Until just a couple years ago, tequila existed in a Limbo of poor reputation and excusable quality. More than any other liquor, tequila seems to be the spirit twentysomethings imbibe to get a crash course in black-out drinking, either as a shot with salt and lime or in pitchers of poorly made margaritas. Zapoteca Restaurante y Tequileria, one of Portland’s newest Mexican eateries, attempts to elevate the image of both tequila and Mexican fare, and succeeds.
Zapoteca is located on Fore Street at the western edge of the Old Port, in a space most recently occupied by Siano’s pizzeria. The interior is mostly earth tones, with wood and white hues that make the copper bar feel welcoming. The seating at the bar is a bit narrow, and there’s a lot of activity going on around you — wait staff and customers coming and going. The back dining area is less hectic, and has views of the open kitchen.
Zapoteca makes use of the brick oven installed by the previous tenants to create mouth-watering appetizers and entrees like Queso Fundito Con Champinones (the cheese is “fire roasted” with “a variety of aromatic mushrooms, grilled red onions & dark Mexican beer”) and Costillas De Cerdo (slow-roasted pork ribs finished in the oven and glazed with agave morito sauce). Zapoteca also excels at melding Maine seafood with traditional Mexican cuisine. The specials cost around $17; entrees come in below $30. And, conveniently, the list of entrees includes suggested wines.
The drink menu is extensive and, in some cases, expensive — there are a couple shots that would cost more than your and your date’s meals combined. But don’t be intimidated. The first page of the libations menu has a dozen or so cocktails, the majority of them tequila-based, priced between $8 and $11. The second page is an extensive list of tequilas. It’s here that you’ll find shots as high as $65, though most fall in the $8-to-$13 range. These are not gimmick offerings, but an attempt to showcase the true diversity of premium tequilas. The wine list is not quite as extensive. Most glasses are priced between $8 and $10, well within reason, and there’s good variety among the selection.
I chatted up the bartender, asking for recommendations. Her first one was the Habanero Watermelon Margarita. She said it’s one of the more popular drinks on the cocktail menu. The base is a gold tequila-habanero infusion, with watermelon puree, lime, and orange liqueur. The habanero is present but doesn’t pull at first — only with successive sips does the drink grow warmer. The watermelon is a smashing blend, effectual as a flavorful balance to the tequila. Small sips tingle your lips, while gulps make the back of your throat feel alive. The sweetness is incorrigible in the face of all that habanero infusion. It won’t lie down. It makes for a very accessible drink, with heat.
For more heat, the silver-tequila-based El Pepino is another well-crafted and thoughtful offering. Advertised as cool and spicy, the heat provided by the sliced jalapenos that float atop this concoction gets wrapped within the pulpy, cucumber-heavy body. Unlike the Watermelon Margarita, the heat doesn’t announce its presence until about halfway through the drink. Then the peppers’ oils start to release, nipping at your tongue. The cucumber can’t manage to keep its cool. By the end, the jalapenos have taken over. It’s a wonderful profile that matures as you drink through it.
This tequileria is not strictly about tequila. The Zapo-Zest ($8), which contains Maine’s own Cold River Gin, is a tasty option. The body is lime wedges and gin with a stalk of cilantro dropped in, but not muddled, topped with a splash of soda. It makes for a light, almost delicate drink. Poured in a small rocks glass packed with ice, it’s more suited for a casual cocktailer than a daring one.
A few days after my first visit, I returned to have dinner, but also to put Zapoteca’s more straightforward margaritas to the test. The Enchilada Suizas De Pollo, oven-roasted enchiladas with chicken, jack cheese and a tomatilla sauce, was superb. For the first margarita, I chose La Tradicional. It’s tart and pulpy. The fresh lime juice is vibrant. The drink is crisp and satisfying, though I found it a bit simple after having explored their more adventurous cocktails. The more expensive La Suprema, a margarita made with Reposado tequila, left me with a similar sense of vague disappointment. Both are excellent margaritas, but when at Zapoteca I encourage you to try a drink with a little more personality.
— Carl Currie