When I hear about a new restaurant that hopes to specialize in an “elevated” form of traditional Mexican cooking, I am often filled with a fair amount of apprehension. I certainly understand the intent of such well-meaning establishments; that is, to take traditional Mexican ingredients and methods, apply some modern cooking technique and interpretation, and produce new dishes at a premium price, in an upscale setting. What happens much, much too often, however, even in Mexico, is that these enhancements add nothing to the original dish. Unfortunately, many of these reinventions of classic fare lean more toward rather grotesquely-Americanized versions of Mexican cooking, as they might have appeared in an upscale kitchen in the 1980s. Instead of a well-executed 30-ingredient mole, or a pork shoulder that has been lovingly cooked in the ground in banana leaves for two days, you instead are confronted with, for example, sloppy tri-tip chipotle chili tacos with cilantro-scented crema, or tuna tartar taquitos with a side of ranch dressing. These types of dishes don’t innovate on traditional methods, and they certainly don’t elevate the region’s cuisine. Instead, it’s as though Rick Bayless had been forced to cook with the ingredients from a Chili’s restaurant in a Top Chef challenge (brought to you by GLAD® ForceFlex® Tall Kitchen Drawstring Trash Bags).

It was with a fair amount of cynicism, then, that I approached dinner at Zapoteca, Portland’s newest spin on Mexican-influenced cuisine. After a few mildly disappointing runs at “authentic” street food, I was content to get my Latin American fix at Tu Casa, the Salvadoran place in the East End. Occupying the former Siano’s pizza restaurant at the intersection of Fore Street and York Street (Jillian swears she could still detect a faint hint of pizza inside…it must get infused in the brick), the pizzeria has been transformed into a slick, sophisticated restaurant space. The interior is all brick walls and polished wood floors, with soft, punched-tin lighting and some very tasteful Mexican thematic elements. We were greeted at the door by the owner, who welcomed us warmly and sat us at a booth. I had a moment of panic at this seeming clash; the upscale decor didn’t really jibe with sitting in a straight-backed booth, and I wondered if this was a sign of a potential identity crisis.

We needn’t have worried, though, as we were greeted again by our server, who had a perfectly breezy, conversational tone, combined with a well-trained, open-handed service style that was very comfortable, accommodating, and easy to be around. She explained a few of the drink options, including a good selection of Mexican beer (including Bohemia and Pacifico, in bottles), as well as full tasting flights of tequila. I stuck to the draft Dos Equis, as we went through the menu.

The appetizer section held a few pleasant surprises; in addition to the expected guacamole preparation and Jalapenos Rellenos de Queso, (which sounds suspiciously like “Jalapeno Popper”), we were happy to see some local ingredients mixed in, including mussels and chorizo simmered in a white wine broth, a few creative, local spins on ceviche* featuring lobster, as well as crab cake tortas made with Maine crab. We settled on the “Tres Salsas” sampler ($7), a tasting of the three house salsas, and the Queso Fundido con Champinones.

*Unrelated anecdote: Yucatecan Mexicans have an unrelenting love for eating quantities of ceviche that, to my mind, border on questionable taste. I once attended an afternoon party of six or seven husbands in Progreso, a small port town, where we all sat around a plastic table in the sun eating a 24″ aluminum steam tray full to overflowing with a ceviche made of raw white fish, shrimp, and octopus, “cooked” with what must have taken buckets of lime juice. I ate what I thought was a very polite pound and a half of the stuff, before the host of the party looked right at me, and in a deadpan, asked, “What’s the matter? You don’t like fish?” The experience may have provided me with my lifetime allotment of ceviche.

The three salsas were delicious and fresh, if not a tiny bit standard-issue. There was a cool tomato-serrano pico de gallo, as well as a warm green tomatillo salsa, and another warm red salsa Mexicana. While they were all delicious, cooked salsas aren’t my favorite; I look to salsa for brightness, tartness, and heat, and I think many of those characteristics are lost when a salsa is cooked, but that is a quibble that comes down to personal preference. We were pleasantly surprised by the warm, glowing heat the salsas contained; Zapoteca isn’t afraid to use chiles, and we took that as a great sign that the flavor of the rest of our dishes wouldn’t be washed-out to appeal to the broadest number of diners.

The queso fundido was the first example of Zapoteca’s creative approach to Mexican classics. In Mexico, an order of queso fundido in most casual restaurants will bring you a bowl of warm, melted Mexican Manchego that must be attacked quickly and voraciously with scraps of tortilla, because you have only moments before it hardens into a giant, clumped mass. That’s not to say that it isn’t delicious, but a sophisticated dish, it isn’t. Zapoteca approaches the dish a little differently, and it is a perfect example of the kind of care and thought they are giving to the classics. Monterey Jack cheese is slow roasted in their ovens, tossed with several varieties of mushrooms, grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, and a dash of Mexican beer. The result is a dish that is much lighter than traditional queso fundido, (that is, as light as a pan of melted cheese can be), with wonderfully satisfying slices of Earthy, meaty mushroom in every bite, and enough other flavors to keep each bite interesting.

