With tacos, simple is better—ideally, two homemade corn torillas, still soft and warm, a haystack of juicy, flavorful, and gristle-free meat, a hearty sprinkling of chopped cilantro so fresh it should be spanked, a pinch or two of diced onions but not so many your coworkers have to lock you in the stairwell after lunch to avoid your monstrous breath, a few wedges of lime, and kick-heinie salsa verde. These tacos should be so good that time stops when you bite into them and if you close your eyes and put your bottle of ice-cold Sidral up to your ear you can hear the waves lapping at the Baja shore, sort of like a Corona ad come to life. Lastly, these tacos should be cheap. Like, preferably $1.50, but I’ll allow leeway on that if ambiance and access to a bathroom is thrown in. Here are my top pics when it’s Under the Table Taco Time.
Chef Jake Brown’s hip taco stand tucked into a parking lot just off SE Woodstock makes some very fresh tacos on some very fresh hand-pressed tortillas. I have yet to try one I don’t love, but my favorite is the the wild Pacific snapper heaped with cabbage, bright pink pickled onions, citrus crema and if you so choose (and I do), a squirt of the fiery house made Melt Your Face salsa. I’m not making that up either, that’s really it’s name. Should you eat one of each taco and still have some room for exploration, investigate the Nevada Tostada, a slab of fry bread with meat, beans, cabbage, pickled onions, pico de gallo, cotija, and more citrus crema. Again, Melt Your Face sauce is optional. (Do it!)
This no-frills taco truck sits quietly in the heart of the Alberta action, serving up fresh tacos, tortas and burritos to loyalists and lucky passerby alike. Meat options abound but they’ve got a staunch meat-free following thanks to a lengthy vegan/ vegetarian menu sporting everything from vegan nachos with Daiya and Tofutti sour cream to the gutbusting chipotle soyrizo-stuffed Fantastico burrito. If you live out in the far Southeast neck of the woods, their original location hails from humble digs at SE Woodstock and 84th.
I am fond of bars. Wine bars, tequila bars, swanky bars, dive bars, chocolate bars, gold bars–I rarely meet a bar I don’t like. So when I was handed an entire menu at Fonda Rosa entitled “Taco Bar,” my stomach did little forward flips of happiness. Basically, the Taco Bar menu lists every delicious a la carte taco or taco plato you can get at Fonda Rosa, from the simple Taco de Carbon–carne asada with diced onion and cilantro, to the swoony Tacos de Jaíba–hot crispy fried tortillas cupping warm chunks of crab mounded with soft sauteed mushrooms, Mexican slaw, and fresh pico de gallo. In addition to their Taco Bar, Fonda Rosa has a full bar, with refreshing margaritas and mixed drinks, sangria, wine, beer, and taco-friendly Jarritos sodas.
There’s something inherently atmospheric about eating tacos from a truck parked beneath a blue tarp covered corner of an Interstate Avenue gas station parking lot, and nobody does this better than Gonzalez Taqueria. Tacos are simple, straight- forward and fresh (and cheap!), meats are well seasoned, and the house salsas each have their own distinct personality, so try them all. The rest of the menu is short and sweet–you can get a breakfast burrito, burrito, torta, quesadilla or combo plate, but obviously, I’m all about the tarp tacos.
As we learned from a winged Jeff Goldblum, fusion attempts gone wrong aren’t pretty. But this popular taco truck’s marriage of Mexican and Korean street snacks is fusion gone wild in a good way. Inspired by a stomach-provoking visit to LA’s Kogi BBQ, Koi Fusion owner Bo Kwon deserted his corporate job to pursue the Great Portlandian Dream of owning your own food cart, and now he and brother Jeremiah drive their shiny truck all around town bringing deliciously unconventional tacos to the grateful masses. Soft homemade tortillas are stuffed with tender shredded Korean short ribs, sweet garlicky Bulgogi BBQ Beef, spicy Bulgogi BBQ Chicken and Pork, and tofu marinated in sweet soy sauce–all made from Mama Kwon’s family recipes, then topped with shredded cabbage, chopped scallions, bean sprouts, onion, cilantro, daikon radish sprouts, and Korean salsa. Smooth-talking charmer that he is, Bo shares his taco love between a handful of downtown parking lots so you have to check his website or Twitter to find out where to get your Koifusion fix.
