Review: Autentica

[Updated 2.11] Note. This restaurant is very inconsistent.
About 12 years ago, when I was living in Napa Valley, a friend of mine told me about a group of Mexican women who made tamales. I’d never been a huge fan, but she swore these were unlike anything I’d had before. The directions were a bit convoluted, consisting of vague instructions that took me bumping down dusty dirt roads, counting farm outbuildings until I came to the fourth. Inside a group of women had formed a production line, one cooking corn, the next grinding it into nixtamal, another making dough, and the last stuffing the tamales with pork and steaming them. The women normally made them for the grape pickers, but I came with a good reference and wasn’t afraid to make a fool out of myself by trying to help, so they sold a dozen to me, still steaming in the corn husks. The price was a dollar each.

I’d never had such good tamales before, and through the harvest season I kept returning, plying the women with beer and laughter, and doing whatever I could to help out. Shortly thereafter I moved away, and though I have participated in many Christmas ‘tamale parties’, never had any that were as good as those, consumed under an old vineyard oak tree. Now I’ve found some in Portland that are almost as good.

When Autentica opened, it didn’t do a lot for me. I went a couple of times, and passed on reviewing it. Fast forward. After hearing from more and more people who felt the food had gotten better, I went back, and was pleasantly surprised. The kitchen has definitely hit its stride, with an end result of good food at reasonable prices (though they have increased quite a bit over the past few years), and a wait to get a table on many nights.

The service has gotten better over the years, but it can still fail miserably from time to time. Chef owner Oswaldo Bibiano has also worked out most of the problems with pacing dishes. Service can still be a bit overly ‘relaxed. A friend of mine told me that we should accept this, that this pace is ‘traditional in Mexico’, but I don’t buy that at all; and dammit, we aren’t in Mexico.

Some folks may be disappointed that the food is not the fake ‘Mexican’ drek served in many restaurants. These dishes are authentic. As the chef came around and told everyone on my first visit, the style of food is from the Guerrero region of Mexico (Acapulco), and stays true to that ilk. It is a bit different from any other Mexican restaurant in town, which is one of the reasons I like it. However, not every dish may be to your liking. I’ve had a couple of misses, not because the food was poorly made; more because the food was just not for me. Keep that in mind and most likely you’ll be happy. Many dishes use the Mexican herb epazote. It is fairly pungent, and, somewhat like fresh coriander, an acquired taste. (While I’m thinking about it, here’s a bit of trivia: epazote is often used in bean dishes because it’s a carminative, which means it reduces gas. Enough said.)

The menu is fairly static, with some items being tweaked a bit, and occasional specials, which tend to be very good. It is broken into five sections: Seafood Cocktails, Soups, Small Plates, Salads, and Large Plates.

Autentica has a full bar and a choice of beer. I generally get a margarita, though I have noticed the quality varies greatly depending on who’s making them. One night they will be perfect, on another the balance is way off. Meals start with small bowl of pickled vegetables, a refreshing way to begin. They are a combination of potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, etc. True to their roots, they aren’t terribly spicy, just sort of an amuse bouche while you browse the menu.

As so often happens in Mexico, meals start with a little plate of three salsas, all quite different from each other. They are great for dipping the thick, warm homemade tortillas, or spicing up the food, which tends to be a bit on the mild side. You might want to add a dish of guacamole, fresh and balanced, better than most restaurant versions. We’ll start at the top of the menu with cockteles de mariscos, or seafood cocktails. The ingredients are always quite fresh, with bright flavors. One of my favorites is the spicy pulpo enamorado, an octopus salad diced with tomatoes, red onions, and serrano peppers. It is served in a glass, surrounded with saltine crackers, which may seem a bit odd to people, but this is traditional to the region. They also have ceviche, which changes from time to time. I’ve tried an Acapulco style with fresh fish, beautiful big prawns and avocado, and another one with scallops. Both are quite good, the servings on the large size for the money. My only complaint is the tomatoes are bland and forgettable during the off-season.

There are usually at least two soups available, all decent, but not a strong point on the menu. A traditional tortilla soup is made from a rather wimpy broth and ingredients that are soggy by the time they make it to the table. A cream of corn with red habanero peppers is a bit better, but the corn flavor lacks spark. Moving on to the Small Plates section, we fare much better. I almost always start my meals which a taco al pastor, a moist, flavorful pork taco. Dried chilies, cilantro, onions and a thin spicy sauce make it a winner. The menu used to feature tamales, but they are gone now; I hope this is temporary, as these are the best I’ve had in ages, with a nice thin layer of masa. There are two varieties: the first a moist pork tamal with red chili sauce, cooked in a banana leaf. The sauce is dark and spicy with lots of depth and a long finish. I could eat many of these. The other is vegetarian, stuffed with poblano pepper, cream and epazote. This version doesn’t quite have the depth that comes from the pork, but it is still excellent, a slight bitterness peeking through from the epazote.

