Build-Your-Own-Taco Night is a weekly staple for many families, and it’s easy to understand why. There’s something so playful and satisfying about the creative construction and consumption of the always en vogue handheld Mexican classic.
That fun, familial feeling is a big part of the experience of dining at Todo, the new corner taco spot now occupying the former Blackbird Pizza space on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. Inside the sprawling, colorful dining room, much of it hand-built by veteran restaurant owner Marco Frattaroli (Cibo, Bastas), guests can choose from half-pound or full-pound plates of taco fillings and adventurously shuffle them with various toppings on soft corn tortillas or crisp tostadas.
The runaway hit is the pastor de trompo ($16, $29), pork marinated in adobada that slowly spins on a spit and roasts with pineapple and onion, resulting in a plate that’s all sweet, juicy, crispy edges. It’s spectacular. Another highlight is the super-tender, sliced asada ($25, $42) marinated in citrus and achiote. The most interactive filling of the bunch is the carnitas de costilla ($22, $33), individual confit pork ribs that can be wrapped in a tortilla and slid off the bone with ease. It’s an unctuous indulgence that I’d recommend cutting with the spicy, acidic crunch of housemade carrot pickles.
On the night we visited, specials included a tofu-soft boiled beef tongue and a lovely cochinita pibil—pork loaded with warming spices, which Frattaroli compares to Bolognese, that’s braised in banana leaves and served with pickled red onions.
The battered local rockfish ($17, $27) is light and fresh, and pairs well with shredded cabbage and tangy cotija cheese. The suadero ($24, $39), a garlicky, slow-cooked beef belly similar to brisket, is nice but doesn’t really stand apart. The only real misfires are the very similar tinga de pollo ($14, $25) and vegan picadillo ($13, $22), which both have a mild, watery tomato flavor. The latter is especially disappointing. Being the only vegetarian option, the mishmash of undercooked vegetables and soy protein feels like an afterthought. In general, the restaurant is not yet a vegetarian or vegan destination (even the rice is cooked in chicken broth), so I can only hope that vegetables are soon given the same care and attention the meats receive.
One meatless bite that will satisfy everyone, however, is the guacamole, which is possibly the best I’ve had in Portland—salty and creamy, with big hunks of avocado, onion and tomato. Standout salsas include a creamy salsa verde and a very spicy and smoky salsa macha.
There are a handful of smaller prepared dishes for those who find taco assembly too taxing. The aguachile de pescado ($14), a cooked rockfish ceviche, has a bright lime and cucumber flavor, but an unappealing presentation, with most elements clumsily cut into uneven pieces. Trendy quesabirria street tacos ($12 for three) are served red hot for maximum gooey cheese-pull potential. The accompanying consommé for dipping is rich and comforting, and the birria is preferable as part of this cohesive appetizer rather than flying solo as a taco filling.
Flan Napolitano ($7) is the standout dessert, with a burnished caramel top and silky texture. But beyond that, you’d do well to stick with the taco kits and avoid a final sweet course. The arroz con leche ($5) is a watery and undercooked rice pudding, overdusted with cinnamon in a way that took me back to the decade-old viral eating challenge. The tres leches ($8) has a thick, cheesecakelike filling, rather than the cake’s usual moist sponginess, and is inexplicably covered in Amarena cherries. The chocolate ice cream with cinnamon and chile ($8), made in partnership with Pinolo Gelato, is a surprising one-bite gimmick that quickly grows tiresome.
Superior sweet options can be found on the cocktail list, since juices for all of the drinks are made fresh in house. The exceptional margarita ($10) is tart, refreshing and balanced. The Verde/Rojo ($11), with tequila, lime, tomatillo, and watermelon, evokes the sensation of eating fruit gummies while laying in the grass during a picnic. Jorge’s Retreat ($13), made with mezcal, lime and orange, deserves to be crowned Portland’s “It Girl Cocktail,” thanks in part to its Tajín rim and mini-watermelon ice pop, perfect for dipping, swirling and munching. It’s a great way to conclude a dinner party with friends at a restaurant where, despite some repetitiveness and underseasoning, the mostly strong flavors and techniques of the focused offerings shine bright.
EAT: Todo, 1935 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 503-208-3948, todotaco.com. 5-9 pm Sunday-Monday, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday.