Note: This restaurant closed May of 2008, however a new one opened in 2014 at 727 SE Washington Street, Portland.
When you eat out four or five nights a week, it isn’t always easy to find people to go with. Occasionally, that means I have to indulge in the dreaded, Dining Out Alone.
About eight months ago I was thinking about doing a review of Taqueria Nueve. It was a Sunday, the normal pool of friends that I draw from were all busy, so I decided to go by myself. As I walked up NE 28th, a homeless couple on the corner asked me for a handout. Instead of ignoring them, or tossing some loose change their way, I threw caution to the wind, and invited them to dinner, with the understanding that I could taste everything. So began one of the more interesting dining experiences I have had in some time.
One was 23; the other had just turned 21. Both from broken homes, they had been on the street for many years. It turns out, neither had ever been to a real restaurant before. The menu was a foreign language to them, so I took the liberty of ordering. We had a veritable feast: guacamole tostadas, ceviche, a sampling of tacos, Caesar salad, enchiladas, and pork chops. The older one didn’t even know the proper way to use a knife and fork, and had to be shown how to hold them. They both were incredibly thrilled, and flagged down every server and customer that walked past, “do you know how amazing this food is!” At the end of the meal, one picked up his plate and carefully licked it completely clean, before handing it to the waiting server. “I’ll remember this meal for the rest of my life”, he said. “I don’t want to miss a drop”. The waitress proclaimed us the kitchen’s favorite customers of the night, and brought out desserts on the house. It was a night the three of us will remember forever; for me because I was reminded that charity comes back tenfold; for them, because the whole experience started them on a path towards a new life. We still keep in touch.
Off the top of my head, there are two “gourmet” Mexican restaurants in Portland. It is difficult to review one without giving a nod to the other. Since I reviewed Nuestra Cocina last fall, it is time to talk about Taqueria Nueve.
Taqueria Nueve opened in November of 2000. They specialize in cooking with natural, free-range, and organic ingredients as much as possible. The result is food that rises in quality and complexity above that served at your average taqueria. The menu is 100% a la carta: even beans and rice must be ordered separately. This can drive up what at first glance may seem to be a very reasonably priced menu. The question is, does the food live up to the higher prices? I recently returned several times to see how things are going.
Located on the mini restaurant row of NE 28th, Taqueria Nueve is within a few minutes walk of Noble Rot, Tabla, Navarre, Esparza’s, and many more. The space is large and functional, the designed to crank through as many people as possible in a short time. There’s not much to break it up, just a full bar and the kitchen down the right side. Still, it is a comfortable space, the noise level is kept to a minimum by thoughtful design elements like bamboo slats on the ceiling, and the colors are bright and cheery. Tables are very close together; you can pretty much eavesdrop on the conversations of diners on each side of you. On warm nights, tables are set up outside on the sidewalk.
While you peruse the menu, try a beer or a good margarita. They have a great selection of both, with at least five specialty margaritas at average prices. All have sufficient kick, and will send you out the door feeling happy and ready for a nap. My favorite is El Camino, which gives a slight twist on the traditional with the addition of a little orange. They also have a decent wine list at average markup.
I’ve had a few people email me complaining that Taqueria Nueve is not “real Mexican – they are so cheap there’s hardly any cheese!” Sigh. Be aware, this is not TexMex, this is not Sonora style, Americanized food. Real Mexican food is not acres of cheese floating in a pool of rice and beans. This is the real stuff. If you prefer your enchiladas stuffed with something other than goat cheese, walk two blocks south to Esparzas. You’ll be happier there. The same thing goes with chips. In some parts of Mexico you get chips, in some parts you get a rather mediocre bread. Here, you don’t get either one, even if you order a side of guacamole. Strange, actually. You do, however, get two salsas, a green and a red. Both are good, complex, and authentic. I use them as a dip for tortillas, since the food seems spiced correctly, and doesn’t really need any extra kick.
