I‘ve been wondering recently whether a truly “authentic” Mexican restaurant or taqueria would be able to gain any traction in the Portland food scene. For as many “On the Borders” and “Margaritas” as there are (conveniently located on the outskirts of the Maine Mall parking lot, and in the open sore of St. John street, respectively), those restaurants specialize much more in the crispy-fried, sour cream-drenched, ground beef realm of Tex-Mex style Mexican food, which has little or nothing to do with what people are actually eating South of the border. How responsive would people actually be to small, corn tortillas, topped simply with grilled meat, onion, and cilantro?
Taco Trio, which opened today in South Portland, seems intent on exploring that question. The small, unassuming corner location serves up a menu of “traditional” Mexican food, similar to what you would actually find in a corner taco stand in Mexico. Because it was opening day, we will ignore the small hiccups that almost any new business encounters (a shaky ventilation system that left the room full of carne asada-scented smoke, a line out the door being held up by customers with lots of questions about unfamiliar offerings, a few overheard dropped orders, limited tables) and assume that they will be worked out over time. Because this is the restaurant’s opening day, I want to focus entirely on the food, and on the menu.
I ordered six tacos, to get a broad idea of the offerings of the restaurant. Tacos are priced at $3.50 each, or 3 for $9, and come with your choice of 10 clearly homemade salsas, ranging in heat from mild to “very hot.” Each taco is served in a soft corn tortilla, and topped with diced raw white onions and a heaping fistful of chopped cilantro. It’s a fairly self-service affair: You wait for your name to be called, you choose your salsas from the salsa bar, you get your horchata from the gurgling drink dispenser, and you find a table.
The carne asada, a grilled, marinated steak, was flavorful and delicious. Grilled in the open kitchen, it was satsifyingly salty, and only improved by a healthy pour of the salsa arbol, a mildly spicy combination of arbol pepper, tomato, onion, and garlic. The taco al pastor, slices of pork marinated in adobo and pineapple, didn’t bear much resemblance to authentic tacos al pastor, which is tough to pull off in the US, where health code regulations prevent the operation of the vertical roasting spit customary to this dish. The flavors of pastor were all there, if a little subdued; some chunks of fresh pineapple would have brightened and improved this taco. The chorizo taco, mixed with potato, was flavorful but a tad underdone. I prefer my chorizo very crispy, and this was a bit more of a mush. It was improved mightily by the addition of a little of the salsa “borracha,” or “drunk.” The added ancho peppers, garlic, onion, and beer added a bit of a fiery punch, though again, the salsa didn’t seem to live up to its three-star spiciness rating. The barbacoa de cabra, a shredded goat-meat taco, was fatty and lacking in flavor, which was surprising for goat, a meat I always expect to be a little more strongly-flavored. The champinones taco was good, with thick, Earthy slices of mushroom. The puerco en salsa taco was only good; a stewed pork so swimming in juices that it blew out the grilled tortilla it was wrapped in, and made it difficult to eat.
Overall, the presentation of the tacos, in their plastic straw basket, was what I would expect from a taqueria that prided itself on “authentic” offerings, with different flavorful meats topped with onions and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic a throw of cilantro. I was disappointed that Taco Trio wasn’t using homemade tortillas, an easy upgrade to tacos that no one seems to be doing, that is much more suited for soupy fillings. Some wedges of lime would have added some needed acid to the tacos. The rest of the menu looks promising, including quesadillas, sopes (shallow corn masa bowls, filled with meat, beans, queso fresco, and sour cream) and some substantial-looking burritos spied from my corner table, as well as that king of the Mexican sandwich, the torta (meat, beans, and avocado on a soft Mexican bolillo roll).
The pricing was a bit problematic, in a way that I’m not sure how to fix. In Mexico, where tacos are tiny little things, served in small corn tortillas, it’s not uncommon to sit down to five or six (or more) tacos at a time, in the course of an evening spent filling your belly with cheap beer and tequila. In Mexico, that will cost you about five bucks USD. The problem with running a taqueria like that in America is that of expectation. We Americans are used to ordering tacos one or two at a time. If Taco Trio’s tacos were smaller, and priced at around $2 each, many customers would feel gypped by their small tacos. However, $9 for three tacos or almost $20 for six tacos doesn’t really feel right, either. Burritos are also $9.00, which seems high. I don’t pretend to know the answer to how to price Mexican street food staples in the context of the American restaurant business, but something feels off about these prices.
It will be very interesting to see what Taco Trio becomes in a year. On their opening day, they seem dedicated to providing something approaching an “authentic” Mexican dining experience, with a friendly staff, and an appropriately spare dining room. And indeed, it is a treat to see agua de tamarindo within throwing distance of the South Portland Post Office. Already, though, about half the tacos seemed to have their flavors somewhat dialed-back. The salsas, similarly, while clearly handmade and inventive, never bring the heat they promise. Is this an attempt to please every possible type of customer, both those craving “real” Mexican, as well as those who just want a Crunchwrap Supreme on their lunch break but don’t want to drive to Taco Bell? Could the addition of a hard-shelled, iceberg lettuce-topped “Crispy Kickin’ Cool Ranch” taco be far behind?
We will be waiting patiently (and returning over and over for more tortas and tacos) to see which direction Taco Trio eventually decides on, because straddling the line will be impossible. I find myself really, really rooting for Taco Trio, and hope that they will dig their heels in, stand their ground, and wait for their tacos nopales and their barbacoa de cabra to find their audience. I am convinced that it exists.