The Dining Report – Mextiza

What do you mean, NORTH Killingsworth?


A long time ago (practically when people rode dinosaurs to college) when I was getting my degree at the University of Portland, I drove to school each day down Killingsworth to Willamette, basically from beginning to end, as I think it begins somewhere around 82nd, and ends close to “the bluff.”IMG_2623 Back then, before the double-edged sword of inner NE gentifrication was even thought about, Killingsworth was not a particularly nice street, and sometimes there were rather scary looking things along the way, especially in the approximate area of the PCC Cascade campus. Mainly my plan was just to get to good old Willamette Blvd., and not really make any stops or look around a ton, and back then, there weren’t too many blossoming businesses to see, anyway. In more modern times, the only reason I had to go back and check out Killingsworth was when Roux opened, that nice New Orleans style restaurant that the owner lost interest in, and closed a few years back, finally reappearing with Violette, in the park across from Fox Tower (I’m never sure what that place is called, is it Director’s Park?) I liked Roux a lot, but the only thing I remember about its environs on Killingsworth was how quiet the street seemed there, very residential (And yes Michael, I think you are right, that Roux was a long way west, maybe around Jessup.)

Of course over the last few years, Killingsworth has exploded like all those other formerly “gritty” inner NE streets, Mississippi, Alberta, Williams. Now you’ve got New Seasons, Hot Lips, Cocotte, Beast, Yakuza, Autentica, and Podnah’s, all within a 20 block range. All of these businesses are on or around NE Killingsworth, which it turns out is not anywhere near N. Killingsworth, as I unfortunately learned at our last dinner, as did three of my co-diners. It turns out Mextiza is on N. Killingsworth (yes, just as the address actually said.) Of course I know the difference between NW and NE Portland, there’s that big river thingee in the middle to help me out. But it turns out I don’t know the difference between inner NE Portland and North Portland (by the way, there’s also SE and SW Portland, but is there a corresponding S. Portland? I think not.) Burnside, East and West, now there’s a street that makes it easy to figure out if you are North or South, but what exactly divides NE and N. Portland? Is it the freeway? Is it Interstate? (If so, wouldn’t Interstreet be more appropriate?)

Yes, this is another tale revolving around low-tech me, no GPS, no smart phone, no cell phone at all. Yes, I did think 2103 N. Killingsworth must be about nine blocks west of Autentica at 30th and Killingsworth. That made sense, find a second location just down the street from your first really successful restaurant. Who really pays attention to prefixes like N. or NE? Obviously not me, but at least I was not alone on this evening. Too bad I barely allotted enough time to make it to 21st and NE Killingsworth when I wanted to arrive at the restaurant, let alone a million miles down the road at 2103 N. Killingsworth. And it’s really amazing how desolate the intersection of 21st and NE Killingsworth is on a cold, dark, soon to be rainy winter evening, especially when you keep driving around, around and around one really big block, and all you can see there is a big, black as night park. I’m the hostess though, so I could not give up. Podnah’s sure looked welcoming there on 15th though, especially as I have a gift certificate for over $50 for the place (hey, you guys, please tell me who wants to go to Saturday night BBQ there with me. They have prime rib then.) What to do, especially with all these doubts swirling through my brain, did I write down the wrong address? did I send out the wrong address on the RSVP and screw everyone up?, am I just as dumb as a post? (shades of my trip to our Ned Ludd dinner.)

Anyway, finally, back down the street to Autentica, as they HAD to know where their new place was. I practically double parked outside, and frantically asked the first waitress I saw, where is Mextiza? IMG_2633She gave me one of their high-end cards, which when I got outside realized was no help whatsoever, as it was exactly the same address I thought I had been looking for, 2103, where there was only the park and some residential dwellings. Back into Autentica for some hopefully more helpful instruction. No waitresses around, so I headed toward the Hispanic men in black behind the bar, surely they would know where it was, I thought maybe some of them might work there on occasion. Basically they just gave me a look like “this gringa is loco” and pointed me towards a young, attractive Anglo type who they thought would be better able to grasp my frantic English gibberish. Luckily, he did, and helpfully gave me very detailed instructions that said I had to go several miles west on Killingsworth, past Interstate, past Denver, right next to the Beaterville Cafe (yes, I’ve heard of it, no, I did not know where it was.) It obviously dawned on me at this time, I was no where near the right area, that Killingsworth was a street divided by N. and NE, and I was at least 40 blocks off-course. By now it was reservation time, so I was not a happy camper.

