The Dining Report, Nuestra Cocina

A Night of Spicy Food and Freaky Infants

This dinner took place October 9th, 2009
Okay, I’ll admit I’m not great with children, especially babies. This baby, though, was straight from a horror flick, and was totally freaking me out. It’s not that this baby was ugly by any means, it was just your basic really infantile humanoid, but that scary look on its face was creepy movie deluxe, those bulging eyeballs, I had to keep turning around to make certain an alien had not entered the room behind us. Actually there were two scary looking infants at that big table at Nuestra Cocina, seemingly twins, but while one looked only mildly alarmed, the second was completely Twilight Zone material, so otherwordly, could any other explanation be in order except that perhaps its diaper was jam packed?

Well, at least I know this infant sending me to my wits end wasn’t just a figment of my imagination, as our well-revered new regular, Heidi (now with 2 RR dinners under her belt) brought this horrifying spectacle to my attention, mentioning how discomforting she found this tiny, creepy little gaze, mostly directed at our table.IMG_1297 And once you saw it, it was so hard to avert your eyes, you could just image circular waves radiating out of this baby’s face and boring into your head until your brain exploded, or you went insane, or your food was set on fire right before your eyes. But like I said, I’m not really good with the kiddies anyway.

Scary infant aside, our evening at Nuestra Cocina went relatively smoothly. Although it’s been my favorite Mexican restaurant since it opened five or six years ago, I had not been to NC since I had a RR dinner here three years before. Nuestra Cocina is like many good Portland restaurants, you hear a certain amount of buzz about it for a couple of years after it opens, but then newer places open that garner more immediate buzz, and while you might always look upon it fondly, you don’t return for quite a long stretch of time, so you aren’t sure if it has maintained the quality and popularity it used to have.

Having been here on this recent late summer/early fall evening (warm, then cool) I can tell you, NC has retained both its’ popularity and charms. They even have an extra little dining room these days (the Molé Room, a bit sedate but decent, with an opening garage door situation) and we were seated back there, but even though we made this a very early dinner, the restaurant seemed incredibly popular from the time we arrived to the time we left. IMG_1287This warmed my heart, I’ve always loved this place, and it’s good to still see it doing so well, especially with the trendy Eastsiders who seem to be the core of the business here

For some reason, I can’t remember the last time I had a Restaurant Roulette dinner and our table wasn’t for a party of five, and once again this was an evening or five. I guess five has become my lucky number, as anytime people decide they’ll dine with me, I feel lucky. As Pam shares my love of Nuestra Cocina, she decided this was a RR dinner she could splurge on and attend, and as we have the last couple of times here, we knew just how to start our dinner, with one of NCs intoxicatingly lovely Long Island Ice Teas. I’m really not a person who staggers around town slurping up this in potent brew, but I discovered at one of my long ago dinners at Nuestra that their version on the LIIT perfectly suits my palate, more so even then their delicious margaritas, so I make it a point to order one whenever I darken this particular doorstep. As always, delicious, and very citrus oriented.

IMG_1285As happens often at Nuestra Cocina, even at 5:30 in the evening, the restaurant was basically full, so Pam and I were at the bar when David arrived, waiting for a table our size to open (this is the only negative thing I think I’ve ever felt about Nuestra Cocina, that it’s really hard to get in with more than two people because of their no reservation policy). We were told, however, that the wait for a table would be a short one, as long as we didn’t mind sitting in the Molé Room (it is a bit removed from the action in there, and alien offspring was lurking). I don’t think David had even gotten his drink by the time we were relocated, and although the Molé Room lacked a certain “zing”, since there was still a bit of summer lurking in the air, it was nice to sit with the side of the building opened up, at least for about an hour until it got too cold and things had to be buttoned up.

Heidi and Julian soon arrived on foot, as this is their neighborhood, and they and Pam melded quite well as dinner companions, as Julian is in a punk band, and Pam used to be a punk (hey, I might not have been a punk, but at least the music was something I knew my iota about). Soon those wonderful handmade Nuestra Cocina tortillas started arriving as well, for my money the best in town (although Autentica’s are close) as well as the spicy pepper based dipping molé you can always plan on getting here on the house.