You’ll find both excellent tacos and the fascinating cross section of the Alberta Street population devoted to them at this cheery, busy little Mexican restaurant, where La Bonita herself watches over you with big, knowing brown eyes from her painted bed of plush cushions and calla lillies. Simply adorned pollo, rez, and carnitas tacos can be had for $2 each, while the asada, lengua, shrimp, pastor, and machaco tacos are $2.50. Pescado–your choice of battered tilapia or breaded cod, will set you back $2.95, and comes mounded with lettuce, pico de gallo, crema, and queso fresco. A simpatico little extra is the pickled vegetables that come with your tacos–sweet tangy carrots, onions, and jalapenos. And should you work up a thirst during all this, La Bonita also makes some of the best horchata around.
I took a little Spanish in high school (okay, I took four years but my Spanish is so wretched I’m embarrassed to admit that), and from what I remember, gorditos means fat ones. So, approaching this Division Street taco truck, I felt a little worried. Did I really need tacos? I’d already had two breakfast. But while waiting in line and watching massive plates of food emerge from the window, I realized it was the food they were talking about. Sure enough, my plate contained three beautifully chubby pockets of taco joy—rich pastor with sweet pineapple shavings, tender shredded chicken, and carne asada topped with carmelized onions. The vegan/vegetarian menu rivals the regular menu, ensuring a diverse crowd that spans everyone from a Bluetooth-wearing guy in an Armani suit to a black clad hipster duo splitting a big fat plate of Soyrizo nachos.
Mi Mero Mole
Furthering the guisado cause here in Portland, cook/food writer Nick Zukin’s busy Division Street taqueria specializes in Mexico City-style stewed meat and vegetable-filled tacos, burritos and quesadillas served alongside unique cocktails like the Horchata Borracha and Señor Brown (mezcal and apple soda) and excellent house salsas, resulting in a dining experience that’s deliciously outside the norm. If you happen to be around on the Fourth of July, don’t miss their epic tribute to the American freedom to clog one’s arteries with over the top edibles (see: turducken, doughnut burger, pizza taco)–the Kosher Burrito, a Tex-Mex meets Jewish deli union of pastrami, beef chili and kosher hot dogs rolled into a flour tortilla with rice and onions. You’ll be setting off fireworks for days afterwards.
Mi Mero Mole Chinatown
If your excuse for not patronizing this popular guisados stronghold more often has traditionally been that you didn’t want to brave the Division construction quagmire all the way to 50th, your excuse is now moot—Nick Zukin and Pablo Portilla have opened a second Mi Mero Mole right in Chinatown, so you can pop in for lunch Monday through Friday and get your fill of perfectly-prepared Mexico City style tortas, tacos, and gabacho bowls without having to go five miles an hour through a gauntlet of partially constructed condo buildings and gastrotourist swarms (unless of course, you live at 50th and Division and are trying to get to lunch in Chinatown).
The best thing about the trio of Tacos de Puerco at Nuestra Cocina isn’t the price tag—a surprisingly scant $7 considering they come with a large helping of ambiance and a comfortable seat that doesn’t involve a folding chair in a parking lot—nor is it the heaping mound of hot, savory spiced pork on a homemade corn tortilla with a fragrant sprinkling of onions and chiles, nor is it watching your tacos be prepared as you sit at the mosaic tiled kitchen bar wishing you had a tortilla press of your own at home and chef Benjamin Gonzalez to braise pork for you. All those things are well and grand, but the best thing about Nuestra Cocina’s pork tacos is wolfing, er, slowly savoring them in tandem with an icy cold Serrano lime drop—chile-infused vodka & fresh lime juice—easily the finest pairing in the city. Read full write-up>>
Por Que No
It’s impossible not to like these irrepressibly cheerful cantinas (well, except for the miles-long lines out the door, those I do not like). It’s an instant mood-brightener–the festive colors, perky music, friendly and relaxed staff, huge jars of agua frescas, unfussy bright red plastic baskets of tacos like the simple carne asada and carnitas, rich Porque Tinga with shredded beef in a smoky pasilla chile sauce, and flavorful Pescado–line-caught snapper rolled in spicy cornmeal and fried, then piled with crema, cabbage, salsa verde, and tropical fruit. During the daily happy hour, tacos are 50 cents off from 3 to 6 pm, except Tuesdays, when they are discounted until 10 pm, which gives you plenty of time to enjoy a few Pomegranate Margaritas or Pacificos on the lively patios. Read full write-up>>
Taqueria Lindo Michoacan
Waiting in line at this Division Street taco truck, I noticed some nondescript shoebox-sized plastic bins next to the napkin dispenser and salsa bottles. One held fresh pico de gallo. One held whole pickled jalapeños. And the last one held neat stacks of olive green roasted jalapeños, slightly rippled from the fire, pocked with condensation, and sprinkled with salt. So I put in my order (one birria taco, one barbacoa, one carnitas, one pastor, one lengua–all perfectly topped with fresh minced cilantro you can smell two feet away and just the right amount of onion), plucked a roasted jalapeño from the bin, scurried to a picnic table, and took a big bite. It was sweet, soft, slightly smoky, and then SPICY! I nearly toppled the table getting to my icy Sidral. A lesson in moderation, and one I should have heeded, I thought later as I lay on the floor back at work, wondering why I’d thought it was a good idea to eat five tacos.