I could easily make a meal out of one of the tamales and the tostada con tinga de pollo. The tostada is a whole tortilla, fried crispy, piled high with crunchy fresh cabbage and shredded pork topped with cabbage and cream before being sprinkled with good cotija cheese. As with everything else at Autentica, the portion is fairly large. The most difficult challenge is eating it without covering your shirt.

Going on to the large plates, try one of the stellar molé, like the occasional teloloapan, chicken in a red molé sauce made from chocolate, eight kinds of dried chilies and nuts. It’s a half chicken, perfectly cooked so it doesn’t lose the moisture, covered in a complex brown molé. It is very good, probably the best in town, though the sauce can be rather intensely flavored, so it’s not for the faint of heart. As with most dishes, the entrée is huge; you’ll probably be having some for lunch the next day. People sometimes ask me to define “depth” when I’m talking about a sauce. A perfect, smooth molé like this one is one of the best examples I can think of.

One night they had a special boneless chicken with a smoky chipotle sauce. Again the chicken was cooked just right. The sauce was creamy with lots of nice pieces of chiles. I’ve had this dish before in other well-known restaurants, but this is the best I’ve tasted. If this is on the menu, order it. Another winner is the pescado entero con adobo rojo, or roasted whole fish marinated with adobo dried chili paste. It’s another large entrée, usually red snapper, the fish reclining across the plate, head and all. The fish rotates depending on what is available, but the meat is always tender and moist, a bit of fresh epazote giving a counterpoint to the sweet complexity of the sauce of fried dried chiles and tomatoes, none of which overwhelms the wonderful fish.

When I was a kid, my mother used to make wonderful chile relleno, and I’ve compared all that have come afterwards to hers. Autentica has a version that is close, the large poblano pepper roasted until sweet and tender, stuffed with cotija Mexican cheese and covered with a ladle of a slightly spicy tomato sauce. It comes on a large plate of enchiladas, one with red molé, one with green, and the chile relleno resting in between. This is a wonderful way to sample multiple flavors from the Guerrero region.

It’s easy to keep picking out winners: carne a la plancha con frijoles charros y chiles toreados – a thin flat-iron steak, cooked quickly on the flat top with charro beans, serrano peppers, epazote, and little strips of napolitas (cactus), or lomitos de Puerco – fork tender pork tenderloin with a green mole made with pumpkin seeds and serrano peppers. On Thursday from 5 pm to 10 pm they serve traditional pasole, a large bowl of broth and hominy with an array of condiments on the side: pork garlic, onion, chilis, cilantro, etc. Not my favorite thing, but that’s just me. I have a friend that just loves it.

If you want something different from the Portland norm, give their weekend brunch a try. Of course they have menudo, but also a large choice of Mexican dishes like menudo, huevos, enchiladas and one of my favorite things in life, chilaquiles. Prices are just about what you’d expect, averaging eight to twelve dollars.

I like Autentica. For the most part, the food is interesting and well prepared, and gives those used to the standard burrito enchilada plates a foray into real Mexican food. I like that menu items rotate on and off on a regular basis, always making for an interesting experience. While at prime time there can be a wait for a table, if you have time for a relaxed dinner, venture up to Northeast Portland and give them a try.

Grade: B

  • Phone: (503) 287-7555
  • Address: 5507 NE 30th Ave, Portland OR. 97211 Google Map
  • Hours: Tues – Sun 5pm – 10pm. Sat – Sun Brunch 10am – 2pm
  • Website: AutenticaPortland.com

Autentica on Urbanspoon

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. apatron says

    If I had to choose between two restaurants – one with excellent service and mediocre food and one with mediocre service but excellent food- I’d go with the latter. While me may be used to it and expect it, I think the need for punctual and attentive service is ethnocentric and I agree with your friends notion of embracing (or at least accepting) the cultural difference of more relaxed service in a Mexican restaurant. With all due respect – when you are going out for dinner – what’s the hurry? You could whip up something in your own kitchen if you need fast service – or there’s always fast food…

    I have really enjoyed my experiences at Autentica. My favorite is the grilled whole fish and the tortillas with little accompanying sauces are outstanding.

  2. says

    There is a huge difference between relaxed service and flaky service, and it sounds like they suffer from the latter. A restaurant can have relaxed but attentive service, and I’ve had that type of experience in plenty of Mex restaurants, both in the U.S. and in Mexico. And in both countries there have been places that turn tables like nobodies business.

