Mexican food can be elevated to astounding result. The Pearl District's Oba! weaves Mexican with Northwest and Cuban flavors, while Nuestra Cocina on SE Division refines the classics for finer dining.
All that's well and good--but most days, give me a home-style enchilada or tamale, and no futzing. Give me pursuit of the art of simplicity, like at humble San Felipe Taqueria.
Gregg Weed and his wife Shamady opened San Felipe where a tiny, failing pizza shop once stood. Then, when Dreamer's Deli to the left of them closed, they expanded. Four years later, the taqueria is as much a part of quaint Sellwood/West Moreland as upscale neighbors Papa Haydn, Tartine, and Caprial's.
Still, Sellwood is a long way from sunny San Felipe, the Mexican fishing village that was Shamady's childhood home, and rumored ground zero for the first fish taco. Further heresay suggests the Rubio's taco chain in San Diego did its swiping--er, "research" there, where locals eat tortillas around fresh fish deep-fried right on the beach.
Shamady's family may have left San Felipe, but not without the family recipes for nearly everything on the menu. Unsalted tortilla chips are cooked in canola oil, and come with a smoky salsa ($1.95, free refills). They're also great with a spritz of lime or splash of Tapat,o hot sauce and a bottle of tamarind-flavored Jarrito's, the pre-eminent Mexican soda pop.
The taco comes with pico de gallo on a soft, warm handmade tortilla with just the right balance of cushion and crispiness. Fill with your choice of meat, but suggested are the carnitas (shredded pork), pollo verde (chicken in green sauce), or delicious molé and rice (Saturdays only). Sadly, the virria (shredded beef) and asada (grilled sirloin), aren't as tasty.
The stars are the tamales and fish tacos. If you've never had a tamale, be warned that San Felipe's (with hot red sauce or mild green) might calibrate your palette to wave off lesser offerings ($2.75). And, shining above the rest of the menu is the fish taco ($3.50; fish burrito, $7.75). Thick fingers of perfectly fried halibut sit in a tortilla topped with a squirt of Shamady's sauce (a family secret, but seems to have mustard and mayo in the mix). If you feel the need to indulge your sweet tooth after that, the huge flan is light and sweet, and the doughy sopapillas (a family friend's recipe) are sugary comfort food.
Part of the decor, though, is an overdose of piñatas, sombreros, and neon signs for Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. Ditch the Cancun, spring-break stuff. The real gems are the posters of golden age Mexican movies like Viaje a La Luna, Frontera Norte, or Acá Las Tortas, not to mention lobby cards for El Professor Chiflado (The Nutty Professor), and Hombre-Araña (Spider-Man). You can even watch classic films on the TV in the back.
With the mariachi-style music coming from the speakers, the fluid murmurings of Spanish in the kitchen, and a gordita on your paper plate, you've found an oasis for those rainy months... at least until you flip out and sell all your books at Powell's to pay for that Baja kayaking trip.