Rebel without a Pause 

Nick Zukin's Mi Mero Mole

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There are two main considerations when evaluating Nick Zukin's Mexican restaurant: the restaurant, and Nick Zukin. One could review Mi Mero Mole in a vacuum, simply sitting down, taking in the food and atmosphere, and writing straightforward notes on the critical aspects of the experience, so that others might hopefully get to know and better utilize the restaurant before casting their dollars into the fray. In this city, however, it would be forced and, frankly, less useful to factor out the man behind it.

Zukin is a formidable character within Portland's dining scene. His expansive culinary knowledge, both of world cuisine and our local expressions thereof, is cum laude. The fearless critic behind extramsg.com, as well as an established contributor to the local food press, he dashes off voluminous screeds of encyclopedic, methodically vetted opinion. One-half of the duo behind downtown deli institution Kenny and Zuke's, he is also a highly successful restaurateur and businessman. Like any visionary who dares hang a shingle, his efforts to please the public invite the usual high praise and rash polemic, but he charges forward, a self-assured epicure.

Mi Mero Mole is Zukin's SE Division taquería, which offers familiar Mexican formats with a radical twist on the fillings. You will not find the typical asada, pollo, and carnitas preparations on the menu; the restaurant focuses on a rotating roster of fifty-odd guisados—stews and sautés—that Zukin has concocted based on his tastes and travels. These locally unique dishes have a satisfying richness both in the eating they present and the decisions that led to their inclusion. Their tacos, burritos, and quesadillas bridge the gap between fast food and something cooked slowly at home by my New Mexican grandmother, which makes the dialogue personal.

An early visit during the soft open a few months ago was a challenge to my fairly conventional expectations of a taquería, what with their fillings of smoky lengua-potato stew and egg-stuffed albóndigas (meatballs) in thin, sweet tomato-chili sauce. I went home both happily sated and intellectually piqued; a trusted friend groaned about their departure from American taco orthodoxy, but that is how we are about beloved food: loyal. I forgave him, because Mi Mero Mole had my wheels turning.

The foundation of the menu are the large, fresh, hand-made corn tortillas, formed and griddled at the counter. They puff expertly on the hot iron before deflating into a firm, golden flatbread of ancient heft, chew, and straightforward grain flavor. Supermarket tortillas would tear to heartbreaking ribbons in the face of these wet contents; Zukin's hold their shape impressively for the duration. Chips come to the table warm, ideally salted, and are, to put it plainly, the finest example I can think of anywhere.

A vegetarian guisado of mushrooms in spiced cream sauce was a sleeper hit of the assortment—an irresistibly hearty, indulgent treat—as was a lush, addicting guisado of roasted poblano chilis and onions in a sour cream and cheese sauce. Another vegetarian hit was the large corn tortilla-based quesadilla, which may feature sautéed squash blossoms or artichoke, depending on the market.

Meat-based guisados are generous, chunky, and earthy with fresh spices. Pork stews are well-trimmed of gristle and fat, allowing the tender bedrock of high-quality cerdo to be eaten without distraction. The springy little albóndigas of very finely ground beef, pork, and ham, filled with chopped egg and dressed in a sweet chili-tomato sauce, seem ever-present, and are also Zukin's own recommendation as a filling for their excellent burrito. A guisado of chicken, cactus, and a distinct green pepper—a fruit I identified as the naturally metallic, sour green strips which my Nana used to underscore the inherent sadness of life—rings as true as a ladle clapped against her old speckled enamelware pot.

Weak spots were rare. A vegan taco of asparagus and almonds in a red chili sauce was woody and bland; the egg bits in the guisados de huevo con nopales are barely noticeable in the thick red sauce, and the cactus flavor was faint.

Zukin, should he deliver your order in the comfortably stylish but understated dining area, will happily relate the precise ingredients in each offering. Take advantage of this. He is justifiably proud of his inventions, and the tremendous list of recipes is testament to an intrepid palate, a great cook, and a devoted host.

Beverages: full bar with smart cocktails, fresh herbal teas, horchata, Mexican bottled sodas. Don't miss: fried plantains sauced with salty-sweet cinnamon-infused Mexican sour cream, a dish so delicious and dead-easy I now make it at home. Standard pricing $2.75 for tacos, $5.50 for burritos. Open for dinner weekdays, lunch and dinner weekends.

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