When David Madrigal first came to Portland from Guadalajara, Mexico, in 1994, at age 17, he was effectively living in exile.
"Back then, being gay was seen as very, very bad in Mexico," he says, "and my parents did not accept me."
It took a few years, but Madrigal, now 45, has reconciled with his parents—and not only that, he's joined the family tradition. In June, he and his business partner, Brian Aster, opened Taquería los Puñales on Southeast Belmont Street, making him a third-generation taquero.
"I've known how to make tacos a long time," says Madrigal.
And does it ever show. Los Puñales is not yet 2 months old, but it feels like it's been sitting there, in the former Dick's Kitchen space, for years, serving exemplary guisado-style tacos, plus a few curveballs, to an appreciative neighborhood. Every tortilla is made in-house that day, stuffed with an array of guisados—complex braises of meats and vegetables, including carnitas, barbacoa and chicken tinga. Many of the recipes Madrigal learned from his mother, who is originally from Zacatecas.
"My mom would make pork in green sauce in the morning, and the next day steak with potatoes, and the next day whatever," he says. "That way you could come home from an exhausted day at work, see what's in the fridge, and make tacos from it."
Aster and Madrigal have known each other for decades. As Madrigal worked his way up through kitchens across the city, including La Bonita, Aster pursued a career in marketing for a local global footwear company. The duo tested recipes extensively before opening the space, adding dishes that reach into the distinct street taco tradition, such as adobada—pork loin in adobo sauce. They've also created a distinct brand for Los Puñales, one that is boldly original—and fearlessly queer.
"There is no gay taqueria tradition in Mexico," says Madrigal. Adds Aster, "We don't know of another unabashedly gay taqueria in America, to be honest."
The pair originally wanted to call the project "Gay Tacos," before settling on Los Puñales as a more subversive, evocative choice. The term has no exact translation into English, but it means several things in Mexico: to be "a handful," as in a difficult person; a dagger, a knife meant for stabbing; and a particularly venomous pejorative for gay Madrigal knew growing up.
"I talked to lots of people about it," he says of the name. "Other Mexican friends, people who grew up in Mexico and then moved like me, and also people who grew up here. And they would ask me, 'Why Puñales?' Well, it's because I'm gay, for one. Also, it has these other meanings. Even my mom was like, 'That's a pretty good explanation and I'm OK with that. That's very smart.'"
In that way, Aster and Madrigal are participating in the linguistic tradition of reclaiming language originally meant to harm, and turning it into a new colloquial form. They're queering the traditional taqueria through an evolution of personal resonances to create something that feels at once familiar and new.
But it's not just the name. Everything from the interior design by Lola Interiors to Felix d'Eon's subverted traditional Mexican art on the walls to the Kennedy Barrera-Cruz's logo design to the menu, designers and staff identify as queer.
"Los Puñales a distinct name and can be polarizing," Aster says, "but we aren't trying to please everyone. This is an unapologetically gay taqueria. This place is Mexican and gay, and when people come here, they realize it's a queer space. We want a progressive crowd that loves and celebrates identifying with queer places owned by people of color."
But, he adds, "irreverence is nothing if it's not justified by amazing tacos."
Madrigal likes to say he has tacos in his blood, and damn if you can't taste it in the mole, bistec con papas, taco de puerco, and the 11 other options available. Indeed, it's difficult to pick a single standout dish, which makes the guisado sampler ($8.50, for in-house dining only) a surefooted starting point for exploring Madrigal's cooking.
Over repeat visits, however, the chicken tinga ($3.50) continually stood out for its effortless execution and complex range of flavor and texture. It's based on one of Madrigal's mother's recipes, and contains only three ingredients, but the result is greater than the sum of its parts.
To be clear, the chicken tinga at Los Puñales is not reinventing the wheel. If you want innovation, there's Madrigal and Aster's unique pesto carne asada, inspired by Aster's Argentine husband and endless home cooking sessions. But the classic tinga is a perfect gateway to the guisado taco style, and Madrigal's version is subtly excellent.
Los Puñales’ Chicken Tinga Guisado Taco
Madrigal makes every last tortilla served at his shop in-house. "Tortillas from Mexico are not the same as what you find in the States," he says. "And when you make a fresh-made tortilla and mix with the meat, it's a different experience." Madrigal uses Maseca brand corn flour, a readily available ingredient, "but it's all about the kneading to create texture—and the love. That's the key to everything we make. We make it like I'm going to eat it myself."
The tinga guisado at Los Puñales is a two-part process that adds up to something greater than the individual ingredients. First, a whole chicken is poached with garlic, onion, salt and bay leaves. Timing is important here, as is a finely shredded consistency once the chicken is pulled from the water. That texture is part of what makes Madrigal's tinga stand out.
Madrigal starts by making a sauce of garlic, chipotle peppers, tomatoes and salt. As this comes together, he sweats down onions in a separate pan and then adds the sauce over the onions to integrate flavors. "Our tinga is not too spicy—that's something people from Mexico have noticed," Madrigal says. If you want to add kick, choose one of the shop's homemade salsas, all derived from the chef's mother's recipes.
Each tinga taco is topped with a swirl of crema—sometimes called "Mexican sour cream"—produced by Ochoa's Queceria in Albany, Ore. It's thicker and a touch tangier than most brands of sour cream and has a richer depth of flavor.
One of the key aspects of Madrigal's chicken tinga is time. As the poached chicken and subtly spicy, garlicky, creamy tomato sauce are given hours to commingle, the result is ambrosial. "The longer the chicken braises in the sauce, the better it tastes," says Madrigal. "That's the best part."
EAT: Taquería los Puñales, 3312 SE Belmont St., 503-206-7233, lospunales.com. 11 am-10 pm daily.