The news last month that beloved Cully institution Angel Food & Fun is no more (at least as we know it) was yet another blow to the psyche at the end of a year when we were already full up on bad tidings.
Its chef, Manuel Lopez, was reportedly targeted for deportation (although a friend told the Mercury later it was over a business dispute with the building’s owner—something we were never able to verify). Either way, the city’s best source of deeply flavored and hard-to-find Yucatecan gems remains lost to the dregs of 2017.
But all is not lost for lovers of cochinita pibil and relleno negro—there’s another Northeast Portland hole-in-the-wall ready to fill your southern Mexican cravings: Taqueria La Mestiza.
The small, five-booth restaurant on Fremont at the base of Rocky Butte has long been a taqueria, but in mid-2016 Patricia Lavadores and her husband, Tivo Aviles, bought it from a family friend. Under their watch, La Mestiza has ascended via word-of-mouth, adding more regional dishes and turning a bustling trade of handmade panuchos and killer poc chuc.
Lavadores, 36, helped her parents run Taqueria La Estacion, a double-decker bus with a cult following at Northeast 67th and Killingsworth, that closed in 2015 after 14 years. Her parents have retired, but Aviles’ sister also works in the kitchen, and the couple’s adorable eight-month-old son, Roberto, is often smiling out from a booth.
“There is not a lot of Yucatecan restaurants in Oregon, really few,” Lavadores says. “It’s mostly northern Mexican restaurants.”
The top seller are the panuchos ($1.50-$2.50), fresh corn tortillas made in-house daily, stuffed with black beans, and fried to a perfect crispy-yet-yielding softness before being topped with your choice of meat, pickled red onion, avocado and tomato. They’re really damn good, although Lavadores says that only she has “her secrets” on how they get that way. Salbutes ($2), are panuchos’ close cousin, a griddle-puffed tortilla with the same goodies on top.
Lavadores says the poc chuc ($12) is her favorite, thin slices of marinated and grilled pork served over lettuce, avocado, and radishes made delightfully tangy with fresh lime juice. It’s meant to be piled onto corn tortillas with black bean puree, but it’s almost better plain.
The rich stews are what really got me going, in particular the cochinita pibil ($10), pork shoulder braised for hours in a plantain leaf with achiote paste, emerging orange, supple, and deep. It’s one of the most famous of many Yucatecan soups, and this is a textbook example. La Mestiza may also be one of the only places (especially west of I-205) making relleno negro ($10). Available only on weekends, it’s a shredded turkey stew with a jet-black broth made of charred chilies, hard boiled egg, and thick slices of ground turkey wrapped around a yellow yolk center, Scotch-egg style. Despite its semi-intimidating appearance, it’s super approachable, lightly smoky, and soothing.
The guacamole, slightly chunky and citrus-bright, is better than most, but skip the tamale unless you’re really craving it—while made with my preferred style in a banana leaf, they’re a touch bland. However, even the tacos and burritos are a step above. My friend raving about the tacos was how I wound up at La Mestiza in the first place, and a carne asada burrito arrived stuffed full of goodies and obviously having been grilled after wrapping—a sign of craft and care.
On my last visit, a flat screen showing Donald Trump on the Spanish-language news hung over our diverse group of diners like a specter, reminding us that 2018 is gonna get worse. But as we shook our heads, laughed darkly to each other, and dove into our dinners, you couldn’t help but think things will eventually arc toward the better.