Monday, June 29, 2009

Authentic Mexican in Portland

It's probably no secret to anyone who reads this blog, but I love Mexican food. And I'm not talking about burritos or chimichangas or anything piled with yellow cheese or sour cream.

I've waxed poetic (apologies to any poets out there) about Cafe Azul before, Claire Archibald's much-missed Mexican restaurant where nary a "burrito-sized" flour tortilla could be found and the only yellow on the plate came from stuffed squash blossoms, where there were richly flavored chile sauces that had simmered for hours if not days and authentic preparations were de rigeur.

And though there are other spots in town presenting Mexican food "inspired by" the cuisine of that country, much to my dismay no one has stepped into Ms. Archibald's admittedly hard-to-fill dancing shoes. So when I heard that Autentica, chef Oswaldo Bibiano's paean to his beloved Guerrero, was once again open for lunch and that it featured Mexican street food, I had to run over to give it a try.

Guerrero stretches along the Pacific Coast of Mexico from Michoacán on the west to Oaxaca on the east, and includes Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and the silver capital of Mexico, Taxco, within its borders. With its coastal location, I was hoping for seafood to predominate but, sadly, fish only appears once on the printed lunch menu in a fish taco, albeit a mighty tasty one. There are several fish items on the dinner menu, so you can be sure we'll go back and check them out.

The good news for lovers of this cuisine is that all of the ingredients are authentic, including the corn tortillas hand-rolled and pressed by the beautifully mature hands of a woman I was too shy to photograph. The smell of those warm, fresh tortillas rising from the cloth-covered basket that arrives on the table is swoon-inducing, especially when accompanied by Bibiano's trio of salsas: red chile, tomatillo and avocado.

My friend Jennifer and I started with the creamy horchata (above left), one of the best I've had in Portland, a silky cold drink made from rice, cinnamon, sugar and vanilla that you would swear was made with milk. The guacamole (right) was a simple, fresh bowlful that needed no dressing up except for maybe a dunk in one of those salsas.

The quesadilla con nopalitos (top photo), a house-made corn masa quesadilla stuffed with strips of roasted cactus, oaxacan cheese and onions was infused with epazote, the smoky-tasting green herb often found in regional preparations, especially black beans. The tortilla was stuffed with the aforementioned ingredients and then topped with roasted chunks of tomatoes with the traditional cabbage salad alongside. Nothing like the flat, lifeless and cheesy versions found at most places in town.

The fish tacos came piled with chile-rubbed grilled fish and covered with cabbage salad, and a squeeze of the lime wedge that came with it was like a flashback to the beaches of Mexico, the soft breeze blowing off the ocean and the fronds of a palapa waving overhead.

Completely stuffed, we had to stop there, but it's certainly not going to keep me from making Autentica a regular on my lunch circuit. And I definitely want to get in for dinner soon to see what seafood Oswaldo has cooking on his grill.

Details: Autentica, 5507 NE 30th, just north of Killingsworth. Phone 503-287-7555.


Rebecca/CUpS said...

This sounds so Yum! I'm in the area once a month - have to plan a stop next time. Thanks for letting me know about this place. =)

EcoGrrl said...

I agree about the food but the pricing is near house margarita and a lower-priced LUNCH entree was $26 for me last weekend when I tried it for the first time (it's about a mile from my house). They have the food right but pricing it like the Pearl is just plain wrong to me, especially in my neighborhood. Most of the restaurants on that little section seem to be doing this, and places like Firehouse prove that you can serve incredible food without breaking the bank.

Kathleen Bauer said...

Rebecca, when you go let me know and I'll join you!

And EcoGrrl, I know it's not the lowest-priced lunch on the street, but I'm here to tell ya that the quality of the meal you'll get is far better than most in the Pearl. And I envy you for being able to have a margarita for lunch...sigh...all I'd do is fall asleep after that!

Randall David Tipton said...

Kathleen, are you familiar with Mitzils in Oregon City? Really good with reasonable prices. Not a combo platter sort of place, much more interesting.Well worth a drive from Portland. Randall

Kathleen Bauer said...

I'm not acquainted with it, Randall. Thanks for the tip!

Unknown said...

I remember Cafe Azul, and maybe it was a little too sophisticated for us while it was here. I've had fish tacos in Zihuatanejo and have never had anything close to it since, so I'm really looking forward to having them here. With the margarita- in the evening.

Michael said...

Autentica is great. My girlfriend's mother is from Veracruz and she said it's just like home! However, the best place in all the Portland Metro area is Sanchez Taqueria in Tigard!!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Wow! GREAT recommendations here. I love the input!