[There are a lot of people new to this site, who may have missed this review when I first published it back in 1996. I Be sure to read the comments below – priceless!]
Driving west on Burnside, one can’t help but notice the warm glow of the sign in the distance. La Campana beckons from a block away. “Come to my warm embrace. I alone can satisfy your hunger.” From the time you pull into the ample parking lot, you’ll feel comfortable. From the lowest college student to the tired executive to the most drunken denizen of the Pearl District, to the tired old socialite from the West hills in her aging Mercedes, it’s like you’ve seen it a hundred times before. “Welcome home, my friend.”
Yes, they have a parking lot. Hard to find in most downtown restaurants, there is plenty of space here, and turnover is pretty quick. If all the spots are full, you can go around the block a couple of times, and most likely something will open up. This is one of the many reasons La Campana is such a find.
The dining room is quite striking: a naughty, smoke-free, platinum sophisticate of a space. It is obvious they showered money on the interior. Large windows on three sides brush away the Mexican hole-in-the-wall image; you know you won’t forget this meal for some time. Light spills in on sunny days, making the room feel warm and inviting. The suppleness of the dining room’s chairs makes me wish I’d worn shorts, just to feel the coolness on the backs of my naked legs. During the evening hours, the space frequently fills with scene-sniffing college students looking to satisfy their bottomless appetites. A large open kitchen takes up an entire side of the room, giving ample opportunity to watch the staff at work. They are a finely tuned machine, turning out remarkably direct and unfussy dishes in a minimal amount of time. No finicky mole here, La Campana strives for and achieves the ultimate in Sonora style cooking.
I hate to judge a book by its cover, but the menu is like a sign; a dream design – every restaurant should be like this. Lots of brightly colored pictures bring it to life, making it glow, giving you a good idea of the food to come. Even better are the prices. At lunchtime, I’ve watched struggling college students indulging in the full range of available options. Since everything is made to order, you can customize any dish to your liking.
Campana’s appetizers will leave you gasping. Sumptuous nachos with a multiplicity of ingredients and rivers of silky sour cream intrigue as you watch the remarkably fluid cheese run into every crevice until the entire dish trembles under your touch. It is almost like Thai food; taste carefully and you can pick out incredible saltiness from the beef, runny sweetness from the cheese, a piquant sourness from the sour cream, and spiciness from a side of hot sauce. You will feel you have truly gone south of the border. If money is an issue, you can still get astonishing yet denuded nachos, dressed in the tempting, yet minimalist attire of translucent cheese.
Next, try the tostada, a crackling tortilla piled high with unctuous beans, crisp iceberg lettuce, impossibly thin strips of cheddar cheese, and jewel-like tomatoes. As you bite into the crusty tortilla, it will explode in a clamorous cascade of ingredients, blanketing your lap if you don’t move quickly! Tacos are the siren call here, so it would be a shame not to have at least one. The beef is simmered in twelve authentic seasonings and spices, giving it an unmistakable taste. Lovingly coated with brash sour cream, carefully shredded lettuce, more tomatoes, and a chewy layer of cheese, this is a taco you will remember for some time.
The burritos are many and varied. La Campana runs frequent specials; now they offer crisp romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing, marinated chicken with impossibly precise grill marks, and crunchy red tortilla strips, all wrapped in a soft, grilled tortilla. It’s like having a zesty fiesta in your hand! But don’t stop there; a slightly less avant-garde combination reigns supreme: a soft tortilla; perfumed beef; perfectly sliced, delicate little strips of lettuce; a hailstorm of tomatoes; and finally, an irresistible tongue of sour cream protruding from the end like a bewitching temptress. This is an entrée you’ll remember the next morning!
If all this is too much, request your meal “Fresco”. The heavier ingredients in any dish will be swapped out with a zesty mix of impossibly red diced tomatoes, chewy onions, and the mildest cilantro, leaving only a ghost of the original, fattening flavors. You’ll never know what to expect, leaving every meal an exciting adventure in new tastes.
Finally, we get to desserts. The standout here is an apple empanada, lying alluringly in its soft paper wrapper like a Girl Scout camp is alluring to a pubescent boy who can just see their boat dock across the rich blue waters of the lake if he climbs to the highest peak of his cabin roof. This is one hot dessert that will bring out the roof-climbing urge in all of us!! With the first bite, the apple filling may seem a bit dry, but that will quickly be mitigated by the oleaginous moisture that streams from the crust. This is unlike any dessert you have ever had in Mexico!
Complaints are few. Timing from the kitchen definitely needs work. In every visit, the appetizers and entrees have come out of the kitchen at the same time. Some dishes are overly complicated with a multitude of ingredients; one burrito has seven different layers! Finally, little attention seems to be paid to the use of seasonal ingredients. I’d like to see more of a rotation by the time of year. Still, these are minor quibbles for such an indulgent interpretation of classic Sonoran cooking.
Their website is stunning! A must-see, it also includes the full menu, hours, and directions. La Campana Website
Pork Cop says
I had a feelin’!!!!!
Um, okay, I admit that it sounds tempting, but your prose has surpassed purple! The exclamation marks extreme! I don’t quite know what to make of this south of the border extravaganza except that if everything was written this way, I would have removed this site from my list of bookmarks a long time ago!! Who wrote this unctuous bewitching siren call of a jewel-like precisely alluring masterpiece? And when can I eat there??!!
