Melty, earthy, crunchy: Portland's Mexican cuisine is getting weird

By now we have learned that climate change (soon to accelerate) announces itself not with a steady warming but rather with a spate of weird weather events.

As President Trump turns up the heat on Mexican immigrants and culture, we can expect analogously spasmodic developments. The signs are already emerging right here in Portland in the Mexican food scene. Just the last few months has seen El Rayo change locations, temporary closings for Ocho Burrito and Taco Trio and various other ominous oddities. Last Thursday the owner of Hella Good Tacos was seen confabbing with Ian Svenonius – a musician recently linked to #pizzagate in Slate Magazine. For real! So we visited several Mexican eateries to investigate, as our next President might put it, “what the hell is going on?!”

El Rayo’s new Free Street location is a downsize space-wise, and an upsize garish color-wise. A surf theme's present now, as well as many children. The experience feels more crowded and chaotic, but it helps once you figure out the two-register system (they are on opposite ends). Like an immigrant seeking a visa, some luck is consequential regarding who processes your request but the food comes pretty quick. A new proliferation of paper and plastic makes things feel scrappier, but there was little evidence of falling quality in the cuisine. The margaritas still have a nice fresh tang. Guacamole, like Ivanka, was too cold to reveal hidden virtues, even nestled in a warm chip. But the fat mushroom quesadilla had an appealing melty-earthy simplicity.

The Corazon truck, at its usual Spring St. location, protects itself from Trump’s investigators with a moat of deep mud – or perhaps that is just the natural consequence of new melty-earthy weather patterns. Even on a sunny day customers navigate it on their toes to avoid shoe soakage. Corazon seems different these days, starting with the face in the window, now with less immigrant charm. The burrito had no grill marks and was mushier. But the tacos are still great – with crunchy cabbage and herby spicy meat. Their use of a single tortilla (Rayo uses two) is a sign of their faith in the customer’s delicacy. Misplaced!

A Chipotle opened in Portland last year just as Trump clinched the nomination. Coincidence? Doubtful. They have had their own weirdness recently – like E coli outbreaks and ostentatious employee re-trainings, which cost their CEO the Secretary of Labor job that went to the Hardee’s guy. On black Friday every Chipotle in Maine ran out of tortillas. For real!

Chipotle, where the line bulged out the door, anticipates Trump’s America. The quasi-industrial set up – you watch your burrito develop as it is passed down an assembly line –  imitates the factory-work fantasy he sold to voters.  These are workers as Trump desires them: hard working, un-unionized, un-outsourceable, mostly white. It does seem like real work, and they do it earnestly. “More pinto!” yelled one. Another winced from a steam burn.

Like a lunchtime CEO, you guide the action, so if your burrito is no good it is your fault. But it is quite good, especially with guacamole ($2 extra, but why not in these end times?). The tofu sofritas are a dark herby revelation, and terrific stuffed in with salty corn and sautéed vegetables. Everyone in line asked for nearly every available ingredient. The workers make them fit. The result of such indulgence is overstuffed and lumpy, like we Americans and our new President. Unlike we Americans, the burrito is also comforting and satisfying.

But this comforting cuisine will get harder to find, especially as local spots rehearse guerilla-style resistance in the new era – with location changes, mud-moats, and temporary closings. Chipotle’s recent poisonings and tortilla-scarcity might be a corporate effort to troll and disorient us to a state of helplessness.

So might Trump’s scrambling of climate and immigrant initiatives. His first witch-hunt seems to be for climate activists in the Energy Department. Who is next?

Last modified onTuesday, 13 December 2016 19:15