Tour de Taco
I recently moved back to Maine after living for a time in Tuscon, and if there’s one thing I miss about that sun-baked city, it’s the tacos. It seems like there’s a taqueria on every block. Maine’s about as far from Mexico as you can get in the continental U.S., but Portland’s robust food scene gave me hope I could assuage my nostalgia as Cinco de Mayo approached.
I began by taking a seat at the little bar inside El Rayo — the accessibly hip, nouveau-Mexican restaurant on York Street — and ordered a pescado (fish) taco, a carne asada (char-grilled steak) taco, and an al pastor (pork) taco ($3.95 each). The fish taco was the highlight — the soft, grilled pollack seasoned with peppery achiote was balanced by a crisp, vinegary slaw. Mayo and a sliver of avocado added creamy depth to the combination of flavors. The beef in the carne asada, spruced up with roasted poblano peppers, was a little chewy for my taste. The al pastor was dotted with grilled pineapple and topped with diced jalapeño, lettuce and onion, but the delicate garnishes proved no match for the sizeable clump of pulled pork.
The tacos at El Rayo were all topped with cilantro and served in warm corn tortillas, sourced locally, that had a slightly nutty flavor. Unfortunately, there’s only one tortilla per taco, so my al pastor disintegrated before I could finish it, and the fish taco nearly met the same fate. This is why authentic tacos have two tortillas. I expected more for four bucks, but was grateful to have a Tecate michelada to wash down my taco woes. If you’re feeling adventurous, throw down an extra 50¢ to have any beer on El Rayo’s list transformed into this weird and wonderful cocktail on ice, made with Worcestershire, lime and hot sauce.
Taco Escobarr, on Congress Street, is colorful and kitschy inside — hot-pepper Christmas lights crisscross the ceiling, the bathrooms are wallpapered with Mexican B-movie posters. Like El Rayo, they have a good selection of beer from South of the Border, the tacos are $4 each, and the fish was the standout. The hake, a delicately flavored white fish, was deep-fried and topped with luscious crema and an appealing pickled relish. My carne asada was well and simply seasoned, then grilled until just barely charred. The garnish of cojita cheese, onion, cilantro, and a few thin slices of radish was lovely. The meat in the lengua (tongue) taco was meltingly tender and well complemented by a corn-and-red-pepper relish.
Taco Escobarr also gets points for their thick, soft corn tortillas, which are made in-house and served two per taco, as God intended. I’m tempted to try a “puffy” taco ($6) next time I stop in — the tortilla becomes golden, airy and crisp in the deep fryer, creating what’s essentially a folded-up tostada.
At Casa Fiesta, the latest in a long series of businesses to try to succeed at the Forest Avenue location famously occupied many years ago by Raoul’s Roadside Attraction, the tacos arrived on flour tortillas. In other words, they tried to serve me fajitas disguised as tacos, which is grounds for immediate disqualification.
I also checked out Taqueria Tequila, a smaller, less festive place on St. John Street, where a friend and I had previously tried dishes from their sprawling menu that ranged from the authentic (enchiladas con mole; menudo, a traditional soup only available here on weekends) to the considerably less so (a plate of nachos smothered in refried beans and guacamole). My friend’s fish taco had been one of the few highlights of that visit, so I returned a few days later to see if the tacos ($2-$2.25) were worthy of a real taqueria. The answer: kind of.
The fish taco, loaded with pico de gallo, was again done well, the carnitas taco was flavorful and just a tad spicy, and the lengua was softly chewable. The chorizo and carne asada tacos were decent, though the meat was a bit overcooked. All the meat tacos were simply garnished with onion and cilantro and lime on the side. Not bad for the price.
It seemed like every other person I told about my taco tour pointed me across the Casco Bay Bridge, to Taco Trio, a cozy spot in the Mill Creek area of South Portland. I had to find out what the fuss was about. Taco Trio’s fish taco was the most indulgent I’d had so far, thanks to a prodigious dollop of tangy lime sour cream-mayo. The haddock was flaky and perfectly fried, and the creaminess of the sour cream-mayo was balanced by a crunchy escabeche slaw. The al pastor taco was filled with diced pork that had been marinated in a flavorful adobo sauce. The pineapple it’s supposed to be topped with was missing, but the omission was easily remedied with the addition of mango salsa from the eatery’s extensive selection of a la carte condiments. I went out on a limb with the barbacoa de cabra (barbequed goat) taco, and was left hanging. The unmanageably large hunks of meat were barely seasoned. But I finally understood the fuss. Taco Trio’s tacos, made with two soft corn tortillas, are $3.50 each, and you can get any three for $9.
Tacos are great street food, and the food-truck invasion has given Portlanders a host of new options. The bright red El Corazon food truck was buzzing with customers when I walked up at lunchtime. My Baja fish taco ($2.75) was slathered with yummy chipotle mayo and topped with crunchy cabbage, as well as the de rigueur cilantro and onion. The carnitas taco ($2.50) was filled with soft, marbled hunks of pork (carnitas tacos generally use fattier cuts of meat than the al pastor variety) and benefited from a dose of salsa verde, provided on the side. El Corazon loses authenticity points for providing only one tortilla per taco, but gets bonus points for selling Sonoran hot dogs, a staple of the Tucson street-food scene. El Corazon wraps the dog in salty, thick-cut bacon and dresses it with pinto beans, guacamole, shredded cheese, mustard, aioli and pico de gallo. There should have been twice as much topping on the one I got, but since this was the first Sonoran dog I’ve found in Maine, I suppose I can’t be too choosy.
I came across Ana’s Gourmet food truck parked in a dirt lot at the western end of Commercial Street, and ordered two tacos ($2.25 each, three for $6.50). Both came with tomato, lettuce, cilantro and a little bit of onion. The chicken in the pollo taco was pan-fried and crispy, and the carne asada taco was simple and done well, though hot sauce would have helped (I neglected to request some before taking the tacos to go). Ana’s no-frills tacos were satisfying, but I wouldn’t chase this truck down the street.
I wrapped up my tour at a food cart, Hella Good Tacos, in Monument Square. Their carne asada taco was smothered in a complex, custom-made chipotle sauce and garnished with cilantro and onion. The chorizo taco, garnished the same way (and also $2.25), was finger-licking good. For price and authenticity, these tacos are indeed hella good. And there’s more good news: cart proprietor Josh Bankhead and his wife are taking over Steve and Renee’s Diner, on Washington Avenue, and plan to eventually offer their tacos there, too. Olé!
— Hannah Joyce McCain