WHEN YOU'RE a food writer, certain things develop: a layer of adipose fat, for example. And for me, reading certain words in reviews or on menus has started to make my head involuntarily twitch to the left.
"Homemade"? Seriously, I hope you have a permit to make that in your kitchen—otherwise that dish is just made from scratch, okay? "Artisanal"? "Foodie"? AAAAAARRRRRGGGGH! Recently, I've been struggling with "authentic." It's a weighty word.
La Cocina, opened earlier this year on NE MLK, has built a huge word-of-mouth following, and the word "authentic" comes pouring out an awful lot. Pedro Flores and Lenin Jimenez, both from cities within a few hours' drive from Mexico City, opened the bright-orange cantina after deciding that Portland was lacking "authentic" Mexican flavors. La Cocina, Jimenez said in an email, offers "Mexican food as it would be served in Mexico City."
With that in mind, head straight to the back of the menu, and order the alambre ($10.75), a pile of steak and delightfully spicy house-made chorizo, served steaming on a cast-iron plate with bell peppers, onions, queso Oaxaca, and pico de gallo. Pop it into a corn tortilla from the accompanying basket (why are there never enough tortillas?) and add some green avocado salsa. Enjoy. Pair it with the house margarita ($7), or grab a Mexican Coke or beer from the cooler.
Bring a touch of patience. The service is very friendly and very good at steering you toward what's best, but there's a disjointed feeling to it all. It seems like you should just order at the counter, to be honest. Wait staff appear harried and once forgot to ask if we wanted drinks, while on another visit, mixed up our appetizer of ceviche with a to-go order, meaning it arrived after our entrées were cleared out.
La Cocina's seafood makes it all worth it. The seven mares soup ($12) is the most expensive thing on the menu, but with good cause. It's served pho big, a shimmering red bowl of guajillo peppers, white seasonal fish, shrimp, scallops, carrots, green beans, and zucchini. Each bite unearthed more seafood goodness, like the four whopping muscles that kept surfacing like delicious treasures from the deep. The octopus and chorizo taco ($3.50) has got chew for days, and flavor that's certainly influenced by Spain.
And for crap's sake, do not walk out without sharing the quinoa salad ($6.50)—but only if you get the shrimp for $3 more. The shrimp's spicy red sauce serves as additional dressing for the lime-marinated quinoa, corn, black beans, peppers, and kale with avocado on top. It's got crunch, it's got spice, it's got acid. This is a salad that I would be proud to add to any "best of" list, and it's an excellent way to add lightness to an otherwise heavy meal.
Stay away from gringo bait like the taquitos dorados ($6.50), which despite being found on the menu under garnachas, or "deep-fried Mexican favorites," were hard, not crispy, and contained very little steak. The chips and salsa (must order separately) offer a small bowl of uninteresting pico de gallo and tortilla chips that need a serious salting. Most other standard Mexican restaurant options, like the meat tacos and burritos, are entirely serviceable, filling, and cheap, and won't disappoint (they also have vegan options).
Since I've never been to Mexico City—famous for its street food, tacos, and al pastor—I'll simply say this: The further you travel from typical offerings on La Cocina's large menu, the more delicious your experience will be. Plus, you'll eat with one of the most diverse crowds I've seen packed into a restaurant in a good while: Latino, black, white, babies, twentysomethings, and grandparents. They're all there, making the place bump on a Tuesday at 6:30 pm. It is undoubtedly, authentically good.
Mon-Sat 11 am–9 pm. Takeout available. Kid friendly with a limited bar menu. Breakfast available.