by Matt Davis
A new Mexican restaurant needs to stand out in Portland's crowded market. Two months after opening, La Vanguardia is still biting its nails, struggling to distinguish itself from its Pearl District neighbor, the Vault Martini Bar. Of 20 frat-boy suburbanites sitting outside on a Wednesday evening, only two were actually eating. Most were drunk on margaritas and mojitos, the main topic of (loud) conversation being: "Is porn art?" Like yeah, bro.
Inside, things look up slightly. La Vanguardia's décor is understated modern with sepia prints on the walls. The brown paper on the tables feels good, and soaks up excess sound, which is handy because the music is a little out of place, if you're listening. I've never heard the Stone Roses in a Mexican restaurant before.
On our visit the barman was too distracted by his eight friends to properly crush the ice in the mojitos, renamed "Barman's Bane" on the menu. "Barman's Bane," or "Customer's Bane"? At $8 a pop, he also neglected to add enough mint or to mix them properly.
The food at La Vanguardia is not bad. There are four salsas to choose from, served with good, warm, salty tortilla chips. We sampled the verde grande and the mesa roja—very freshly made salsas, well differentiated in flavor and color.
The $7 ceviche rojo was generous in size and allowed the flavors of cilantro, fish, and shrimp to come through without being overwhelmed by the lime, as sometimes happens. If La Vanguardia could fill its 50-capacity dining room, it might consider using different fresh fish from the market on a daily basis, but all in good time.
The $3 skirt-steak taco was a pleasure, wrapped in a freshly made flour tortilla, with a succulent green pepper cutting through the warmth of the piquant sauce and the slight chewiness of the meat. Maybe it was the porn talk outside, but this was pretty arousing for a taco.
A $2 deep-fried eggplant taco was disappointing in comparison, with too few eggplants, which got lost amid the oily crispiness of the taco—a problem for vegetarians, who, apart from sides, salads, and one mushroom entrée, aren't otherwise catered to.
The $5 house specialty chicken and hominy soup was really quite good, and an incredible value at $3 less than those mojitos I keep mentioning. The soup could do with a few less corn chips on the side, but a subtle kick and some toasted thyme on top brought the chicken alive—not literally, of course. That would be weird.
The highlight of the menu was the $9 smoked pork mole verde. The meat was cooked to perfection—not dry, not tough, lying in a blanket of professionally executed mole, which was bitter without being rude. Toasted pumpkin seeds on top were a match made if not in heaven then certainly in a very expensive internet chatroom, and made me think this should be the house specialty, really.
More dessert choices are needed at La Vanguardia than churros or fruit, but the 33-option tequila list made up for it, and we got sucked in. After a couple stiff ones we were thinking of returning next month for another meal—if La Vanguardia hasn't been turned into an ESPN-screening TexMex restaurant by then.