First things first. Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day (the nation declared its independence from Spain on September 16, 1810). Rather, May 5 marks the day on which an outnumbered Mexican Army defeated an army of French colonialists in the central state of Puebla, known by gastronomes for its poblano peppers—the chile in chile rellenos—and for the invention of mole.
Cynically, Cinco de Mayo can be observed as a sort-of a bait-and-switch dreamt up by clever U.S. marketers to take advantage of the spring and summer seasons to celebrate the cultures of Mexico by promoting its various foods (spicy) and drinks (beer, imported). And, outside of Puebla, it's not widely celebrated, except in the United States.
Luckily for you, Mexican food, in all its forms, is—historically and gastronomically—a rich complex and cuisine and, just because there seems to be a dearth of it in our Pacific Northwestern rain forest, doesn't mean it can't be found. So whether you're looking for street-style or want to dine finely, Portland is not without its options.
Executive chef Benjamin Gonzales says diners shouldn't expect to find anything out of the ordinary on May 5. It's just another day.
"We don't signify it with anything different. It's something that's big in the U.S," he explains. "We'll be full and busy for those who want to eat and drink, but we don't get carried away."
Yet that doesn't mean that Nuestra Cocina's menu is without surprises.
For instance, while the kitchen offers tacos and rellenos, it also serves up prawn, beef and chicken dishes inspired by cuisine from Oaxaca and the Yucután. Gonzales also has a deep repertoire of moles in his rotation, from the very simple to "very complex and sophisticated."
And the bar serves four innovative tequila martinis, including one with a mango purée and a housemade habanero syrup, as well as a Serrano Lime Drop (like a lemon drop, in which the citrus is swapped, and the vodka is infused with Serrano chiles).
Yet perhaps the finest touch of all is the woman who prepares fresh tortillas, which go, piping hot, from her station directly to your table.
Try: the tacos and the Serrano Lime Drop
Nuestra Cocina, 2135 SE Division Street, 503.232.2135
¿Por Qué No?
Like Gonzales, Brighid Prose at North Portland's ¿por qué no? says Cinco de Mayo isn't the most traditional Mexican holiday. But, she says, "Cinco de Mayo seems to be the start of the summer season."
"We're not sure what we're planning just yet," she says, "but we're going to make up some yummy food and drink specials."
One item rolling out, permanently, is barbacoa tacos.
It was barbacoa tacos, she explains, that owner Bryan Steelman was eating while traveling in Mexico in 2004. They were so good that he envisioned returning to Portland to open up his own taqueria. So earlier this year, executive chef Josh Kimball traveled to Chiapas to study all things barbacoa with sous chef Marcos Lopez's mother, who in turn taught him everything she knows.
You won't find any burritos here, but you will find that they roll their own tortillas, fry their own chips and make everything from scratch, daily, including Tequilas Aguas Frescas, or margaritas made with real fruit—prickly pear, pomegranate, blueberry—sourced from local farms and juiced in-house.
Try: the barbacoa tacos, of course.
¿Por Qué No?, 4635 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503.954.3138 and ¿Por Qué No?, 3524 N Mississippi Avenue, 503.467.4149
Santeria owners Wade Burgett and Rebecca Roark anticipate a very busy Cinco de Mayo, so busy that they're trying to convince neighboring Bailey's Tap Room to open up their doors early for lunch (Santeria provides takeout for Bailey's, literally located steps away, and also serves Mary's Club—and Mary's shares its restrooms with Santeria).
In two short years, the couple has turned Santeria into a cult destination for those hungry for what their menu calls The best Mexican food on the planet! It also doesn't hurt that they stay open until 2 a.m., every day, all year long.
Their executive chef, Roberto Hernandez, got his start in the fine dining establishments of Mexico City before moving north to Los Angeles to be near his mother. In L.A., Hernandez quickly learned all about street food in some of the city's numerous taquerias.
Among Santeria favorites are its spicy chicken tinga (chicken cooked with chorizo, tomatillos, tomatoes, chipotles and onions), its 18 varieties of meaty and vegetarian burritos and a very tasty smoked salsa.
They also serve half-a-dozen margaritas, made with one simple rule. "We never use triple sec, Rose's lime juice or sweet 'n' sour mix," Burgett says. "Ever."
Try: the tinga, the salsa and an agua fresca they call La Llorona—rum and horchata (rice milk)—on ice.
Santeria, 703 SW Ankeny Street, 503.956.7624
Perhaps you've stumbled across them at a number of local farmers’ markets, where, from their tents, comes the enticing aroma of traditional handmade tamales.
Micro Mercantes Program Manager Jorge Alvarado says that whenever you buy a tamale from any of the program's nine teams of mother-daughter Latina immigrants, you are helping to increase each woman's annual revenues by as much as 20 percent. That's because these makers of tamales are part of a co-op run through Hacienda Community Development Corporation, which not only provides affordable housing to these Latinas but empowers them to become entrepreneurs, as well.
Alvarado says Micro Mercantes Tamales also features, with enough notice, full-menu catering services featuring a long list of traditional dishes.
Try: the vegetarian tamale, and then try it again.
Submit your order online (3-5 days notice, please) or enjoy tamales at the Hollywood Farmers' Market or King Market this weekend.
Honorable Mention: Sunshine Taven
Honorably mentioned is the Sunshine Tavern, which opened its doors in mid-April and which, according to owner David Welch, offers up frozen margaritas made from "pure agave silver tequila, fresh lime juice and simple syrup, “all mixed up in a slushy machine,” because, he asks, "Who doesn't like a glass of slushy fun?"
Sunshine Tavern, 3111 SE Division Street, 503.688.1750
Who are some of your favorite purveyors of Mexican cuisine? Sound off below and let us know.