El Zaguan
1338 NW Hoyt

Portland's Mexican food scene runs the gamut, from seedy little taquerias to the precious and pricey Café Azul. But recently, several upstarts have come along to challenge the yucky chains and the crunchy/healthy places for the mid-priced market. Taqueria Nueve, on NE 28th, has succeeded at raising the bar for creative, flavorful Mexican-style eats. The latest to enter the fray is El Zaguan in the Pearl District.

Nestled among higher-priced eateries, El Zaguan is poised to capture the downwardly mobile demographic; those accustomed to high style and opulence, but recently sans job and expense account. Zaguan is so large and garish, with high vaulted ceilings, murals, and a big Lucite fish tank in the middle of the bar, that it looks like it was designed for a more expensive, swankier restaurant. Perhaps management changed their minds after 9/11 and reinvented the concept.

The concept, as I see it, is watered-down, south-of-the-border chow, prettified and sauced, rubbed, and/or laced with extra flourishes, and encompassing local ingredients like Northwest salmon, oysters, and wild mushrooms. Call it PDX-Mex.

So far, much of what I've tried has been disappointing. To start, the chips, though aesthetically pleasing, are often stale and have a store-bought quality. Chicken tamales were a bit too dense, and I found it difficult to taste the duck confit buried in the duck flautas, though they were satisfying as a whole. My Torta de Carne Asada was pretty and well crafted, but the meat was bland, too mushy, and overseasoned with cumin, and the queso fresco was too soft, almost like a ricotta. Masa fried oyster tacos were pretty good, but the oysters lose their crunch when they are slathered in salsa verde.

A main course of Yucatàn Pork Chuc was a disaster. The meat was extremely tough and chewy, and the accompanying black beans were so bland, I couldn't eat them. These beans grace virtually every entrée. Beware.

Two items were uncharacteristically delicious: the "Snake Bites," stuffed fried jalepenos, and the Camarones Borachos, unpeeled jumbo shrimp boiled in Negra Modelo and covered in Mexican spices--tender, spicy, and bursting with flavor.

Food notwithstanding, the spacious bar is a pleasant place to quaff margaritas and take in the Pearl District street scene. I've seen quite a few gay men here, which is always a pleasant surprise in Portland, the Sapphic San Francisco--home of the sensitive, gay-acting straight guy. Gay or straight, though, they've come to enjoy the stiff, fresh margaritas, made with any of over 100 tequilas, from El Cheapo to El Benicio del Toro. Purists may be disappointed by the addition of sour mix, but the mix is house-made, and subtler than the store-bought stuff. Mind your budget, though--a mid-grade 'rita will run you about $7.

The Pearl District, multi-use neighborhood that it is, sports a pretty hopping lunch scene, and Zaguan was more crowded on a recent afternoon than at dinnertime. Lunchtime prices are considerably lower, making it a darn good alternative to nearby Mexican lunch options, such as the world's worst Taco Bell on West Burnside. Then again, Taco Bell's beans, though reconstituted and shipped halfway around the world, compete with those at El Zaguan.