The Pacific Northwest is where Mexican food goes to die. Or at least that’s what all my friends from California, Texas and Florida told me when I declared to have fallen in love with tacos upon moving to Portland this past January. I arrived in the Rose City in the dead of a winter as a broke, cold and hungry intern working for less than minimum wage, which gave me the perfect excuse to trek around the city sampling some of the most value for money nosh you can find. Mexican fare spills out from all corners of Portland’s famed foodie scene—from downtown food trucks and fancy taquerias to counters at the back of convenience stores and roadside cantinas in residential areas. While some establishments like Koi Fusion and Cruzroom add a smidgen of modern flair to their dishes (think kimchi, smoked bacon and wasabi mayo), most places have been serving up their mother’s and grandmother’s traditional recipes for years—all the way down to the fresh homemade tortillas. Here are some of my personal favorite spots in no particular order.
3965 N Williams Ave
Portland, OR 97227
It all boils down to the fresh and fluffy corn tortillas—kneaded, shaped and cooked right in front of you seconds after placing your order at the walk-up window. Owner Yulissa Bello, who hails from Acapulco, Mexico, opened her food cart in 2010 and has been feeding Portland’s Boise neighborhood ever since. Quesabrosa features a covered patio with ample seating, some of the friendliest customer service in town and—my personal favorite—a fridge full of assorted salsas that are yours for the taking. The meats are flavorful and the portions are generous, and don’t forget to ask for a serving of Yulissa’s special guacamole. Standouts include the fish, pastor and carnitas tacos.
2817 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
Situated in Portland’s ever-exciting Alberta Arts District, La Sirenita’s nondescript exterior belies the myriad smells, textures and delicious flavors that emerging from its tiny kitchen. This hole-in-the-wall joint serves some of the most succulent carnitas and carne asada tacos in town, while their massive burritos have been known to cure a nasty hangover or two. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, their menu includes lengua (beef tongue) cabeza (beef head) offerings as well as carne asada fries. The restaurant also has an entire counter of condiments—ranging from sliced radishes and limes to pickled carrots and caramelized onions—so you can pimp out your tacos to your heart’s content.
EL NUTRI TACO
2124 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
What began as a humble food truck founded by Gabina Lopez and Chencho Martinez in 2008 that turned a $5 a day profit is now a popular two-location operation. El Nutri Taco is famous for boasting—among its more traditional meat offerings—an extensive vegetarian menu that uses soy-based sour cream, Daiya mozzarella cheese and tofu scrambles. Their chipotle tempeh tacos are pretty darn tasty (this coming from a rabid carnivore), and the chorizo variety also hits the spot. Each dish is made using 100% natural ingredients and their Alberta location has a spacious outdoor seating area—perfect for people watching on Last Thursday.
TIENDA SANTA CRUZ
8630 N Lombard St
Portland, OR 97203
Although Portland’s St John’s neighborhood is a tad out of the way for most people, it’s worth the trek just to visit Tienda Santa Cruz. While some may scoff at the latter’s odd placement—tucked away at the back of a Mexican convenience store—and no-frills dining area, their mouthwatering tacos are nothing to look down on. Try the carne asada, pastor and pollo tacos, which come stuffed to the gills with chunky, succulent meat, and be sure to help yourself to a huge bowl of guacamole salsa. The crowd consists primarily of locals and students from the nearby University of Portland, though you’ll get the odd tourist that emerges patting his newly formed food baby with glee.
523-535 SE Grand Ave
Portland, OR 97214
Part of a food card pod in Portland’s Industrial District, El Local blends traditional Mexican and Latin American flavors with Asian ingredients and seasonal local vegetables. The fish tacos are my personal favorite, though their less traditional offerings are some of the best Mexican fusion cuisine that Portland has to offer. Give their chicken adobo burrito bowl with a hefty serving of guacamole and spicy shrimp burrito a try, and vegetarians should definitely go for the BBQ tofu bowl. El Local also whips up a mean huevos rancheros as part of their breakfast menu, so make it out there early enough and have a chat with their friendly service staff.
SU CASA TAQUERIA
SE 82nd & Burnside
Portland, OR 97215
Su Casa Taqueria is everything you’d want from a fuss-free taco truck experience—cheap tacos, fresh ingredients and casual seating area to devour your meal. While the neighboring Safeway, Walgreens and busy intersection don’t offer much in the way of breathtaking scenic views, the food options more than make up for the lacking surroundings. Their carne asada and cabeza tacos are super tender, seasoned to perfection and come dressed with the standard chopped onions, cilantro, radishes and a chunky wedge of lime, and the portions are pretty generous. Wash it all down with a cold bottle of Jarritos, or a horchata if that’s more to your liking.
3040 SE Division St
Portland, OR 97202
While some may lambast the notion of stuffing kimchi, beef bulgogi and beansprouts into a tortilla and calling it a taco, Koi Fusion’s Bo Kwon has been steadily feeding Portland residents with his unique and popular brand of Korean-Mexican fare since 2009. The Korean BBQ sauce used to season the various meats places their tacos on the sweet end of the spectrum, though the kimchi, lime and pico de gallo add a nice zing and really balance out the flavors. The tacos are definitely the star of the show, though their burritos and rice bowls are equally tasty and give you a good bang for your buck. Check their website to find out where their roving food trucks are parked for the day.
Commissioned by Bone & Seed, a Dinner Lab publication