Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/The Fuge
photo/The Fuge

52 Washington Ave., Portland

At the foot of Munjoy Hill, the forces of gentrification and the neighborhood’s gritty past maintain a tenuous truce. Terlingua, a self-described “boutique BBQ” that recently opened on Washington Avenue, embodies the former but embraces the latter.

It’s an intimate space, all copper and warm light, where nods to the working class (beef jerky, barbecued ribs, a waiter wearing a backwards baseball cap) mingle with bourgeois elements (bluefin tartare, pork belly chicharron, the same waiter expertly reciting the details of elaborate specials). The menu meshes traditional American BBQ with Latin American fare, and both starters and entrées come in small or large sizes for diners of varying appetites and incomes.

Limited to $50 (before tax and tip), my husband and I spent almost 15 minutes hunched over the dinner menu, arranging options like puzzle pieces. The one piece we couldn’t get to fit: that tuna tartare. An elegant older couple seated nearby had suggested it; their eyes got misty as they recalled its exquisite flavors and textures. We wanted to experience this transcendent dish, but had already ordered drinks — for what is South American–inspired barbecue without a glass of red wine? — that set us back $14. The raw fish was $14, so we’d be left with only about 20 bucks, barely enough to split a large order of barbecue between us.

After sending our patient waiter away twice, we worked out a plan that came to exactly $50 — then brashly ordered the bluefin tartare on top of that.

The pork shoulder ($15/$20), a hard-working cut of meat, was “perfectly smoked,” according to my husband, and paired well with two sauces: one smoky, one piquant. The accompaniments were less successful. The crisp pickles were lovely, but the honeyed, unleavened bread and the fruit salad seemed like showy gourmet snacks — more style than substance.

The mushroom empanada ($14/$19) had a luscious, buttery crust and a velvety filling of spinach and fungi. More flattering comparisons could have come to mind (British pasties, a savory turnover), but my only thought was that this was a very grown-up Hot Pocket. The empanada was paired with a few leaves of butter lettuce in a lemony dressing that tasted of thyme, and an egg, fried by a perfectionist. The three components formed an unexpectedly harmonious trio.

The side dish of roasted cauliflower ($7) presented the vegetable resplendently bathing in cream amid shavings of nutty, sharp cheeses. It was a decadent gratin in all but name.

And what of the tartare, our illicit indulgence? Tiny cubes of bluefin tuna, meltingly soft, came topped with pork cracklings and seeded, diced jalapeño. The dish was delicious, though our enjoyment of it was slightly tarnished by the guilt of the sin of overspending.

When we got our check, the tab was smaller than we’d expected — just over $50, including tax. The waiter leaned in and murmured an explanation. We blushed and smiled. The older couple, who left as we were finishing our meal, had covered the cost of our tartare. Such small, thoughtful acts of kindness, if performed by those on both sides of the gentrification debate, may yet keep the peace in the East End.

—Hannah Joyce McCain

Terlingua serves lunch, dinner and late-night snacks six days a week; closed Tuesdays.

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