SOMETIMES I WONDER if we've already eaten the best meal we'll ever eat. Maybe at some young age when the world was new and little things like blue cheese dressing on iceberg, or Thanksgiving gravy on a soft roll, could carve pathways straight to the pleasure center of our impressionable brains. Will the best meal of my life be a three-hour dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant that doesn't yet exist, or was it the now-mythic burger my dad cooked on the electric pancake griddle in 1979, when I was four, the meat sizzling on a little patch that had been caramelizing onions earlier? It had American cheese, a generic white bun, and cheap ketchup—and I was heartbroken that there was only enough meat for one. I can still see the cold, charred slice of onion that remained on the griddle later, and I still remember knowing that it was this unlikely thing that had made my dinner magic.
It was hardly a Wagyu patty with foie gras, Reblochon, and truffled aioli—a burger I could have now and enjoy thoroughly, and not remember in a few weeks. But I remember my dad's 1979 burger more clearly than my first communion or first kiss, and here and there, when I sense that excitement echoing in a new food experience, I feel a compounded, deeply personal happiness that is nearly impossible to engineer.
I get glimpses of that sort in much of the menu at Taqueria Portland. It's a quiet, unmemorable little building way out in St. Johns; windows line a wall that catches the sun all day. The booths are old, comfortable green naugahyde, and there's a big overhead menu behind the counter, but you're supposed to sit down to order. Hot chips and bleeding-red fresh salsa are set down with your menu, an accent of hospitality that disappears from more places each year. Fountain soda comes out in a massive, frosty glass mug, and the single front-of-house server is uniformly friendly and efficient, though understandably a bit slower when the house is full.
The assortment of menu standards is nuanced here and there with clean, hearty posoles and massive huaraches, and doesn't hew to any particular regional identity. The burritos are not those typical football-sized behemoths that leak pinto beans like a banker with his belly slashed open; they are generous but thoughtfully-constructed, tightly-bound, and balanced things that eat well. Even the chorizo breakfast burrito ($4.99), with its sausage, hash browns, egg, and salsa—which could easily be a wet, dripping mess—is something you can eat without the lower third becoming a grease-sop.
Nachos ($6.49) are another dish that is all too often slapped together and broiled without thought of how it will eat. Here, a low bed of house-fried chips is carefully layered with refried beans, meat, guacamole, melting cheese, crumbled cotija, and sliced fresh jalapeños in a way that holds everything together without any masses of chips going sodden or, worse, bare.
The steak fajitas ($12.49) come out in a blistering-hot cast iron pan, smoking and hissing and perfuming the table with deeply caramelized beef, onions, and green peppers. I want my daughter to see this dish, to remember it when she is older, because dynamic presentation, like with sizzling rice soup or flambeéd crepes, makes for a visceral, happy memory in young minds. The fajitas themselves, built with soft flour tortillas, thick slices of fresh avocado, and salsa, are simple and satisfying, a plate that's best when shared.
Tacos ($1.50, $2.50 with crema, guacamole, and Monterrey cheese) are doubled, velvety-soft corn tortillas topped with ample portions of meat, and a heavy hand with the cilantro and onion. Juicy, spicy, shredded beef barbacoa is great here, and the beef head and beef tongue are meltingly soft with strong, straightforward flavor. But they're not the tacos I ate as a kid in California—the tacos dorados are. Their thin, crispy, golden shells are still warm from the fryer, and when filled with their chopped, deeply browned steak, lettuce, guacamole, crema, and cheese, they have the intense flavor, shattering texture, and cooling richness of a perfect snack.
Not everything here is ideal. The enchiladas ($9.25) are finished with a dry sauce that seems more like a brushed-on tomato paste, lacking in flavor and moisture. The hubcap-sized chile relleno plate ($9.99) is two soggy, oily, bland peppers that went back to the kitchen nearly untouched without comment from either party. The chile verde ($12.49) is also one-note, tasting mainly of black pepper, with meat that hasn't been browned before braising.
There are many, many taquerias in town, but the critical details they get right at Taqueria Portland mean the difference between forgettable mediocrity, and lasting impressions that are comforting in many ways.
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Compact but full bar, take-out, kids' menu, great service, and miles of parking. It's St. Johns, after all.