Back in my car, traveling  up Killingsworth what seemed about a million miles, past MLK, past PCC Cascade, past Interstate, it now dawning on me that yes, there could be restaurants around here too, as there was a college campus not too far away, light rail, New Seasons, all sorts of development in this area as well as in the NE Killingsworth area. Finally, I passed Denver and saw a shining landmark along the street to identify that I must be near, David’s SUV, with a parking space behind. I parked, got out, and it immediately started to pelt cold rain. Going about two houses west from where I parked, I realized I still didn’t know where the restaurant was, and I was getting really wet. There was an intersection behind me, so I ran back that way, still finding no Mextiza. I finally ran into an acupuncture clinic that was still open, pathetically whining, “where’s Mextiza?” They told me it was almost two blocks west, so I jumped back in my car, now all sodden, and headed that way (yes, I know I probably should have walked, but the rain was pounding.) About a block up the road, there it was, relatively easy to spot, as it had a decent sign and there’s a new bar that shares the converted garage space right next door (The Old Gold.)  No parking of course, so up the really janky little alley to park, a two way “street” with barely enough room for traffic in one direction with the cars parked along the way.. One nice thing about the street being so tiny though, even in the dark and pouring rain I could spot Sam and Cora coming down the street in the a la Hennamobile, obviously also late, lost, and disoriented. Unfortunately, our last M.I.A. eater, Gina, whom we have not seen for many moons, got frustrated with her lateness, much traffic, and the fact that she also could not find the restaurant at 21st and NE Killingsworth, so she never arrived at all, finally giving up and going home.

Well, soaked that I was, at least I was the earliest of the really late people (especially compared to those who did not show up at all.) Sam and Cora didn’t even have the advantage of knowing where Autentica was to ask for directions, so I don’t know how there ever found it, maybe there was a trail of tortilla chips. IMG_2638Of course the people who had no trouble finding it (those high-tech, new car, know N. Killingsworth kind of people) were not wet at all, and were munching on snacks or sipping sour drinks when we got there, unlike us sopping, frustrated travelers. Michael also had the super-advantage of having walked by the restaurant a month or so before, thinking it looked interesting, so he really knew just where to go. Show-off. (No wonder he remained egg-less! Someday, my old dining friend, your huevos will come.)

Atmosphere wise, Mextiza gives off a completely different vibe than Autentica. Autentica is very warm and rustic, lots of dark wood and rich orangey walls, small but always pleasant (and packed.) Mextiza is nice too, in a really modern way, shiny, high-ceiling, so-so acoustics. I could tell once I sat down and shook -off, that the restaurant might be a little frustrated with all the late arrivals, as they have tables to turn like everyone else who has a busy restaurant, and they really wanted us late-comers to step up to the plate and select some booze.IMG_2643 The specialty at Mextiza is multitudes of fancy and unusual tequilas (in other words “expensive”) so they have this giant list of white and gold tequilas on the beginning of the drink menu that you can get by the shot (the average shot – $13) followed by lots of white and red wines (good for a Mexican restaurant) and then some cocktails as well. The cocktails were a great deal more fancy than your average choice of stirred or blended margarita with the Cadillac option, and they had some interesting combinations going, like drinks featuring chocolate, bitters, and chile together (I think Peter had one of these, and seemed to like it.) Del Maguey Mezcal Vida, molé and chocolate bitters, brown sugar, chile, coconut, cinnamon. I’m not really the sort of person who wants to start off their Mexican meal with a chocolate drink, but unfortunately where we were sitting was pretty dark, and the type on all the menus was small, so I couldn’t actually read the drink menu at all. The waitress made a couple of suggestions though, and I remember seeing on the online menu the cucumber and Aviation gin drink she mentioned, so I went for that. Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal, Agavero, Aviation gin, cucumber and muddled epezote served up. As it happened, there were three of these at our table, and none of us was doing handstands over it. Tracy thought hers was “okay”, I made it through mine, although I thought it tasted a tad weird (maybe the tequila and gin together) and although she found it a marginal amount better after she stirred it a bit, Sam didn’t even make it through hers, she just did not like it.