IMG_1288I’ve always noticed that whenever Ceviche is on the menu, someone invariably wants to order it, and in this case Heidi and Julian decided they would split some as their starter, and David decided to try give it a whirl as well, as Nuestra is known for their Ceviches (which change daily). All gave it the thumbs up, although I think David’s heart will always belong to the extra spicy mixed seafood ceviche he had that time at del Inti.

IMG_1293David also decided to have a go at Nuestra’s Traditional Yucatan Lime Soup with Chicken, Epazote and Tortilla Strips, and although the Ceviche seemed like a light way to start things, once he got through this gigantic bowl of steaming soup, I don’t know how he was even able to look at his entree once that showed up at the table.

After much torment over what to have as a starter, Pam decided Lechugas Con Mango, Jicama, Pepitas Y Aguacate (greens, mango, jicama, pumpkin seed & avocado vinaigrettte salad) sounded the best, and she found it delicious, although huge, and ended up taking a large portion home. IMG_1291I decided to start with the Sopes De Chorizo, Frijoles Y Chile Arbol, three crisp masa cakes filled with chorizo, black beans and chile, a good deal for $6.00, but extremely spicy, and while tasty, perhaps a bit filling as a starter if you are having a substantial entree, which me being me, I was, naturally.

IMG_1288When it comes to wide variety of entrees, this wasn’t something you would experience at our table this evening. Pam, Julian and Heidi all agreed that the Gordita Rellenas sounded best to them, these gorditas nothing at all like you used to see on those long ago Taco Bell commercials with the heavily accented chihuahua (who, get out your hankies, I read died fairly recently). IMG_1296The gorditas at Nuestra are Housemade stuffed tortilla with black beans, avocado, roasted Poblano chiles and cheese (only $9) with an option of pork carnitas (I think both Pam and Julian added the porcine element). As always, Pam thoroughly enjoyed her entire meal at Nuestra Cocina, and Heidi and Julian seemed to savor their Gorditas as well, and pledged to come back soon, especially since they live so close.

At the dinner three years ago, a really fun evening where RR originally met the always effervescent Tori and Dave, I had thoroughly enjoyed my Carne Asada Con Frijoles Borrachos, the Cascade Natural Chuckeye Steak with Drunken Beans, so I was happy to see it was stiil on the menu (the favorites always seem to be available at Nuestra Cocina).IMG_1294 Once again it was delicious, enhanced by a somewhat fatty cut of meat and a spicier than usual marinade. David, who had the lighter Ceviche starter, but then that big honkin’ bowl of tortilla soup, wisely managed to take a sizable portion of his beef and beans home, but Piggie Macglutton finished off almost her entire plate of food, not so easy after the filling and very spicy stuffed masa cakes, and also decided to tackle dessert for old times, remembering that Nuestra Cocina’s Chocolate Pound Cake with Cinnamon Ice Cream always comes highly recommended.

Needless to say, I really could have lived without dessert this evening, and while the chocolate pound cake was fine, it certainly paled in comparison to a absolutely outstanding, ice cream topped zucchini cake I had eaten at a birthday here about five years earlier (a great night in getting old and food consumption). Heidi and Julian also had the chocolate pound cake, which they found okay, but they both loved the creamy homemade cinnamon ice cream on top.

Not much had changed at Nuestra Cocina since I’ve been away, the restaurant is still packed, the food is excellent, the atmosphere always warm and inviting (once you get a table) and the prices remain reasonable, nothing over $18. $18 might sound like an expensive meal for a Mexican place, but as I’ve said before, Nuestra Cocina is basically an upper end restaurant that cooks food using Mexican techniques, it’s anything but a burrito joint. This is first class food, delicious meat and seafood dishes, complimented with south of the border spices and timeless recipes.

As much as I enjoy it, I would not be surprised if it’s another 3 years until I once again get to visit Nuestra Cocina. I wish them continued success. I just hope that when I do return, fate does not rear its ironic head, and that I don’t get stuck back in that Molé Room again, this time with an aging toddler with a frighteningly “not from our world” gaze.