podnah's, Texas native Rodney Muirhead checks off all the boxes: chips and green chile queso ($4.50), bean and cheese nachos ($5), and stacked cheese enchiladas with chile gravy ($12). All three can also be had with brisket, as can that ginormous San Antonio specialty, the puffy taco ($6). Vegetarian options include a rajas poblano taco ($3.50), black beans, and taquitos de papa ($5.50, and maybe ask for extra salsa verde and salsa roja). Muchas margaritas, mezcal and tequila, too. JASON COHEN.
Best for: Tacos for meat lovers served on hand-pressed tortillas.
Little Conejo is a meat lover's paradise. The Vancouver restaurant co-owned by Nodoguro's Mark Wooten opened a satellite food cart last year in North Mississippi's Prost Marketplace, giving Portlanders a break from Interstate 5 bridge traffic if they sought out his cuisine. While there are vegetarian options, the protein is what really sings. A taco made with suadero ($3.50), chopped beef cooked until it's caramelized, has just enough grease to hold it all together along with toppings of onions, salsa and cilantro. Or maybe you're more of a carnitas tacos ($3.50) person. Or a lamb barbacoa ($4.50) person. Or a choriqueso ($3.75), crumbled sausage with cheese, kind of person. Either way, there's plenty of meaty options to choose from. No matter which one you end up with, put some green on it by ordering a side of grilled nopales ($0.50), a succulent, tangy grilled cactus that adds a pop of flavor and an interesting texture. CRYSTAL CONTRERAS.
Matt’s BBQ Tacos
Best for: Another outlet for Matt Vicedomini's smoked meats—oh, and Bon Appétit just named it the ninth-best new restaurant in the country.
Spend even a day in Austin, and you're guaranteed to encounter at least one person who won't shut the hell up about breakfast tacos. It's one of the few major food trends Portland has yet to successfully pilfer from our spiritual sister city, but Matt's BBQ Tacos is the newest food cart in town aiming to change that. Vicedomini's magical experiments in smoky-sweet protein hardly need any introduction, and here they're crammed into a flour tortilla on a bed of fried potatoes, cheddar and scrambled eggs. The base price is $3.50, and toppings like pork belly, sausage and mushrooms cost an extra $1 each, while brisket is $1.50. Our top pick is the brisket, which is packed with the pitmaster's trademark notes of brass and wood, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture and just the perfect amount of char on the edges. PETE COTTELL.
Mi Mero Mole
Best for: Guisados (stewed fillings), margaritas and housemade corn tortillas.
Mi Mero Mole draws a bustling lunch and happy-hour crowd, and if you find yourself in the latter camp looking for a fiesta, there are more than enough food and drink specials here to get one started, from the all-you-can eat tacos for $14.75 every Tuesday to margarita pitchers, which typically run about $30, but are six bucks cheaper during happy hour. But what MMM is really about is the devotion of owner Nick Zukin (an occasional WW contributor) to very specific, regional Mexican food traditions—namely guisados (stewed or stir-fried fillings), moles and fresh corn tortillas (you can see them being rolled in the big window facing 5th). Choose your own adventure—tacos ($3-$4), quesadillas ($4.75-$9.75), burritos ($4.75-$9.75), and more (memelas, gabacho bowls)—and be sure to try some fillings that you've never had before. There's also breakfast Monday through Friday until 11 am. JASON COHEN.
Best for: A culinary journey through Mexico's varied regions, without the plane ticket.
The menu at Nuestra Cocina is like a mini tour of Mexico, reflecting the richness and vast diversity of the country's culinary traditions. Every meal begins with a basket of warm, fresh-pressed corn tortillas and a mild, slightly sweet salsa. From there you decide where you want to go next. Maybe the Yucatán Peninsula is calling with pollo asado en achiote ($22), a tender, grilled half-chicken covered in a rub made from ground annatto seeds, for a crispy, mildly spicy coating. Or perhaps the mountains of Central Mexico beckon. In that case, there is the plato of gorditas rellenas ($12), with creamy black beans, avocado and roasted poblano chiles with cheese. If you're feeling thirsty, take a tequila martíni de pina y chile ($10) along with you. The pineapple puree as well as the lime- and chile-salted rim make for a refreshing travel companion. CRYSTAL CONTRERAS.
Best for: Expensive but satisfying tacos and refreshing margaritas.
Taqueria Nueve, or T9 as it's affectionately known, would probably be balked at by anyone from Southern California or any border state—a taco restaurant with prices $4 and up, with full table service in a sprawling dining room, is anything but "authentic." Still, it maintains a dedicated following for its playful margarita menu, attentive service, and indeed its tacos, which are larger than average and served on a delicate corn tortilla made in-house. They come in a variety of meaty offerings, mostly sourced from local farms, like the lengua ($5, three for $13.50), with St. Helens beef tongue, or cochinita pibil ($4.50, three for $12), with Carlton Farm pork seasoned with achiote and roasted in banana leaves. Stop by for happy hour when a few tacos are priced at $3, the best of which is the carnitas. ALEX FRANE.
Best for: Expanding your horizons with a mescal trip on a garden patio.
It's Xico's casual cousin—crosstown Xica—getting the attention these days, thanks to the novelty of gummy bear nachos. But the founding restaurant challenges diners in more fundamental ways: It demands they abandon their preconceptions of Mexican food and order something unfamiliar. (It perhaps speaks to the defiant mood of Xico that it hangs an early, sour WW review in the restroom.) The mole negro ($15), redolent of chocolate and nuts, comes not with chicken but with tiny cubes of green tomatoes—the sauce becomes the top-billed star. The shrimp sopa de lima ($25) is a seafood soup that recalls tom yum—but with more lime and a dash of cilantro. Even a seemingly familiar item—a $20 trio of tamales—defies expectations, with a tamale made from butternut squash and achiote, topped with a citric salsa verde. If this sounds difficult, it all goes down easy, especially with one of the city's widest collections of mescal. And the guac is tremendous. That dish you already know, but get the guac. AARON MESH.