Viva Taco Escobarr!
Located on the corner of Congress and Oak streets, Taco Escobarr is smack dab in the middle of a downtown Portland restaurant scene that’s experienced a major revival in recent years. I hadn’t been there in quite a while, but having gotten word of some recent menu changes (no more puffy tacos?) and a nearly complete revision of the cocktail list, I figured it was high time I came back to investigate.
The interior is worth seeing even if you don’t plan to stay. There’s a colorful Day of the Dead–themed mural along one wall, and a masked lucha libre wrestler, painted by notorious comic artist Mort Todd, appears to burst through the bricks on the other side. The large windows and lightly stained floors give the room lots of light, the kitchen is open for view, and I highly recommend a trip to the bathroom — you’ll know why once you’re inside. In addition to the bar, there are a handful of tables and patio seating on the sidewalk.
The menu covers the standard bases— tacos, burritos and tortas — but there are some surprises, too. One look at El Jefe’s Nachos Montana, with its chorzio, crema, queso fresco, lettuce and radish, and you realize Escobarr aspires to loftier heights. The prices, which range from $3 (for chips and salsa) to $15 (for the pork chop or steak entrées) don’t always match the portions, and the presentation (plastic baskets lined with wax paper) can be underwhelming, but I was here for the drinks.
There’s plenty of Mexican beer on hand, including cans of Negra Modelo for $3.50 and a 32 oz. bottle of Corona Familiar for $10. When I visited, the six pulls of draft beer were dominated by four micros made by Atlantic Brewing Company in Bar Harbor, with Dos Equis and Bud Light on the sidelines.
The liquor selection is focused but competent. Not surprisingly, the deepest bench belongs to the tequilas — there are over 20, including Patrón, Avión, and multiple 1800’s — but there are almost as many vodkas and flavored vodkas. Rest assured they have the base to make most any libation you crave, and if you need some inspiration, there’s always the cocktail list.
Their finest offering is the Mayan Ruins ($8). The base is a habanero-infused silver tequila, to which they add a good dose of peach puree and fresh lemon. The building blocks may be relatively simple, but the result is outstanding.
The libation is served in a stemless martini glass rimmed with blue cane sugar. The sugar is not just for looks. It provides a sweetness that blends well with the nose. Then you take a sip. The mouth is soft, with no pop or alcohol burn, just a smooth and balanced peach-citrus blend that initially masks the habanero. It’s not until the finish that a subtle heat spreads along the roof of your mouth and the pepper-infused tequila announces its presence along the sides of your tongue. Once it dissipates, all you want is another sip.
The Pablano Cacti Martini ($10) is a dark violet drink served in similar fashion, with the same striking, blue-sugar rim. Given that this drink is significantly more tart, the sugar is distracting. I wiped a portion of it off the rim and found my next sip to be much more enjoyable. The prickly pear puree gives this martini a nice, tart flavor. The pablano peppers from the infusion start a little tingle on your lips. The tequila reveals itself in the aftertaste, but it’s that thick, sharp puree that stays with you, perhaps a bit longer than you’d like.
The Cuba Libre ($8) is a mix of cola, Cointreau and rum, with a splash of lime juice. Taco Escobarr’s spin is to serve it with Pepsi Throwback (which contains cane sugar, instead of corn syrup), listed on the menu as “Mexican Throwback.” The result is not great. Cuba Libres, like Bacardi cocktails or any rum-and-Coke, for that matter, should have Coke, plain and simple. The presence of cane sugar is less important than the kind of cola in this case. And since the bar is pouring the cola from bottles, there’s no reason not to run up to La Bodega Latina, a few blcoks west on Congress, and pick up a few bottles of Mexican Coke (which also has cane sugar) to serve the real deal.
On my last visit, I tried a Bloody Maria ($7), which uses a house-made mix. Taco Escobarr also serves breakfast, but this is as close to breakfast as I usually get. The mix definitely has a good burn. It’s thick and textured, with a hint of barbecue in there somewhere. I was expecting something spicier, but ultimately appreciated that they chose a more flavorful approach. Cool as the bathroom is, there’s no need to linger there long.
— Carl Currie