8324 SE 17th, 231-5140
One of the pros of being a vegetarian is that you never have to deliberate over what to order in restaurants. You just scan the menu until you find the one vegetarian dish--usually in Portland it involves roasted red peppers or sundried tomatoes, a shitload of lentils, every other vegetable they can find in the kitchen, and a baby loaf of cheese.
But not El Palanque. A small, bright restaurant in Westmoreland with an extremely good-looking wait staff, they serve a hybrid of Americanized Salvadorian-Mexican fair in a range of classic dishes: enchiladas, tacos, burritos, a few salads, and traditional Mexican beverages, including horchata and Jarritos. But forget all that. The only thing worth ordering is the vegetarian burrito.
The burrito is made with a sweet, light sauce that isn't sickening like the kind you find in typical Mexican restaurants. It's a delicate complement to the large chunks of avocado--the combination is not overpowering, but strong. The fresh cilantro and onion add a light, aromatic flavor to an otherwise heavy dish. Beyond that, they keep it simple and elegant--beans, lettuce, rice, fresh tomatoes, and a hot, sweet pepper sauce. It comes with a smoky, dry cheese melted on top and a healthy serving of sour cream on the side.
These are standard ingredients, but it's the combination that is so well balanced. Though the dish is heavy, it's not too filling. You'll leave feeling healthily satisfied. The overall flavor is not heavy on any one ingredient. Instead, it is a slightly sweet, smooth spiceness in every bite. You won't want meat because, well, the dish just doesn't need it. There are no giant clumps of beans at one end, no dry rice as filler, and no soggy carrots and red peppers.
The rest of the food, is, sadly, not so good--the chicken enchilada, for example, suffers from the way-too-much cheese syndrome and, like the rest of the dishes, gets a bit too beany. But who cares? Even if you're not a discriminating vegetarian, the vegetarian burrito is one that everyone, even the carni-est carnivore, will appreciate.