David had a Margarita, but as he had drank most of it by the time I got there, I don’t know if it was the house margarita, which features eucalyptus, or not. I would not have known what he had at all, if I was not sitting next to him and heard him take the last slurp and comment, “that’s the end of a really sour margarita.” IMG_2639It didn’t sound like a particularly positive comment, like “oooh, delicious and zingy” or anything in that realm, so I’m assuming he wasn’t overly thrilled. That’s the problem with showing up so late as hostess though, I get so flustered to get where I’m going, that when I finally do arrive, I forget all my usual protocol, like handing out dining slips, taking pictures of drinks and starters, and getting comments on drinks, or even knowing what people have ordered. I hate being late, it makes me a BAD hostess and a lousy documentarian of the dining festivities. As per usual, I have no idea what Cora ordered to drink, why can’t I pay attention to this woman? It might be that she often ends up sitting away from me at the table. I’m sure Michael must have started with some drink, but I totally missed that. I think he had a Mexican beer about 1/2 way along though.

The menu at Mextiza is pretty interesting, as it’s not really the kind of Mexican food you see around Portland. Although there was one kind of taco, and a house tamale (and of course tortilla chips and guacamole) everything else tended to use somewhat familiar components made into unusual dishes. The name Mextiza is meant to represent the term “pieces of Mexico”, meaning dishes from all the different regions of the country. The food at Autentica is food mostly from the Guerrero region, where owner Oswaldo Bibiano hails from, and this must be a region that much of the Mexican food here in Portland reflects, as more of the items seem familiar there than those at Mextiza. Also, the menu at Mextiza is quite meat heavy, and while there are a few dishes that you have options on, some not meat, if you don’t eat chicken (like Sam) or you don’t like chicken in Mexican food (like me) you certainly have a great deal less to select from. Another issue, maybe because of long simmering times (????? – guessing here) this is one of those places that tends to run out of certain things early in the evening (if they had them that day to begin with) so if you eat limited animals, not including chicken, and they are out of certain meats, the selection really gets small. Mexitiza seems like the sort of place that would draw its share of non-meat eaters though, as it’s a really hot place to go, as Autentica has always been, so maybe they can adjust some of the menu items to avoid meats (although that would eliminate some of the sauces and all of the simmered meat dishes, much of the menu.) That being said, while I tasted everyone’s food this evening, meat and no meat, neither of the two dishes I ended up with involved meat.

Michael started off with the guacamole starter at his end of the table (maybe before I even got there)  and Tracy and Peter got an order for our end of the table, which is described on the Mextiza menu as: Guacamole Qaxqueno – Creamy Oaxacan style guacamole served with our crunchy house chips.IMG_2624 I know people swoon over avocados in general and guacamole in particular all the time, but neither has ever been anything I’m dying to eat, I don’t detest them or anything, I just never want to order them, the flavor seems so flat. I did notice this guacamole was super-duper extra creamy though, and I heard the guacamole fans at the table exclaim “good guacamole!” Also, the in-house chips were great, thick, fresh, and full of taste. Places like Esparza’s have always made their own chips, and they are even warm when you get them sometimes, but then you take a bite and think “wow, completely so-so!!!!.” These were really excellent though.

They were also a part of the starter David got for the table: Totopos Con Frijol Negro – house made tortilla chips with refried black beans, pickled jalapeno salsa and aged cotija cheese. Although a tad spicy, everyone loved the flavor of the pickled jalapeno salsa, and the whole thing came together really well with the sprinkles of cheese and the delicious chips. It’s always impressive when you can take the simplest of items (chips and bean dip) and make them really delicious by using first class ingredients.

Since their spawn appeared, we haven’t seen much of two of our ultimate Caesar Salad fanatics (Heidi and Julian) but I still had confidence we would get to taste Mextiza’s version of this salad, as David was amongst us (our other Caesar worshiper.) IMG_2627Ensalada Cesar (Tijuana) – Traditional Caesar Cardine romaine salad with garlic bread and queso parmesan. I must say I was a bit surprised to see a Caesar salad on the menu at an authentic Mexican eatery, but it sounds like it must be a specialty of Tijuana (too much gringo influence maybe.) As much as I love Mexican food, after all these years of crazy eating, my digestive system can only take so much abuse at one sitting, so I decided it might be smart to make my starter a salad on this evening, rather than two heavy plates of food back-to-back. I wasn’t sure if the salad and my unknown entree would be enough food though, so I asked the waitress if she thought it would be enough for an average (or my hog-sized) appetite. She confirmed it would be enough, if not too much, as she said the salad, and particularly the croutons, were HUGE!!! (Shades of Davis Street Tavern, and their monster croutons.) The waitress, although tall, seemed to have a tiny waist, so for all I knew it would only be too much if you had a tiny, bird-like appetite. Even in the womb, I’ve probably never been described as having a bird-like appetite (unless condors count.)

