I’m not sure I get the name of the Hi-Lo Hotel. Online the hotel, from Marriott’s “Autograph Collection,” is billed in a half-assed buzzword mélange as being “crafted” as Portland’s “most relevant luxury destination,” with “Portland luxury” defined as “effortless, organic modern.” The Hi-Lo strives to represent Oregon’s “raw and refined” landscape.
The hotel’s restaurant is called Alto Bajo, more or less Spanish for Hi Lo, but otherwise branded separately from the above Marriott bullshit. It’s a “modern Mexican” menu from Chicago chef Chip Barnes with an assist from Oaxacan-American superchef Iliana de la Vega, though the two non-Northwesterners do an admirable job focusing the menu on local ingredients.
With a menu that changes as frequently as this one, you’re bound for hits and misses. My first meal at Alto Bajo was brunch—the time of day when Alto Bajo feels most like a hotel restaurant. We chose the wrong things on the menu: chilaquiles ($12)—tortilla chips swimming in salsa, crema, and eggs, unmemorable without some optional additions (we went with boar chorizo, which was a smoky, spicy delight, $4)—and an omelette a la poblana—with a splash of green poblano sauce, served with potatoes and totally dry toast. The $16 omelet’s saving grace was a streak of huitlacoche, a purply-black fungus-infected corn with a sweet, mushroomy flavor. (Huitlacoche is a rarity north of the border and a delicacy south of it, perhaps because in English it’s called “corn smut,” which sounds exceptionally unappetizing.)
Drinks were less disappointing. In the AM, there’s a michelada (beer and spices), but for it to cost $11 and not include any liquor is a shame, and despite a nice, slightly warming freshness, it can’t help but taste of a lost bet. A breakfast margarita never hurt anybody, and Alto Bajo has a few: naturally there are “Alto” (fancy) and “Bajo” (less fancy) versions, but also a purple prickly pear option and a slightly pinker hibiscus one. A house horchata is the base for the rummy Abuela’s Nightcap (A+ name), which, despite its postmeridian moniker, is a great morning drink, all warm cinnamon spice.
With expectations lowered by that underwhelming omelet, I was ready for dinner to disappoint. Thankfully, it did not... at all, actually. The “Fiesta de Moles” section is the obvious centerpiece—a few seasonal pairings of meat or veggies with different Oaxacan-style moles (basically a saucy, subtle stew). On the server’s tip that the langoustine prawns were fresh that day, we went with the Amarillo y Langostino. The smooth ochre Amarillo mole had a subtle chili heat underneath and a nutty, downhome backbone from a noticeably local touch, Oregon hazelnuts. The prawns were huge, juicy, and meaty enough to stand up to the seasoning of the mole.
The Platos Fuertes (entrees) section is pretty small, but nonetheless features gems like, on a recent night, a quail roast with a sweet pineapple kick. Platos Gigantes, served “a la mesa” with tortillas, rice, and beans that easily feed two, and a coal-fired half chicken from this section gave the langoustines a run for their money. Not a single bite was dry, and the skin was salty, smoky, and crispy.
Obviously you’ll want bowl after bowl of thick, crunchy housemade chips and guac and/or beans and/or the salsa duo of deep, roasty rojo and bright, tangy verde. Seasonal dessert rounds out the night, and we were particularly impressed by churros with marionberry sauce, ice cream and flan with chile-infused plum, and a gritty corn crumble for some much appreciated textural variety ($8).
I’ll admit that I love the name of the hotel bar: Lo Bar. Much of the menu is similar to Alto Bajo’s, but you can also get a burger or a chorizo corn dog with chili-aioli ($8). You can also pop into Lo Bar and take advantage of Alto Bajo’s Taco Tuesday festivities, which are recently a chef vs. chef competition, bringing some impressive $3 results like a fried chicken and pickled avocado taco.
However, Lo Bar can’t help but feel like a bar in a hotel lobby: bright, big windows, some pink chairs, one long community table, and a swing, because of... luxury, I guess. On the other hand, if it leans into its more unique flavors and maintains brand separation from Hi-Lo’s nonsense (the Marriott’s Autograph Collection meaningless slogan is “exactly like nothing else”), Alto Bajo might be capable of transcending the goofy hotel above it.