    Ethnocentric or not, a restaurant stands a better chance in the long-run if it adjusts to the demands of its market as opposed to waiting for the market to adjust to it.

  3. foieman says

    The service is spotty sometimes. Ever notice that the service at some “chef owned” restaurants (without a front of the house partner) is sketchy if not non-existant! Is it an ego thing or payroll savings?

  4. reflexblue says

    >>The service is spotty sometimes. Ever notice that the service at some “chef owned” restaurants (without a front of the house partner) is sketchy if not non-existant! Is it an ego thing or payroll savings?

    I agree. Being a chef often doesn’t translate to being a good GM.

    Also, I can’t remember having bad service in Mexico ever. Well, except after that one hurricane when they sold me coffee made of sea water.

    Autentica servers talk about the patrons in Spanish as if they weren’t there or can’t understand. No me encantan.

    I went prepared to be disappointed. I wasn’t. The mole was fantastic.

  5. suds sister says

    More often than not, I have had absultely rotten service. And every time that I have gone in there, it’s the same people serving. Fire those people already!

    Also, if you keep the cocktails or water coming, you can bring the food out a little late or in whatever order you choose. But most of the time at Autentica, you just sit on your hands watching the frantic and hurried incompetence of the FOH. So many times I have been there when the server drops the plate in front of you and you never see them again. And this is a tiny place! The service is so bad that you are reluctant to order another cocktail when your entree is delivered, because you are certain that you will not get it until you are finished eating.

    Friends of Oswaldo are legion and they are united in singing the praises of this esablishment. For my money though, you are literally better served by going to DF or TN.

  6. Sir Loins says

    apatron, if the food was really good, I would – maybe, occasionally – put up with ignorant, incompetent service from a to-go stand. At least I’m not going to be stuck there for too long.

    But in a restaurant? Repeatedly? And from folks who don’t give a damn about improving it? F that.

  7. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Oddly enough, I had fantastic service the last time I was there. It was a server I used to see at Holden’s on Autentica.

    She was really on top of everything.

  8. Cuisine Bonne Femme says

    Oh trust me, I’m with everyone else – most timesI’ve experienced the mediocre service too, but it has never been contemptious or snotty like certain other places in Portland, so I am a little more forgiving.

    However, add good service to the mix at Autentica and it’s a very solid and decent restaurant. Their pescado entero con adobo rojo is pretty outstanding, and I once had a spicy grilled or panfried whole prawns dish there (can’t for the life of me remember what it was called) that was just stellar.

  9. biabub says

    FD – your review is spot on. i’ve been 5 times and had really good to great food every one of those times. but the service went from friendly and clueless when they opened to a combination of rude and that totally fatal attitude of servers “that’s not my table/section” so they just walk past you as if you were a ghost.

    we finally gave up. which is a bummer because we love the food. i’ve thought of going back, as it’s been 6 months but then i hear over and over more stories like those reported here, so why bother. if oswaldo isn’t gonna address the issue, then it isn’t gonna change. really a shame as it could easily be the best mexican on the eastside if they got the front house figured out.

    if oswaldo is reading this, one easy piece of advise that will pay for itself in drink revenue: hire a dedicated bartender. someone who stands there and just makes one drink after another consistently for all the customers, so different servers don’t have to also figure out how to mix drinks and maintain standards. everyone will be much happier if they’re drinking more.

  10. tup? says

    Not having traveled to Mexico, I’m curious if food served in courses would be a regular feature of a comparable restaurant in Guerrero or elsewhere?

    (Not asking defensively. Autentica should probably adapt to the local ways, ‘autentic’ or not. Just curious about the style at the origin.)

  11. meimoya says

    I’ve never visited Autentica, precisely because I spent several years living in Mexico and am really turned off by pretty much any attempt to open an “authentic” Mexican restaurant in the Pacific Northwest. I can make better food at home. Taco Bell’s about as Mexican as I get when I’m stateside. In response to the previous comment, however, regarding food served in courses in Mexico and the service there….The kind of food I see described as being served at Autentica isn’t really the sort of thing you would see a lot of at a nice restaurant in Mexico. Not that that in any way detracts from the style of food they’re serving…a good chile relleno is…oh…a slice of heaven. And if they every have mole verde de pipian (green mole made with pumpkin seeds…mmm…) well, that’s just deliciousness on a plate! But tacos, enchiladas, cocteles de mariscos…that’s street food. You buy it from carts or from little mom-and-pop places where every bite is delicious and nobody thinks twice about the service. Service in general in Mexico is deplorable by North American standards. I used to have fits every time I went to a meal in a halfway decent restaurant. Appetizers would generally appear before entrees (when we ordered them…they’re not as common as they are stateside, I’d say) but it was anyone’s guess when the food would arrive and seldom did everyone’s plate come to the table at the same time. Many, many, many times entrees come out before DRINKS do. Getting a server to bring coffee WITH dessert and not 10 minutes before or after was a feat only accomplised at my favorite restaurant in Cuernavaca (ah….Tamarindo Cafe, I miss you so!!) where I was a regular customer and the GM came to greet me by name every time I walked in the door.
    All the same, FD’s comment holds true…Autentica is not in Mexico and neither are their customers. Service goes a LONG way in determining a restaurant’s success in the city they’ve chosen to open their doors in.

