UPDATE: Honky Tonk Taco closed Monday, Oct 17, with co-owner Nate Tilden telling the O "the food wasn't where we wanted it to be." For more reasons behind the unexpected closure, see the review below.
That Honky Tonk Taco exists is a little baffling.
The new “deliciously inauthentic” taco shop opened in late July, joining a glut of $3-ish tacos on Southeast Division. It’s got big-name backers, including Nate Tilden of Clyde Common and Olympia Provisions, and Clyde Common chef and rising star Carlo Lamagna—neither of whom has a background in Mexican cooking. (Chef de Cuisine John Boisse is a third-generation Mexican American who grew up in Texas and learned at the hip of his grandmother.)
Honky Tonk Taco has a lot of flash—there’s mascot Deaduardo, a skull with a mustache and cowboy hat, presiding over the bright turquoise walls left behind when Andy Ricker turned in the keys to his Sen Yai noodle house. It’s a big, 130-seat space with a great summertime patio that will have covered and heated seating this winter. There’s also some killer Dolly and Waylon on high volume at all times.
Yet Honky Tonk, were it opened by ambitious newcomers, is underwhelming enough that it would have most certainly been ignored by this critic. But with high profile names on the marquee, it instead gets a negative review. I say this with love and respect for these owners and their other projects: C’mon guys. We know you can do better.
The tacos are almost uniformly disappointing. Their size has grown a bit larger after criticism flew about the miniscule portions in the opening weeks, but portions are still served on dry, uninspired tortillas. (I don’t generally like writing negative reviews, and I feel worse knowing now that they are Boisse’s grandmother’s recipe). The al pastor made with pork belly ($3.25) was inordinately greasy, running in red rivulets down my fingers, without any rich flavors or spicy seasoning as a payoff. Just... grease. The carnitas ($2.75) seemed like two different beasts on two visits—the first time tasting like vinegary pulled pork, the second time improved but still failing to have that crispiness-meets-fattiness that a well-mastered carnitas requires.
Working further down the menu, we were completely unable to tell what the advertised Filipino twist was to the over-dry braised lengua ($3.25). A queso fundido ($9) was no-fundido: the housemade chorizo teams up with the real cheese used in this dish to make a grease pool for the tortillas, served on the side. The cheese hardens quickly in the cast iron serving pan, and makes a strong case for the judicious use of Velveeta.
There are things I would eat and drink again, especially during the 3 to 6 pm daily happy hour, when all tacos are $2. That cuts in half the price of the pretty-darn-good camarones taco ($4), with lightly fried Oregon bay shrimp, fresh slices of avocado, and a tart tomatillo salsa. In its own way, it’s a PNW answer to the San Diego fish taco. The brisket taco ($3.25) with pickled onion, cilantro and cotija, had meat that was nicely crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. It was simple and totally serviceable.
Rotating specials include tortas, chilaquiles and pozole. A fried pork cutlet torta ($10) made with mixed greens, dried chipotle mayo, guacamole, and queso Oaxaca was the best deliciously inauthentic dish we had. The monumental sandwich, on bread from Portland Mercado, had great flavor and texture.
I’ve not had the pleasure to take back an $8 cocktail to a counter-service bar in some time, but I could handle no more than two sips of the weird sour milk vibes put off by the blend of tequila, horchata, and herbal becherovka in Honky Tonk’s Southbound Suarez. That said, a seasonal spicy Michelada ($7); a stiff margarita slushie with a rose float ($9); and the Tongele, a $10 blend of tequila, mezcal, pear shrub, lemon juice and bitters, were all just dandy.
Our last visit on a sunny September evening had a mish-mash of happy families and friends catching up over bites. No one seemed like they weren’t digging their tacos. It’s a great space—but with Lamagna behind the menu, I’m hoping there’s a concept change (he’s behind a series of “Twisted Filipino” pop up dinners that I’d love to see land somewhere). Whatever’s going on now just isn’t Honky Tonk’s highest potential.
Daily 4 pm to midnight for the winter. Happy hour from 3 pm to 6 pm daily.