When I turned 30, I bought triple blown ‘tobacco’ pipe at about where the middle back table at El Ray stands. I haggled the guy down $5, with it being my birthday and all. Later that night, we’d enjoy a white linen meal at Back Bay. Thirty started very nicely. Last Friday I walked back into that space on York Street to try the restaurant that seems to be generating nearly a review-a-week. (the latest can be found here).
Like many, I counted the days until their turquoise and orange doors opened and have since been following the reviews closely. I can’t quite recall the last restaurant that seemed to divide the Portland food bloggers so vastly. Love it or hate it, the one recurring mention (that the owners should take note of) does seem to focus on the prices charged for the portions served. Hopefully they reexamine their price points or fluff up the tacos a bit more (which sounds incredibly dirty, but would be equally as satisfying for those taking part). So last week I found myself turning down State and off to the former head shop/gas station for some ‘authentic’ Mexican.
Apparently I picked a pretty bad day to pop in. I passed through the door around 11:10 and left by 11:40 and didn’t dine in. That morning, just a few minutes into their day they seemed to be having POS issues. Four people stood ahead of me and watched as the manager (owner?) was talking to their service company, frantically trying to rectify the situation before a serious crowd started to gather. Sure enough several more people had joined within minutes and lead a line out the door. I don’t believe the overall situation would have been as frustrating–even though it was eating up the little time I had to eat before work–if the tall blond guy behind the counter could manage to get out of his own way. Maybe it was nerves, but even the simple task of using a manual credit card machine seemed too much for him.
When I finally ordered, a $9 meal of 1 carne asada taco and chips/guac, I stood out of the way and sat to watch how they handled the overall chaos. An older, shorter woman, with black hair and glasses was probably the calmest of them all, though she was in the thick of it. She held her own and didn’t seem to let that get in the way of her interactions with the customers as she took their orders. Outside of the counter chaos, the kitchen was busily getting the food out. Though there was one person on that side whose job I couldn’t quite figure out. Maybe he was a waiter or something to that effect–he was the one who handed me my order–but he just kind of stood there nibbling bits of the food in the kitchen.
By the time my food was ready, about 5 or so minutes later, I rushed out the door and made my way to work. My lunch would now be dinner as I no longer had time to enjoy the food while it was warm because of the wait. So actually sitting down to mull it all over wouldn’t come for another 5 hours.
I’ve always thought if the food is good cold, then it was fucking fabulous warm. I would like to say that this was the case, but it wasn’t. It was ok. Like many who have chimed in on El Rayo, the portion size was disappointing especially because most of the taco was lettuce. I counted two strips of charred peppers, a few onions, a bit of beef and lettuce. The guac triggered an odd food memory for me–the second it hit my tongue I recalled a ham sub from a little shop back home. Fucking weird right? I think it was the strong onion flavor of the guac that triggered it, but it was seriously surreal to have that be the first thing I thought about when I ate it. The association to the sub passed and I managed to eat only half before the onion flavor became too much. Like the taco, it was ok, but nothing I’d shell out that kind of money for.
I can’t say if this was or wasn’t ‘authentic’ as I have no vacations in Mexico to compare it to, but I can definitely say that I’ve had better(and cheaper) tacos and guac. Waiting half an hour for it, which I know was ridiculous to begin with, put a bad taste in my mouth before the food was ever eaten. But, something like a POS going offline can’t be blamed on them so I know I’ll try it once more.
Actually over the course of writing I’ve decided to stop by again this morning for a second try.
…And so I did. And again I am under whelmed by it all. This time I tried three different items:
The Pescado: Grilled achiote seasoned fish fillet, sliced avocado, chipotle sauce & crunchy veggie slaw
Al Pastor: slow braised pork with char-grilled pineapple salsita
Smoky Potato Fritters with chipotle sauce.
The fish in the Pescado was mild, though nicely seasoned. Two very small slices of avocado—almost like after thoughts–were lost in a ‘slaw’ of green cabbage and lettuce. The chipotle sauce, which is also served with the fritters, made the thing a beautiful mess but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because it was extremely tasty. But I’ll note that the avocado thing really pissed me off.
The pork taco just wasn’t enjoyable at all. I ordered this after seeing a picture of it here. It was the candied look of the pickled onion that drew me in. But when I opened it, there was no onion to be found outside of 3 (yes, I counted) brinoise sized bits. But, I moved past my disappointment and started to pick at each individual component. And there was just more disappointment to be found. Bland salsita and dry pork (isn’t it suppose to be braised?). The bits of pork that were moist were soaked in the sweet juice of the salsita, which made it more edible than the majority of the meat in the shell. I was the first paying customer of the day and felt like I had been given the dregs.
Then there were the fritters, smoked mashed potatoes covered in taco bits and deep fried. I popped one in my mouth and found a bitterness akin to raw flour instead of a deep smoked chile flavor. In the few minutes it took me to drive home they had gone soggy, but I had expected them to in their cardboard container. So I drowned them in the chipotle sauce and finished my meal.
Two visits in five days and I’m just not convinced. The portions seemed more generous on this visit than the last, but it just wasn’t any better. I tried in vain to find what a lot of people seemed to be enjoying but it just didn’t happen. Maybe I’ll go back again in a few months to see if the quality and consistency has finally caught up to the prices because it’s not there for me yet.