THE FIRST to occupy the Yucatán Peninsula, the Mayans are known for their stunning architecture, abundant sacrificial rituals, and mathematical predictions; according to their calendar, humanity's fiery demise is right around the corner, set for December 21, 2012. But safe inside the buzzing, seasonally decorated storefront of Luce, a new event space on East Burnside, with a steaming plate of native Yucatán cuisine just beneath your chin, the apocalypse seems a safe enough distance away.
Eating with Juan is a rather recent installment, convening every Tuesday since August, and touting authentic Mexican dishes from Navarre's Juan Alvarado. The menu changes each week, though it's limited to some type of ceviche, a substantial plate—usually including meat—accompanied with homemade tortillas, and an array of Mexican beer ($3-4), wine, and non-alcoholic sangria.
A bit unsure of Luce's exact location, my dining partners and I parked a few blocks down from where we imagined it would be with intentions of finding the space on foot. Immediately upon opening the car door, I was met with an intoxicating smell in the air, dank and distinct with the roasted corns and richly flavored meats of Mexican food. Needless to say, we followed our noses right in through Luce's front door and found ourselves seated at a communal table set for eight.
Once inside, with enough time to fully ingest the surroundings, the initially stark event space began to materialize. A few longer tables held impromptu dinner parties, kids running about and nagging their parents about the Day of the Dead shrine in the back corner of the room: "Do skeletons drink Coca-Cola, mom? How come I can't?" An assembly of bare light bulbs were hanging overhead, presumably as part of an art installation, intersected by banners of colorful papel picado: a nice mergence of the industrial Portland aesthetic with the lively folk art of Mexico.
After asking if we'd ever attended the dining event before—we all shook our heads fervently—our waiter succinctly explained the lowdown and informed us of the evening's lineup: rockfish ceviche and a plate of local, grass-fed bistec (beef) with beans, rice, and topped with cabbage salad. There was an initial hesitance between the three of us, as it all sounded so simple. Isn't there an infused olive-oil drizzle somewhere? Perhaps something locally foraged or poached in an unconventional liquid? Where were all of the cumbersome descriptions we've come to expect at a Portland dining house, especially one affiliated with a foodie-centric—albeit unpretentious—establishment like Navarre?
But we waited eagerly—and only for a few minutes—until we were greeted with two plates of ceviche, each bearing two crisp tostadas, stacked high with the citrus-infused fish salad. It was as lovely a sight as it was to taste: ripe tomatoes and a tender-and-mild white fish, combed with the subtle piquancy of sweet onions and flecked with fresh cilantro. The tostada beneath served as a well-functioning edible utensil, tasting faintly of lard, but not at all detracting from the marisco fresco at hand. Ceviche is a particularly rampant dish in the Yucatán, given the area's proximity to the general convergence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and at $6 per plate, the sizable portions provided a far less expensive trip to the sunny, seafaring region.
Next up was the featured plate of the evening ($12). It arrived in most primitive form, essentially just a slab of beef grounded atop a pile of white rice, surrounded by a sloshing sea of liquefied beans and peppered with a few slivers of cabbage. The true star of the course, though, was wrapped in a napkin and graciously placed on my right side: the hearty, homemade corn tortillas. Each round was perfectly warmed and permeated by earthy, roasted notes, and I would have been incredibly surprised if my ration had not come straight from the tortilladora.
I do wish there had been more roughage to balance out the amount of starch on the plate and make the tortillas seem a more appropriate vessel. However, it's true that gratuitous vegetation exists only in the Mexican food of our minds; I'll never forget the first time I ordered a taco in a less populated area of Mexico and was served nothing but a tortilla, a portion of meat, and a small wedge of lime. It's difficult to argue with authenticity when it's something that discerning eaters tend to crave.
And Eating with Juan is certainly one of the most authentic Yucatán dining experiences in Portland that doesn't involve four wheels and an ordering window. True, it will run you quite a bit more than a few carnitas tacos and a tamarind Jarritos from your favorite truck, but if you consider the high quality of the ingredients used, as well as apparent overhead costs, the prices make sense. An undoubtedly positive experience, I plan to return—at least before the inevitable apocalypse—to see what Juan serves up next.