I’ve always had a soft spot for downtown Vancouver. Seriously, if you haven’t been up there, it’s great. There’s a big farmers market on Saturdays, Esther Short Park is a treasure, and they just put serious money into making its waterfront on the Columbia 10 times cooler than ours.
The only downside? Until recently, the food sucked. I worked as a reporter there for a couple of years in my mid-20s, and things were pretty bleak come lunchtime. Things have changed—Vancouver is becoming reliably more liberal in its voting patterns, and there are a handful of spots that are destination-worthy for even the most jaded Portland diners.
Of these, the breakaway hit is Little Conejo, a taco and Mezcal-heavy spot co-owned by former Nodoguro sous chef Mark Wooten and former Noble Rot bartender and farmer Mychal Dynes.
Little Conejo is more than tacos, but it’s the tortillas—handmade from imported masa that’s ground onsite, piled with luscious lamb barbacoa ($4.50) or whitefish fried in a wispy-thin Modelo Negra beer batter ($4.50)—that justifies the trek across the I-5 bridge. That’s even after the opening of a Portland-based food cart branch, where I found the variety, supply, hours, and consistency of the cooking to be lackluster.
There are 10 varieties on the Vancouver dinner menu, with veggies supplied by Wooten’s Phantom Rabbit farm (conejo means rabbit in Spanish—get it?), including a carrot pastor, all roasted sweetness with rich crema and avocado salsa ($3.50), and the pork al pastor ($3.75), carved from a spinning trombo as things should be. Not a single taco I tried was bad, and some—like the oyster mushroom ($4) bubbling with cheese—were so rich you’d never miss the meat. All get the proper onion, salsa, and cilantro treatment.
I’m a sucker for carnitas, those slow-braised cuts of pork shoulder rendered down to near disintegration before being crisped up on the edges under a broiler for maximum texture and flavor. Little Conejo’s don’t disappoint, and make an excellent filling for a lunchtime torta ($10) if you’re feeling a sandwich vibe.
Little Conejo’s vast mezcal selection—on trend with America’s burgeoning obsession with tequila’s smokier cousin—is also worth perusing. Have the bartender pull you a few shots to sip straight or see how it plays in place of bourbon in an old fashioned ($12).
A good Mexican brunch is a thing of beauty, particularly when you can find rarities like chicharron en salsa verde tacos ($3). Available only on Sundays, fried pork skins are cooked in a piquant green salsa and ladled into a tortilla. The results are sloppy and savory. I’m scheming how to get them to serve me a bowl, with a fried egg and tortillas on the side.
Chilaquiles and huevos rancheros are also—of course—present, and very good. The Mexican Jolt brunch cocktail gets cold brew, Topo Chico, and tequila involved, along with an interesting herbal kick from damiana liqueur, made from a small shrub that grows in Mexico.
For some reason, potatoes appear to be the downside at Little Conejo: a lunchtime appetizer of two deep-fried tacos dorados filled with potato and cotija cheese were dull in comparison to the spice and complexity of the main dishes, and the brunch taco of chorizo and potatoes was similarly uninspiring.
Spice bros and hot-sauce freaks will find little satisfaction at Little Conejo, but for those searching for Mexican dishes with beautiful depth and A-plus technique, it’s just a short border crossing away.