  12. Babs says

    My husband and I went here last week, having heard great things about the space and food.
    We should have been clued in that things weren’t going well that night when the table of four next to us were brought two of their entrees. Ten minutes later (I looked at my watch) the other two were still waiting.
    Our appetizer came before our margaritas, and it took at least 15 minutes for the appetizer. The waitress did apologize and promptly blamed the kitchen. We didn’t understand how the kitchen had anything to do with our margaritas not being there to massage the wait.
    My husband had the molé teloloapan, which tasted bitter and hollow, really off-balance. I had the lomitos de Puerco, and actually sent it back to the kitchen, something I haven’t done since moving to Portland a few years back. The dish was cold, the meat dry, and it took us flagging down our server several minutes later for her to bring out salsas or tortillas. I don’t so much think it had to do with us not “understanding” the food of this restaurant; I just think it was bad. And not worth $17 a plate, $7 for guacamole.

  13. Food Dude says

    Just to clarify: the service isn’t always lousy at Autentica, and if you are in no particular hurry, you probably won’t be bothered. Some days are worse than others. As I said in the review, I’ve been at least ten times. Wouldn’t have if the service was always terrible.

    • kolibri says

      I do believe I had the WORST service of my life at Autentica. The server was a larger guy who obviously did not give a crap about his guests or his tip. We actually sat with dirty dishes in front of us at the end of the meal for almost 20 MINUTES! And the drinks were empty the whole time! And guess what he was doing that whole time? He was standing at the back of the restaurant eating and drinking what was obviously an alchoholic beverage. AND he was looking straight at us the whole time. I will never be back.

        • mczlaw says

          Another overstrident tale of woe that cries out for the other side of the story.

          In fairness to the poster, however, Autentica had service problems early on primarily due to understaffing, but that has improved enormously over the last year or so.

          –mcz

  14. Steve Wino says

    I’ve eaten at Autentica at least a couple of times a month for the last couple of years and often weekly. I am surprised at the reports of bad service and bad food. No one hits the mark 100% of the time but Autentica is my personal favorite for fresh food that brings the heat. Oswaldo has introduced me to more different chiles and beans than I ever imagined and the wide range of flavors that each can bring to a dish. Maybe because it is like a home away from home that I take any slippage in stride but I am constantly touting it to friends when describing NE Pdx highlights.

  15. Shawn says

    Just went to Autentica with my wife and was very underwhelmed. I grew up in SoCal and feel I know a thing or two about quality Mexican cuisine. The Ceviche Crudo was good, but the level of chili overpowered and masked the flavors of the fish. The Mole was reasonably good in flavor, but wasn’t completely pureed and some chunks of dried chili were picked from my teeth. My wifes camarones looked good and she said they were tasty, but I did not try them. Finally, and most underwhelming, we ordered a flan and tres leches cake for dessert. The flan was overcooked and filled with bubbles. The tres leches cake was subtly flavored, but tasted of plastic.

    In the end, we did not hate it, but we will not be going back. 4 out of 10. (I miss D.F.!!!!!!!!!!)

  16. Good Food For Me says

    I’m not sure what is going on at this restaurant, but our service was o.k. although we got no forks until we asked for them after we got the food. We had four appetizers and one main course of chicken mole. The appetizers were just not good. The octopus comes with one large tentacle served with what we found out was garlic bread chunks under a red sauce. The sauce was o.k. the rest was just weird. The ceviche was also almost like the whole fish cut in large chunks and rather slimy. The actual juice it was marinated in was just barely o.k. We didn’t eat it all. The guacamole was fine though although I would never pay $7 dollars for maybe 1 avocado cut up. The fondido was awful. The cheese came with a large layer of grease on top and was tough and only edible after cutting it up with a knife – it was strange and very rubbery – nothing you could dip into at all. The chicken mole was a nice portion and quite good although our friends did not like it much. The margaritas saved the day! We’ll have to see what others think. Maybe we just hit it on a bad night, but it was more the style of food which was not authentic that made every person say = only go for the drinks again. The place was packed though so maybe we are wrong!

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