Anyway, once the three Caesars same out, everyone was gasping in shock, as they were gigantic, and the “croutons” were the size of a hacked up baguette.IMG_2630 Actually, I think they were a hacked up baguette, which is why the menu refers to them as garlic bread. Usually when you get garlic bread though, it comes on the side, not all mixed in with your salad. So basically, they were crispy pieces of garlic bread, tossed into the salad. Luckily they were only mildly crispy, as a piece of bread this size toasted as firm and crunchy as a crouton would be impossible to chew. With the addition of a zesty dressing and a healthy sprinkling of cheese, these were some tasty Caesar salads. Also, because of their size, the three orders had the whole table covered (too bad Gina never found the place, there would have been enough for her too.)

Since almost everything on the menu was a tad unusual, even though every person who attended was a big Mexican food fan, the waitress had to offer quite a bit of guidance on the food, as no one seemed totally sure what they would like. This issue was compounded by the fact that at least two people had come planning to order the goat that was listed online – Cabrito (Northern Mexico) – Slow roasted goat with potatoes, pinto beans and chile vinegar sauce. To me this sounds gagsome, but for the people who really wanted it, the lack of goat was a major disappointment. IMG_2625I’m sure because goat is still relatively unusual when served in restaurants in our parts (I remember the short lived Callaloo in the Pearl had curried goat) that it’s probably something Mextiza sells a decent amount of, so I’m surprised they didn’t prepare enough so they did not run out before 7:00 PM. Perhaps their goat supplier only provides a limited amount on a daily basis though (we goat lovers can only hope) so that was the issue. I don’t think you can just run out to the nearest Safeway when your goat supply runs low (although they do have some pretty weird meats at Food 4 Less, so maybe they should check there.)

As for the other stuff we ordered, I wasn’t completely sure what was what, but I think I got a relatively complete list by cross-referencing the bill to the menu. Here’s what we ordered ….

Garnachas Veracruzanas Con Tinga Des Res – Fried tortilla with chipotle sauce, topped with shredded beef and potato (This was really good, but spicy, although it oddly had radishes on the top.)

Doraditas – Crispy folded tortilla stuffed with chorizo, potatoes, cabbage, cream cheese, topped with avocado sauce (another item featuring sliced radishes, it looked very similar to the item I’ve listed right above (that I refuse to retype the name of) but was not as interesting without the chipotle sauce

Picaditas Con Rajas (Guerrero) – Sope with poblano strips, spicy sauce, cream and aged cotija sheese

Chilorio (Sinaloa) – Traditional simmered shredded pork in pasilla chile sauce, oregano, and cumin served over house made bread

Cemita Poblana – Traditional sandwich with shredded pork, beef, chicken or sweet peppers with panela cheese, served on our house made egg and buttermilk roll (puebla) (I think this was the last thing that David ordered (with the shredded pork) but by the time it made it to the table he was too full to eat it, so had to take it home for breakfast the next day. This is the exact type of thing I always try to avoid for breakfast, even at one of those wonderful Mexican resort hotel buffets. Just looking at stuff like this in the morning mades me woozy. It sounds like a really good lunch though.)

Chiapanecos (Southern Mexico) Mixed meat tamales: pork and chicken, dried chiles, olives, raisins, eggs and almond pumpkin seed sauce. IMG_2631(I thought about having this, as there’s nothing like a good tamale, and this one certainly sounded interesting, with the olives, raisins, and pumpkin seed sauce. I asked the waitress which of the two items I was contemplating she thought was better, and she recommended the Huarachitos Estilo DF, which is what I had instead. Michael and Peter both had the tamale, and they arrived at the table looking beautiful, wrapped in nice green banana leaves. (The tamales, silly, not Michael and Peter.)  I seem to remember seeing quite a few floating around the dining room, so I would guess it’s a popular item here. I did taste someone’s (Peter’s maybe?) and it was good, but somewhat lacking in the robust flavor of some of the other items circulating around our table.)

IMG_2640Tacos De Costilla – Beef rib meat taco with cilantro, red onions and refried pinto beans (3). (This is another item I considered having, as I love beef tacos, but as a non-cilantro lover, I was worried that the cilantro might be mixed with the meat, so impossible to avoid. This is what Tracy ordered, and she gave me her last bite to sample. Because the filling was rib meat, it was extra tender and rich, and made for a really wonderful taco. If I ever make it back to Mextiza, I would probably order this, with the cilantro on the side.)

