Ride Along is a new occasional series where I head out with friends/acquaintances/strangers to share a meal at a restaurant that best embodies their home country's cooking. If you're an immigrant or first-generation Portlander and have a place to share, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! (P.S. If you sound creepy and/or own the restaurant in question, I won't be returning your query.)
IT ISN'T EASY to access the wonders of La Tapatia Market's taqueria. First, it requires a pilgrimage to SE 183rd and Stark in Gresham. But that's not the hard part. Once you're there, the savvy owners of this Mexican grocery store know you're hungry—so naturally, they put the restaurant at the back of the store, requiring you to drool your way past mangoes, Jumex juice, and a mind-boggling display of cakes, doughnuts, and sweet breads covered in pink sugar.
Do not stop. Do not load up a cart with a wooden tortilla press, cuts of oxtail, and cactus leaves for cooking—wait until you're done eating. You're going to make enough impulse buys as it is.
Anyone with an eye for carne asada is aware of the amazingness that is the restaurant in the back of St. John's Tienda Santa Cruz (8630 N Lombard). But La Tapatia rivals Santa Cruz in the small yet strong category of best grocery store/restaurant.
To wit: La Tapatia is where my neighbor Ramon Canarios, line cook at Le Pigeon, heads when he wants a dose of home-style cooking. Canarios spends his work hours alongside Gabe Rucker, crafting immaculate and inventive dishes like hamachi with teriyaki pineapple, pickled jalapeño, and foie gras macadamia nut butter. But when he's craving comfort food, it all circles back to ingredients like hominy, cilantro, and even a little tripe.
And it's the soups at La Tapatia that keep him coming back. Canarios' mother is from Mexico and his father is a Pacific Islander—his mother isn't much of a cook, but his uncles in Southern California sure are, he says. They'd whip up dishes of chicharones simmered in pasilla salsa, caldo de res, and a few different cactus preparations at a time, and that's where he got his first taste of professional cooking.
We arrived on a recent Thursday looking for menudo—which Canarios first discovered when his mother took him to La Tapatia on Christmas Eve 2013. He said he could tell the tripe-filled broth was hyper-enriched with marrow.
Sadly, it wasn't available that day—information found via a clunkily conducted order, as the restaurant staff knew little English and we knew little Spanish. Also unavailable: a killer-looking deep-fried tilapia served whole with rice and beans.
Both were hardly missed in the end. We started with the best damn birria ($9.99), a soup unctuous with hunks of goat in a broth whose fire-engine red color comes from chilies. We topped it with cilantro and onion from the condiment bar, also stocked with three salsas and pickled veggies. Canarios tore strips of fresh corn tortillas, steaming hot and fluffy, and placed a saucy piece of goat into a folded piece. "It's all about the tortilla fold," he explains. "My mom is very particular about how you fold your tortilla." (La Tapatia also has an in-house tortilleria; it is essential that you also grab a bag to go for about $1.50).
The posole was nearly equal, soup-wise. I've had some sad bowls of this hominy and pork staple, but this one was a winner. There were actual bone-in pieces of tender pork, including what appeared to be a portion of a pig's foot. Again, strips of tortilla soaked up the broth superbly, and allowed you to apply a bit of the spicy red salsa to kick up the flavor.
Entrée items were also solid: the camarones a la diabla ($12.50)—red-hot shrimp, onions, mushrooms, and hot sauce with tortillas, rice, and beans—were aggressively spicy. A gordita ($4.50), a jumble of meat (we chose al pastor) with lettuce, crema, and queso between two fried tortillas is a drunkard's delight. Because we were menu-shopping hungry, we also threw on (forgettable) carne asada tacos and (delightful) carnitas tacos for $1 each.
On the way out, totally stuffed, we left a few pounds heavier, along with doughnuts from the panaderia, a Pope Francis votive candle, huge bananas, a 32-ounce bottle of Sol, and a bag of tortillas for the road.
Mon-Thurs 10 am-7 pm, Fri-Sun 9 am-8 pm. Mexican beers available.