Caesar salads are surprisingly good, and large. One salad is easily enough for two people. The flavors are very well balanced. You have to dig in for a while before you can appreciate all the subtle flavors. There are plenty of strips of crunchy tortilla chips, tomatoes, and a sprinkling of cotija cheese. If I had to find a flaw, it could use a bit more acid, and I’d skip the sad little out of season tomatoes.
I almost always get the guacamole tostadas, though they vary a bit from month to month. One week they had way too much lettuce, and the avocado had a slight taste of preservative. Two weeks later, they were near perfect: small, crisp tortillas, a thick layer of chopped avocado, lettuce, a sprinkling of tomatoes, and cotija.
Ceviche changes from day to day depending on what fresh fish is available. They do a wonderful job, crisp, flavorful and elegantly simple. The fish is cooked by immersion in a bit of fresh lime, mixed with tomato, onion, and cilantro.
The tacos are especially recommended; all come liberally stuffed with large flavorful chunks of your choice of filling. All are direct and unfussy, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. The carnitas have a crispy char on the outside, but are still tender and moist. Same with the pollo asado with its chipotle marinade. The fresh fish tacos taste of the sea with plump pieces of the fish of the day, complemented by mild chiles, cabbage, and crema. I often come here and make a meal out of a selection.
Enchiladas are authentic, not what an Americano might expect. Four tortillas laid flat make up the base. This is followed by the filling (chicken, etc.), heavily sauced, piled high with lettuce and sprinkled with a little queso fresco, onions, and cilantro. The green sauce is terrific, easily my favorite. It bursts with bright tomatillo flavor, a lovely balance of acid and tart. The red sauce is also excellent, with smoky depth from the spicy roasted chiles.
The duck leg confit mole was superb, one of the best I have had in ages. Expertly made, perfectly balanced. I sopped up every bit with the provided (and completely average) tortillas. The duck leg was also perfect; the skin crackling crisp, the meat moist and tender. Just a wonderful dish. The grilled hanger steak is also a winner. The meat arrives cut into thin strips, the outside with a nice char, the inside cooked exactly as ordered. It makes up a small pile in the middle of a great ocean of spicy pasilla chile sauce. This is another where you’ll be tempted to lick the plate, the smoky sauce pairs marvelously with the hanger steak.
Finally there is the chile relleno. The Taqueria Nueve version is authentic, stuffed with a medium dice of squash and potatoes, and mixed with capers, raisins, olives and almonds. The whole thing is served in a very light tomato sauce, almost a soup. I liked this dish, but was very glad I had ordered other items.
This brings me back to where I started. Everything is in fairly small portions. Though the menu looks inexpensive, keep in mind that even rice and beans are each an additional cost. Most big eaters will want to order at least one taco or one of the botanas to feel full. A few other complaints: There is too much lettuce on everything. Sometimes it is hard to find the entrée underneath. The tortillas are nothing special, certainly not made on premises; sitting eating mole one night, I was dreaming of the marvelous handmade versions from Nuestra Cocina.
Desserts are decent, but not outstanding. The tres leches (three milks) cake doesn’t thrill me, it seemed a bit dry, however, I seem to be in the minority here. It is also difficult to taste the three different milks; in a really good version they work together to give more depth than one would expect from cake. A better choice is the coconut ice cream; quite good, full of fresh coconut flavor, and not too sweet. The orange flan is also just fine: rich and creamy, with a caramel-orange finish.
One naturally has to compare the two restaurants. I would definitely give the nod to Taqueria Nueve for some dishes, like the ceviche and the mole; they certainly have a stellar hand with sauces. Still, I think some details are overlooked. Entrées are definitely smaller; things like rice and beans are of such average quality, they seem pretty much like an afterthought. Overall, I like both restaurants quite a bit, but when pressed, my vote goes to Nuestra Cocina. At either one, you’ll find dishes that will make you happy.
Reservations not accepted, most nights there can be a wait during prime time – I go early. Wheelchair accessible.
3 stars out of 4 possible.