(to whomever; I admire your earnest nature, but you have to take it easy on those of us who are cynically inclined. I also enjoy mexican food and will be sure to visit soon, but if you were to add a little Paz to your oleaginous mixture, you might have a tastier empanada of an eating adventure yet!)
And since when is oleaginous a delectable euphemism for irresistable fatty goodness? Sounds like a bad mix of my circa ’74 United Methodist Women’s Cookbook call for Veg All in certain casseroles and oleo in others (my mom laughed when I asked what oleo was, as if I should have known).
Jess D'Zerts says
If only such a fine restaurant would open near me…
Ha! I thought something was up a parargraph in, but wasn’t sure until I read the nacho description! Great job, FoodDude!
Carolyn Manning says
Recipes are updated occasionally, and the last time we visited, the meal did, indeed, remind us the next day that we had eaten “richly” the night before.
We have not been back.
PS .. You are a funny, funny man. I need more coffee. It took me a while …
‘Impossibly red tomatoes, chewy onions and the mildest cilantro’?? Indeed! All true! And I too love the ‘oleaginous’ reference, although I must say it put me off my breakfast for awhile. I don’t know why it took me so long to get it. I think I better go have another cup of coffee.
hilarious… I was getting all excited and confused because I live right in the area, so I went to the website to find the address before reading the entire post… I’ve been had, hook line and sinker
Damn your april foolery! NW needs some better mexican
well seasoned says
My first thought was “Whoa, what was FD on when he wrote this??!” I started to get suspicious when I hit the phrase “translucent cheese,” but what tipped me off was the “impossibly precise grill marks.” Years ago, I read in one of those ridiculous “food service industry” mags that decals are used to create fake grill marks on meat, which grossed me out so much that questionable grill marks have been on my radar ever since.
“Fool me once, shame on . . . shame on you. Fool me . . . you can’t get fooled again.” Happy April Fool’s Day!!
Pork Cop says
We’ll see whose laughin’ at the Bell at 4:00 A.M. The Bell will toll for thee…..
I’ve been there. To die for!!!
Carolyn Manning says
… or to die FROM, KevinS.
I haven’t been here for YEARS. Thanks for reminding me what I’ve been missing.
Food Dude says
I hope you all notice I never said anything (overtly) bad. I have to say, this is one restaurant I will always cherish (after three gin and tonics, at 1:00am – I’ll walk, of course).
I too love the bell for late night. But, correct me if I’m wrong FD, they won’t let you walk-through at 1:00am? I’m pretty sure you have to be in a car. McDonalds has a lockdown on the upper west burnside post bar:30 walkup business…
I’m eagerly awaiting a 24hr pok-pok like foodstall on 21st ave. Who’s going to build it for me?
Pork Cop says
I recently dined at La Campana and found the food to be amongst the most authentic of all the taquerias in Portland. Those proprietary chalupas are divine.The Chicken Caesar Grilled Stuft burrito is pure genius. Combinig Chicken and the caaser in to ! burrito. A great riff on the Classic caesar. Anywho, Thanks for the reminder Food Dude…not unlike Caesar (the Ruler,not the salad) you rule!
Pork Cop says
Also,be sure to have the Enchirito. It has REAL cheddar cheese. Thats pretty hard to beat.
Food Dude says
La Campana is pretty hard to beat when it is 2:30 am, the bars are closing, and you have a terrible alcohol-fueled hunger. At that point, REAL cheddar cheese rocks!
Full disclosure here: I did not make my usual three trips to this restaurant before writing the review.
pollo elastico says
And don’t forget the Crunch Wrap Supreme. They take a crunchy tostada, oozing with queso and a sinfully unctuous ground carne, and envelope it in a ethereal tortilla purse. Crisp leaf lettuce and salsa fresca complete the package, which is cleverly folded upon itself in concentric points before being toasted, panini-style, to perfection. Utterly sublime.
If I locked myself in my basement and sucked on a water pipe for a week, I still wouldn’t have thought of this! I guess that’s why we mere mortals will always be the bridesmaids, and never the bride…
Food Dude says
Pollo: that is why neither of us will probably ever be rich. You really got to wonder how they come up with all these different ways of using the same ingredients. It’s like they are bugging college dorms late at night. “Dude… you know what would be good right now….?”
I think I had better start playing the lottery.
Pork Cop says
Do they have the Crunch Wrap Supreme on weekends only?
And it was 10 years before anyone replied? :)
The BBC Panorama programme pulled an April Fools in the late 50’s with a report about the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland (with panoramic shots of the trees it was growing on) explaining how years of genetic maniplulation by the growers had finally managed to get every strand the same length. More shots of women harvesting it and then laying it out in the sun to dry. And were inundated with calls the next day asking where spaghetti trees could be purchased. But then spaghetti was probably about as easy to find in England back then as a jar of salsa is in a Russian grocery store today.
Food Dude says
Morris, we talked about that spoof a few years ago. You can see the show by clicking here. Still an incredibly well done, fun to watch spoof!
Dude…that only makes my seemingly snobbish palate want one of those grilled stuffed burritos even more. Bring on the extra “fire” sauce!!
Awesome write up….curse the fact that TB…er, La Campaña… is pretty good grab-and-go-grub.