Mexico boasts a proud culinary tradition. Actually, there are many layered traditions, as ingredients and preparations vary from region to region and over time, dating back to the indigenous Aztecs and Mayans, and Olmecs and Zapotecs before them. The Spanish arrived in the 16th century, bringing their own culinary influences, along with disease and bloodshed. And this is a vastly oversimplified version of that history.
República has introduced Portland to yet another thread of Mexico’s complex gastronomic tapestry: the modernist-leaning tasting menu, which the Pearl District restaurant began serving in 2021. This format is best associated with fine dining restaurants north of the border. But the multicourse menu, in turn, has reached new heights in Mexico at highly acclaimed restaurants like Pujol and Quintonil—among the style’s earliest and most prominent proponents.
República has deservedly garnered much local praise. The operators, entrepreneur Angel Medina and chef Lauro Romero, have taken a bold step beyond anyone else by serving their heritage cuisine in an often unfamiliar way.
Let’s face it, there are many who still think Mexican food is synonymous with fast food tacos filled with hamburger. Packaging indigenous Mexican ingredients with sophisticated technique in a town known for its disdain of pretension was bold as hell. But they have been pulling it off with aplomb, especially considering the fact that the seemingly perpetual pandemic continues to wreak havoc in the hospitality trades.
During each visit, my five-course meals—the original bargain price of $54 has risen to a still-reasonable $70—rarely hit a flat note. And the idea of simultaneously serving each twosome one vegetarian-leaning tasting menu and one with a meatier bent is brilliant, especially for good eaters who share.
The meal typically begins with some incarnation of ancestral corn topped with various traditional tidbits. Most recently, there was a memelita, a 2-inch-round, rimmed bit of griddled corn dough topped with chipotle chili sauce, crumbles of mild queso fresco and nopalitos, diced and sautéed cactus pads. The starter course is typically accompanied by a few words from your server about the intentions of the kitchen to serve indigenous Mexican ingredients, with the qualification that the Spanish influence cannot be ignored.
The dishes to follow rotate over time, so it’s difficult to predict what you might receive. One vegetarian menu began with a brilliantly colored plate of carrots prepared several ways with roasted yellow chiles and pepita nuts sprinkled over the carrot puree base.
An opulent omnivore dish featured a couple of thin slices of raw wagyu beef, pastes of chile de árbol and fava bean, pieces of translucent chicharrón, and several more components. One was supposed to be chapulín, grasshopper, though I saw no evidence that any had hopped on my plate. Chapulines are a ubiquitous snack food in Oaxacan markets, fried with garlic and salt, so they were missed.
The parade of dishes continues in a swirl of colors, flavors and textures, from chiles to cheeses to herbs and spices. A particular favorite from Oaxaca, rosita de cacao, recently figured in a chocolate-and-citrus dessert. The aroma of these small whitish-yellow blooms bears a strong resemblance to the smell of chocolate, though the plants are unrelated. Similar to República, Oaxacan cuisine pairs rosita de cacao with chocolate in a popular non-alcoholic beverage called tejate.
Some diners may find modernist embellishments—powders, foams, gels and the like—more a distraction than a delight. I don’t share that view. The visuals are part of the fun so long as they do not detract from the flavors, and that has not been a problem.
My concern with República is its sustainability. It’s hard to retain the interest of a loyal clientele in a town as notoriously fickle (and budget conscious) as Portland. More to the point, can this restaurant maintain its focus on quality for the long run?
It’s disturbing that the kitchen and front of the house have suffered significant defections recently amid reports of an unpleasant work environment. In bygone days, this may have been no big deal. In today’s restaurant world, it is. It was also odd to hear one of the operators talk about multiple other projects in the works beyond the existing evening tasting menu and separate à la carte breakfast and lunch operation. Dilution of even the greatest passion project can be damaging, to say the least.
But in a town that too easily settles for simple, safe culinary standards, República is revolutionary. It is worth a visit now.
EAT: República, 721 NW 9th Ave., 541-900-5836, republicapdx.square.site. À la carte menu served 9 am-3 pm, chef’s tasting menu served 5-9 pm daily.