Taqueria Los Gorditos
The brick and mortar offshoot of Taqueria Los Gordito’s upper Division food truck mothership, this no-frills taqueria holds court at the busy, gastronomically-gifted intersection of Division and 12th, just over the fence from busy Apex beer bar (which is bereft of food and more than happy to let you bring your tacos and burritos on over), kitty corner from Beermonger’s bottle shop, and directly across from Double Dragon. There are two menus–meat and vegan/vegetarian, and while the tacos and their quesadilla, sopas, taquitos and burrito brethren aren’t anything out of the ordinary, the food is fresh, fast and satisfying. Oh, and their nachos are an excellent, sometimes almost overwhelmingly meaty, rendition.
Those waiting years for much-loved Taqueria Nueve to play phoenix got their wish when Billy Schumaker and Brent Richford finally opened the doors to T9’s new incarnation in the former Beaker & Flask space. Pop in any night but Monday for ceviche, octopus coctel, crispy wild boar tacos, and duck confit tamales paired with plenty of $7 house margaritas.
Taqueria Santa Cruz
Once upon a time, I was a substitute teacher. Every morning, armed with stickers and gummy bears and a Taser, I’d be sent to a different corner of the city to serve as an educational stand-in. Teaching provided me with a real sense of accomplishment, the feeling that I was making a difference, and best of all—Taco Tips. See, one day, as I was leaving James John Elementary, I asked the gym teacher where to get good tacos—and was told the secret of Tienda Santa Cruz and their hidden taqueria. Pass the case filled with gaudily colorful birthday cakes, through a doorway and into the expansive mural-covered back room, where the taco counter shares a kitchen with the panaderia, sit down at one of the long communal tables, and eye the trays of freshly baked pastries and bustling cooks. These tacos are simple, delicious, and an astonishing ONE DOLLAR EACH. Before you leave, stock up on your favorite Mexican pantry staples—last time I left I bought a tub of lard, some Ibarra chocolate, and a Strawberry Shortcake piñata from the excellent selection of truly bizarre piñatas.
This North Portland cantina’s unassuming exterior hides a beautiful dining room and lovely curved bar that’s the only thing between you and one of the best tequila selections in town, and of course, tacos. Think deeply flavorful chunks of savory wild boar meat in a spicy red sauce, tender smoky slightly sweet shredded beef topped with an intense green salsa, and cormeal-crusted and fried halibut with a smear of cool bright green house guacamole, all set upon a mound of delicate red and green cabbage slaw and accompanied by a little pile of house pickled vegetables on the side. An extensive array of agave-sweetened margaritas include the summery strawberry basil and spicy tamarindo, while teetotalers will appreciate the inventive agua frescas–pomegranate cilantro and blueberry mint make for good summer sipping as you enjoy the large outdoor patio.
With vibrant azure walls, Baja sunshine-hued barstools, a Pacifico-packed cooler, and nearly two dozen tasty tacos both tame (chicken, steak) and adventurous (octopus, tripe, blood sausage) to choose from, this itsy bitsy new cantina tucked into NE Glisan Street’s The Ocean mini-restaurant mall offers a cheery south-of-the-border escape in foul weather, and thanks to the giant roll-up doors, a breezy sun-splashed hangout when skies are fair. Grazers, hearty eaters, and those who have difficulty making decisions should indulge in the Taquiza Surtida—a kitchen’s-choice collection of 12 tacos for $20.