Depending on who you ask, Latin American cuisine is poised to happen in a big way, in Portland. Or maybe it’s not. With the newly-opened Taco Trio, the gas station-turned-taco-stand El Rayo, the kimchi-drenched “fusion” tacos at Gogi, and the upcoming entries into the Mexican scene, in the form of Nosh’s new “Taco Escobar” project, and the Old Port’s upcoming “Zapoteca,” Portland seems intent on finally shaking off its iceberg-lettuce-and-cheese-quesadilla reputation, with varying degrees of success. Today, though, we learned the good news: Inexpensive, delicious, authentic Latin-influenced food has been here all along, and you can find it at Tu Casa, in Portland’s East End.
We started with cheese pupusas ($1.75 each), a flat corn masa cake filled with herbs & cheese, and pan fried. The national dish of El Salvador, pupusas are topped with a slaw of quick-pickled cabbage, and as much hot sauce as you can muster. The corn exterior stays fluffy and ever-so-slightly crisped on the very outside, with a warm, soft inside. The texture is similar to the hand-shaped cakes used in a Mexican sope, or like a really tight corn polenta. The crunchy cabbage provides a perfect contrast in texture, and the chewy melted cheese (Oaxaca?) inside bursts through the outside here and there, crisping and browning in the pan.
Next, we tried the taquitos de lengua ($6.95), small soft corn tacos filled with lightly crisped, fried pieces of flavorful beef tongue, topped simply with lettuce, tomato, and cilantro. I was pleased to see Tu Casa was doubling up on its store-bought white corn tortillas, which helped prevent the dreaded “taco-blowout,” where wet ingredients rip through inferior tortillas and end up all over your plate. And with fresh, homemade salsa this delicious, lending fresh vegetable flavor and layers of heat to anything it touches, things could get messy otherwise. This is salsa to apply using a ladle to anything you can find, and it complemented the salty meat perfectly with a freshness that was surprising and delicious.
While the tacos and the papusas were delicious (not to mention head and shoulders better than anything similar in town), it’s the Plato Montanero ($11.95) that I know will get in my head and keep me coming back again and again. The “Mountaineer’s Platter” combines a thinly-cut grilled rib eye, sliced avocado, a fried plantain,and a hard-cooked fried egg, and is served with rice and pinto beans. The rice and beans alone would keep me coming back: wondrously fluffy, cilantro-scented grains with a surprising background heat that comes out of nowhere and keeps you shoveling spoonful after spoonful into your mouth like a greedy street kid. The pintos were delicious, adding a mellow, mildly seasoned contrast to the rest of the dish. The beans were more similar to a frijoles charros than to typical Mexican refried beans, and it was only the attention I was paying to the rest of the dish that kept me from finishing them.
The steak, thinly cut and tenderized to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, is grilled simply. Combine a bit of steak on a fork with a piece of creamy avocado, a slice of the fried plantain, and a bit of the hard-cooked yolk from the egg, and you’ve got a perfectly balanced mouthful of flavor that you’ll keep with you in your mind forever. It’s one of the best things I’ve eaten in weeks, and indeed, may represent one of the best single forkfuls of food you can eat in Portland.
Tu Casa is the kind of place that would be easy to overlook. Tucked on Washington Avenue between a Thai place, a laundromat, and an Asian market, the unassuming little building doesn’t exactly reach out and grab you. And for the uninitiated, the siren call of “Salvadoran food” may not incite a ton of enthusiasm. Though it may be similar to some Mexican dishes you’ve tried, a lot has been cut out that you don’t need: there’s no guacamole that you won’t eat anyway, and a lot of the staples of Mexican cooking are served a tiny bit more simply (though, we suspect, with no less pure lard used in the process). The atmosphere in the dining room may seem a little basic, though spotlessly clean, and the service may seem a bit on the slow side. Try it, though, and you’ll find some of the best cooking of its kind anywhere in the area…and you’ll get in and out for less than ten bucks.