My co-worker and I went to El Rayo back in May, but I got a little sidetracked. Funny story: we actually got the scoop about this new restaurant before it hit the Portland gossip blogs because Kinko's accidentally switched their photocopying order with J's. Lo and behold, when J opened up his box expecting marketing materials, he found architectural plans for "Taco Land." Needless to say, we were disappointed that they went ahead and changed the name midway between construction and opening day.
We met a vivacious, friendly Lorie Dana, the wife of the couple co-owner duo of Lorie and Tod Dana, at the door who oriented us around the menu ordering setup and also dished what her favorite dishes on the menu were. With the open kitchen setup set against the diner bar, we could easily peek through and see chef Cheryl Lewis, of former Aurora Provisions and Cafe Always, cooking away fresh tortillas and wrapping up gorgeous burritos and tacos.
Although their drink menu was rife with tequila, margarita, rum, sangria, and cerveza options, J. and I were taking a lunch in between work, so we opted for their "Otras Bebidas" section and got a lime rickey and lemon hibiscus refresco. Both were very refreshing and vibrantly colored. You'll notice the two smaller glasses filled with white wine sangria and a fruity melange. Lorie walked around with samples of sangria for the new customers to try, so how could we say no? "All in the name of food blogging," J. said. I think J. was just amused to see me "at work" snapping photos and musing over particular flavor influences.
By the way, if you were ever to make your own sangria, grapes in sangria are awesome and refreshingly crunchy and light. Watermelon though? Don't do it, it just sucks up the wine and turns it into a soggy wine styrofoam cube with no hint of sweet watermelon flavor.
First up were my tacos, the taco carne asada (chargrilled steak with rajas and shredded lettuce) and the taco al pastor (slow braised pork with chargrilled pineapple salsita). If my memory serves me well, the taco asada had a good beef-that-melts-in-your-mouth feel with just the right kind of grilled seasoning. I have a major pet peeve for having to chew through tough, overcooked taco carne asadas, so this was a nice surprise.
But the taco al pastor was the stand out winner of my two. Also reining with a tender, juicy piece of meat, the pineapple salsita was a nice surprise kick of sweet and spice in your mouth. I hesitate with fruit salsas that sound exotic, but do nothing but turn a meat into a saccharine mess. But the braised pork and the pineapple flavors just kicked in together as they were meant to be. Amazing.
Just look at that delicately pickled onion...my god.
J. had a similar experience with his tacos: taco pescado (grilled achiote seasoned fish fillet, sliced avocado, chipotle sauce and crunchy veggie slaw) and taco al carbon (chargrilled chicken with pico de gallo salsa, queso blanco, shredded lettuce and radish).
He liked the the taco al carbon, but the taco pescado stood out for him. I'm betting that the chipotle sauce and the veggie slaw was what won him over.
I mean, look at that pale-red chipotle sauce oozing out from underneath the slaw and avocado.
It's been repeated again and again amongst all Portland food bloggers, but Portlanders are certainly ravenous when it comes to opening days/weekends for all the fresh, new restaurants.
Considering how five other restaurants (e.g. The Salt Exchange, Kon Bistro, Papou's Kitchen, Grace, The Corner Room) have opened in the month of June alone, I think it's hard to say that the foodie industry in Portland is hurting in this economy.
Overall, and from various reviews that have cropped up since its opening, El Rayo Taqueria will fit in nicely into a California-Mexican cuisine niche that hasn't been successfully filled in the past. Though the prices are "higher" than what one would expect, diners have to understand that the tacos are "small" because that's actually how they're authentically made. But don't worry, they do offer a Crispy Taco Americano, which probably serves to satiate those used to Taco Bell as authentic Mexican cuisine. Their bright colors and fun, upbeat atmosphere pairs well with the light and savory food they serve. I can't wait to head over to El Rayo when it's below zero, snowy, and miserable outside because the restaurant is guaranteed to immediately warm my soul.
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