"I am not an academic, historian, anthropologist, or botanist, but just an adventurous cook and a lover of the natural world who delights in the experience of traveling to discover and taste foods, some of which I had only heard about, but many that I was yet to discover in this infinite world…"
- Diana Southwood Kennedy, in the introduction to Oaxaca al Gusto
It's really sad that we know more about the cuisines of Italy, France and even Japan than we know about the food of one of our nearest neighbors. Mention going out for Mexican to most people and they think of burritos and enchiladas swimming in a sea of melted American cheese. But with the opening of Mextiza, Oswaldo Bibiano's paen to the pleasures of the Mexican table, there is finally an opportunity to experience a taste (pun intended) of the incredible breadth and depth this cuisine has to offer.
A view of the room.
Since 2004 and the closing of Claire Archibald's late, lamented Café Azul, it's been rare to see Portland restaurants venture much beyond a molé here or a nopales salad there. Bibiano's first restaurant, Autentica, on the once-spooky-but-now-chichi corner of NE 30th and Killingsworth, celebrated the foods of the chef's home state of Oaxaca and earned him a Beard nomination in 2010.
On recent visits for lunch and dinner, Mextiza exceeded even my optimistic expectations by miles. If you want to get a first taste, I'd go for a mid-week lunch, but if you want to really get a sense of what Bibiano's kitchen is capable of, get yourself a party of six and make a reservation for dinner. Otherwise be prepared for a wait at the bar, well-stocked with tequila and offering many tequila-based cocktails, if you come on a weekend night.
I'd been looking forward to a well-made margarita all day, and our table ordered a round as soon as we sat down. Mine was an outstanding version of the classic, while the special margarita made with blood oranges that another of our group ordered was wonderfully fruity with a slightly flowery nose. Dave noted that their beer list was nicely put together, as well, featuring three Northwest microbrews and Modelo Especial on tap.
The menu is grouped into six categories from salads and chips to appetizers, entrée-sized sandwiches filled with the likes of shredded pork, chicken and tongue, small plates, entrées and sides. With our margaritas we ordered the chips and guacamole (see previous review) and the special app of the evening, calamari simmered in a chile sauce (top photo), a dish so heavenly it nearly stole the evening. The squid was tender but meaty, and the mildly spicy sauce begged to be sopped with the tortillas provided alongside…I could tell people were tempted to pick up the plate and lick it despite themselves.
Two of our party ordered the cabrito, a Northern Mexican dish of slow-roasted goat with potatoes, pinto beans and a chile-vinegar sauce. The goat was mild and fall-apart tender, and the sauce added a piquant (but not overwhelmingly tart) note. I ordered the lechon Yucateco, chunks of tender meat sliced from a whole rotisseried pig with black beans, onions and salpicon that brought back memories of the wonderful flavors we'd experienced on our last visit to Mexico.
The most interesting dish was the huarachitos estilo DF, a fried oval of corn masa topped with black beans that comes with a choice of huevo frito con tuetano (fried egg and marrow), mushrooms, carne asada, chicken breast, nopalitos, fried cheese or chicken tinga. The corn masa and beans were classics, and the carne asada was good, though I'm dying to try the egg and marrow combo on my next visit.
We were all far too stuffed to have dessert and drinks, but maybe next time I'll be able to save room. And from the two references I made above about a next visit, you can be sure there'll be one!
Details: Mextiza, 2103 N Killingsworth. 503-289-3709.