Huarachitos Estilo DF ( Mexico City) – Fried oval corn masa with black beans topped with your choice of huevo frito con tuetano, mushrooms, carne asada, fried chicken breast, napalitos, fried cheese or chicken tinga (This is what the waitress recommended over the tamale, and  looking at it, I think other eateries might call this a gordita, or at least it’s very similar. I actually had a bit of an issue with what to have on top, as what I originally wanted, the carne asada, they were out of. IMG_2632At the time I stayed away from the huevo frito con tuetano, as who knows what in the world that is, although it seems now that it must involve egg and fried bone marrow. Mushroom just do not sound right in Mexican food, so forget that option. The waitress kept mentioning the two chicken preparations, but I don’t do chicken in Mexican or Italian. Anyway, I ended up with just the black beans, cheese, and napalitos (cactus) but the whole concoction was very saucy and zesty, and was pretty tasty in the areas when the corn masa stayed rather crispy (the other areas tasted okay, it was just rather soggy.)

Lechon Yucateco – Rotisserie whole pig with black beans, onions, and salpicon- (Cora was one of the goat wanters (I think) so when she had to select something else she was floundering around. She also asked the waitress for advice in deciding between two items, and this was the better of the two choices, according to the “staff.” Cora turned out to be extremely happy with this entree. the rotisserie pig was sweet, tender, and delicious, and the small hunks of meat made a wonderful pairing with the black beans and onions. Certainly one of the best things at the table.)

As per usual with Mexican food, heavy on meat, cheese and beans, everything was really filling, so when dessert rolled around, no one had any interest in sweet treats but Sam (if Glenda is not around, Sam tends to be our dessert stalwart.) IMG_2642Me being me, I always have interest in dessert, but earlier that day I had had not one, but two pastries from the just opened Bakeshop down the street from where I work (the figgy scones are really delicious, and look like cinnamon rolls!) so I had crossed dessert off my list earlier in the day. As a die-hard Desserter though, I know how it feels when you really want a good dessert to finish off your meal, but you are the only one, and the pressure it can put you under. I told Sam if she really wanted some Churros, we could split an order of those (the sacrifices we make for people.)

I thought that was the plan, but it turns out Sam also really wanted the chocolate caramel cake, and ordered that too, so we ended up with two desserts for everyone who wanted some.IMG_2641 I thought these were some of the better churros I’ve had, as they were relatively small and light, so not swimming in grease. You also got lots of them, like 10 or 12. They reminded me of the Mexican equivalent of the little madeleines at St. Jack. For whatever reason (perhaps because the ingredients are plentiful and relatively inexpensive??) all of Latin America appears to embrace caramel desserts, especially Mexico and Peru. As a general rule I’m not thrilled with these desserts, they typically involve “molten chocolate cake” and I’m not a gooey chocolate cake fan. This was certainly the best chocolate caramel cake combo I’ve ever tasted, largely because the chocolate cake had such intense flavor, so chocolatey! Sam adored it, and said her perfect meal at Mextiza would have consisted solely of chocolate caramel cake.

David and Peter both finished their evenings with fancy shots of tequila, $13 each, one silver, one gold, and both allegedly really smooth. After my first journey to Mexico, and embracing the almighty porcelain god, I shy away from too much agave anything, but I suppose it’s nice to have those expensive little glasses of tequila if you want a really special treat. I’ll take my dessert, and they can have their shots of liquor. My waistline is probably worse off for it, but perhaps so are their livers.

I think we all enjoyed Mextiza (except for the drive) and came to the conclusion that it’s probably the most interesting of the fancier Mexican eateries we have in Portland (Nuestra Cocina, Autentica, Trebol, and now Mextiza.) The food is certainly different from all the others, perhaps because if it embraces many different regions of the country, and the ingredients and cooking techniques are really high quality. The waitress gave up trying to turn the table in an efficient manner about 1/2 way through (I think she could tell by all the food we ordered we were in it for the long haul) and was friendly and knowledgeable, and the atmosphere really modern and pleasant. My guess is that they will be rolling up the garage door in the warm months and increasing their capacity by a third or so, as it looked like they had a decent-sized patio area out front. Hopefully when planting season comes, some landscaping will be done on the west side of the building (technically the Old Gold Tavern’s side) as right now the non-landscaped area  there is a gigantic muck-hole that is impossible to navigate if you are parked along the scary alley. Mextiza is already busy, and is sure the be packed when more people hear of it and can figure out where N. Killingsworth is, especially as Autentica is so well regarded, and  Mextiza is a chip off the old block (hey, at least I didn’t say a tortilla chip off the old block.)