Mexico City is, perhaps surprisingly, a hotbed of Arab food and culture. Any dish you see in a Mexican restaurant that begins with "al" likely stems from the waves of Middle Eastern migration that began rolling through Mexico in 1869, when the Lebanese silk industry collapsed after the opening of the Suez Canal.
The most famous is al pastor, a pork dish descended from the lamb kebab, which was served by Lebanese immigrants in Mexico City and central Mexico; its name literally means "shepherd style."
But in D.F., you might just as likely see signs proudly announcing alambre, meaning "wire." The mixed grill of meats and peppers evolved from Arab-style skewers into a flat-top-grilled stew: First, the poblanos or bell peppers are cooked up with bacon and spice, then they're augmented by a mixed grill of meats—anything from beef to chorizo to al pastor to seafood. The result is a cheesy, meaty, spicy, goopy mess that seems almost more Tex-Mex, served up with little corn or flour tortillas to eat it with. Consider it a fajitas speedball, amped with bacon and cheese—and it's pretty much amazing.
Only a few places in Portland serve alambre, and not always by its name.
On Belmont, Patricia Cabrera's La Calaca Comelona serves three different kinds of alambre ($16-$17), none of which are called alambre. The seafood version, mariscada, comes with shrimp and octopus—although the restaurant was sadly out of octopus on our visit—and a mixed-mushroom veggie version that didn't have the wallop of grilled meat.
But the sarape was a meaty universe mixing al pastor, carne asada and bacon with onions and bells, glistening with enough white cheese to give the whole production the texture of a Philly cheesesteak. The grace note came from the house-made corn tortillas, beautifully pliable with just a hint of tang.
The best alambre can be had at the carts that bear its name, Los Alambres, from father and son natives of Mexico City. Go to the original D.F. cart on Southeast 82nd Avenue, next to a little panaderia, and you'll find rarely seen spit-cooked al pastor Thursday through Saturday, plus a $12 alambre that mixes up carne asada, pork, chorizo, ham, bell peppers, onion, avocado and cheese. It's served spiced with deep red chili salsa and then capped with so much cheese it's halfway to queso fundido.
If you tell owner Antonio Hernandez you like heat, he'll also supply you with habanero-pickled onions with pleasant acidity and hellish fire. The eight tortillas served with the dish come the telltale lines that denote they came from a factory, but that's the only flaw. The wires here are as good as The Wire, and just as Shakespearean in their layered complexity.
Los Alambres D.F., 1134 SE 82nd Ave., 503-213-0085, losalambresdf.weebly.com. La Calaca Comelona, 2304 SE Belmont St, 503-239-9675, lacalacacomelona.com.