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Restaurants | First Impressions

Multifaceted Mexican Cuisine Puts Oregon Cafe on the Map

August 10, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

PORTLAND — Who would have thought it? In the midst of all those Northwest pines and rains is a terrific, home-style Mexican restaurant. But I guess if Chicago can have not one, but two of the best Mexican restaurants in the country, namely Rick Bayliss' Frontera Grill and Topolobombo next door, why not Portland?

Cafe Azul is in the Pearl district, where the pearl trade was once headquartered, now a patchwork of lofts, cafes, contemporary furniture showrooms and renovated warehouses. Run by two sisters, Claire Archibald in the kitchen and her sister Shawna at the front of the house, the cafe has an informal festive feeling. Only the string of colorful Christmas lights over the bar and the framed Mexican woodcuts give away the restaurant's theme.

The menu is something else again. Claire, who honed her skills at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, goes to Mexico frequently to research regions and recipes. And the dishes she cooks show a profound love of Mexico and its culture. Her menus change every day, which made me want to spend a week in Portland, but I only had one meal to spare.

I loved her squash blossom soup, a rich homemade chicken broth laced with ribbons of zucchini flowers and, floating in the middle, a quesadilla raft. Guacamole is very serious. So are the "hot, cool, and spicy salsas." And the taco plate of three different fillings--al pastor, black beans, and San Simon cheese with epazote--slipped into supple handmade tortillas made a hearty and irresistible appetizer for six.

Mole Oaxaquena made with 28 ingredients napped a moist poached chicken breast. There was a plump, tender tamale stuffed with chicken, plantains, potatoes and raisins, and a dry-aged sirloin steak rubbed with pueblo adobo sauce. My favorite, though, was the huaraches: a plate of toasted masa "sandals" cloaked in a tomatillo and green chile sauce with chicken, crema, crumbled cotija cheese and juicy black beans.

I'd go back in a heartbeat.

BE THERE

Cafe Azul, 112 N.W. 9th Ave., Portland; (503) 525-4422. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Appetizers $6 to $8; main courses $17 to $26.

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