If there’s one thing I hate about people from California, it’s that old “I can’t find Mexican food in Portland like we have in California!” line. What a load of crap. I’ve been to California. There are plenty of crappy Mexican joints there. And conversely, Portland has its share of awesome taquerias.
So, in the interest of Science and proving people from California wrong, I took a tour of three Southeast Portland Mexican places. Because this was a Scientific Experiment, my plan was to order the same thing at each stop: three tacos, one each of carnitas, lengua, and fish. Unfortunately, it turned out that one of my choices didn’t serve fish, so the third taco became a rotating selection.
First up is Super Torta. Despite its convenient location at 57th and Woodstock, this is a spot that I somehow managed to miss out on for the last three years.
In any case, the tacos, which range in price from $1.90 to $2.30, are fairly tasty. The fish is grilled rather than fried, and pleasantly salty and moist with a hint of citrus. It comes topped with lettuce, pico de gallo, and a mayonnaise sauce that adds more in texture than flavor. Quite nice, overall.
The carnitas isn’t great. It comes in big cubes and isn’t overly flavorful. The deep red chipotle sauce they offer does improve it somewhat.
For me, the highlight was the lengua. (That means cow tongue.) It’s decently tender and quite a bit meatier in flavor than I’ve had before. The bright, spicy tomatillo sauce offers a nice counterpoint here. Both the lengua and carnitas come topped with pico de gallo and avocado sauce.
In the interest of Science, I didn’t sample the tortas, which I’ve heard (not surprisingly) are delicious. This is a spot to check out, especially given its proximity to campus.
If this were a contest purely of taste, Taco Express would be the clear loser, but alas, tacos live in a contextualized world. One that contains important considerations like price. And beer.
Tacos at Taco Express are a mere 99 cents each, and burritos start at $3.25. Perhaps more important, the truck, which lives at 26th and Steele, is less than a block away from Reedie-owned Gigantic Brewing, which opened this summer, and in my book, nothing goes with carnitas like a cold pale ale.
On to the important part. First up: the lengua. Their tongue is noticeably fattier and less meaty in taste than Super Torta’s. To compound things, their one hot sauce offering is best described as watery, lacking in both heat and flavor. Probably not something I’d order again.
The carnitas, I thought, was a notch better than Super Torta’s, and definitely the highlight of my experience. It was shredded, as is proper, and as a result had more crispy browned bits. There was also more overall flavor, though it was, as one of my compatriots noted, “a little dry.”
The chorizo was forgettable: lacking in flavor and, like their hot sauce, not spicy at all.
All three tacos came topped with onions and cilantro. My plate came with sauteed onions and green peppers on the side, which I guess is a nice touch, although like the rest of the meal, they were under-seasoned. I’d probably go back, but only because of its proximity to campus and Gigantic.
Taqueria Lindo Michoacan
This somewhat run-down looking truck at 33rd and Division, complete with a hand-painted menu, offers the widest meat selection of the three, including fish, buche (pork stomach), cabeza (head), and goat.
My dinner at Lindo consisted of the usual lengua and carnitas, as well as pastor, which was recommended to me by a friend. Some preliminaries: First, the tortillas here, which are homemade, are BOMB. Super Torta’s and and Taco Express’s have nothing on the thick, pliable, chewy masterpieces served up at Lindo. Again, only onions and cilantro garnished the tacos.
Anyway, the meat at Lindo is a clear winner. The carnitas was definitely my favorite: crispy on the edges, yet moist throughout.
I found the pastor to actually be the least remarkable of the three. Regardless, it’s still tasty, if a bit lacking in heat. But they have a nice hot red sauce, and a somewhat milder tomatillo version to pick things up, so no harm there. It was definitely not bland, but not transcendental by any means.
The lengua, though. The lengua. I think it approaches perfection. Falling-apart tender, bursting with savory goodness, still soaking in a drizzle of its own broth. I could find nothing to complain about.
Lindo is for real. The kind of place you take your self-proclaimed expert friends from LA or Phoenix when they gripe that they can’t find good Mexican anywhere in this rainy, pale city of ours.
I should note in closing that I chose these three restaurants because I’d never been to any of them before. My burrito standby is Los Gorditos, which has a cart at 50th and Division and a brick-and-mortar restaurant at 12th and Division. Their huge burritos and killer selection of hot sauces are both noteworthy. El Gallo, a stone’s throw away at 48th and Woodstock, is also worth a visit.