For our main courses, Jillian chose the Relleno de Champinones ($16), a poblano pepper stuffed with mushrooms, jalapenos, tomatoes, roasted pumpkin seeds, and goat cheese. Served wrapped in a corn husk, the pepper had a comforting smokiness, and a mysterious tartness somewhere in the filling that I quite enjoyed. I ordered the Carnitas de Puerco ($22), a combination of shredded, locally-raised pork shoulder with tomato chile sauce, pickled red onions, avocado, and black beans. Where I expected these to arrive as already-assembled tacos, I was very pleasantly surprised to find a platter with the promised elements, served with a basket of warm corn tortillas. Assembling little tiny tacos, a quarter of a torn tortilla at a time, I was delighted by the pork: slow-cooked, shredded, then pushed into a mold and grilled in a hot pan, so that a golden crust formed on the entire surface, only to be broken apart by my fork and scooped up with tortillas. The tomato chile sauce was very pleasantly spicy, the pickled onions added a nice crunch and acidity, and the refried black bean puree was just perfect, topped with a rustic (cotija?) cheese. I would have loved to see homemade tortillas used; the perfectly round shape of our tortillas gave them away, though they were at least three times thicker than normal, falling somewhere between a tortilla and a sope shell. Our waitress let me know that homemade tortillas are in the restaurant’s future, but for now, I think these manufactured versions will do just fine. And, because I am a filthy little taqueria rat, I really, really could have used a wedge of lime to squeeze over the whole thing.

The inevitable success of Zapoteca spells the end of careless, cartoonish, bottomless-margarita kid-friendly Mexican cuisine in Maine. Each dish we tried included an unexpectedly sophisticated, delicious surprise, whether it was in the use of additional ingredients, or in the different way those ingredients were assembled and presented. Ultimately, where Zapoteca succeeds most completely is in its dedication to authentic ingredients, with clever twists and spins that don’t take each dish outside the realm of what it essentially is. Zapoteca is the first “New Mexican” restaurant that we have tried, in Mexico or in the United States, that perfectly delivers on its “new” promise, producing dishes that honor, respect, and appreciate all of the flavors of the originals that inspired them, and sending them off into glorious new directions that you just want to keep tasting, and tasting, and tasting. It’s New Mexican done right, and it plants Zapoteca very firmly among Portland’s best restaurants.

Malcolm Bedell is co-author of the critically acclaimed "Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road," as well as the taco-centric blog "Eat More Tacos," and the junk food-centric "Spork & Barrel." His contributions include Serious Eats, Down East, L.A. Weekly, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post and his food truck, "'Wich, Please," was named "Hottest Restaurant in Maine" for 2015 by Eater. Finally, he finds it very silly to be trying to write this in the third person.


  1. Saw you walk in last night, in the throes of the downpour, and didn’t get to yell “Hey” with a mouth full of ceviche working. Glad to hear you enjoyed your meal as much as we did.

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  2. “What’s the matter? You don’t like fish?” Hahahahaha, I know this situation, it never ceases to amaze me, and it’s always said right after you’ve stuffed that last over the top bite in your mouth with feigned relish, in order to please the crowd, too funny ! Now, that relleno de champiñones I would kill for.

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          1. I did! It’s a heavy dish, but somehow tastes super lite. I’ve decided its made using magic. It’s the only rational explanation.

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    1. Hmmm, I didn’t really notice that. Could it have been in the cheese? I’m not sure, but I don’t think it was cotija, so maybe it was something that lent a sweetness…but I would defer to you in that area.

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  3. We had leftovers that we brought home and I wondered, from the second tasting, if it was the cheese. My first impression of the cheese was that it was Cotija, just based on the fact that it seemed crumbled like a Feta, though not as firm. Now I’m thinking it may have been Oaxaca or Queso Fresco. Either way, I’m going back on Saturday with friends and trying some of the dishes you had.

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    1. It seemed too moist to be cotija, though. I don’t think it was Oaxaca…I am leaning toward some sort of house-made queso fresco. I will be sure to ask next time.

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      1. It didn’t taste like anything. And it just looked kind of gross with the beer and tomato juice on the bottom getting the mushrooms all soggy and a little cheese sprinkled on top.

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  4. OK– We went last night and I left there feeling disappointed– albeit full.

    Perhaps we should have made a reservation? We were cheerfully greeted upon entering and then escorted to possibly the worst table in the restaurant– a high top 2 feet from the bathroom, 3 feet from the bus-service area, and an emergency exit right behind my butt. Seeing the looks on our faces, our server tried to “upsell” us on the table by saying that I had a view of the bar and my boyfriend would have the view of the kitchen. I already felt uptight and crowded before dinner began.

    [As background, my boyfriend and I are foodies. We have eaten all over the world. We have dined in some of the most wonderful dirty dives as well as enjoying meals by world-famous chefs. He sells fish for a living. I have dabbled in the food industry.]

    We each ordered a margarita. We already knew they were served straight-up. They were tasty (I love tequila) but I was underwhelmed. Oh– and with the water glasses and table settings and the cocktail glasses– our already crowded table was starting to shrink.

    Add to this tiny table a beautifully presented cervice with Maine shrimp and calamari. Our server struggled to negotiate how she would fit this as well as the queso fundido in front of us so we could share the dishes. I was surprised that nothing actually fell on the floor, on me, or my sweetie.

    The cervice was refreshing and full of flavor. Just what this dish is supposed to deliver. However, it was nearly impossible to eat. They served it in a martini glass that was nearly impossible to scoop a bite of the seafood/onions/jicima/juice with either the spoon they provided nor a fork without most of the bite spilling onto the plate. I managed to go with an awkward two-handed method of shoveling the food with my fork onto the spoon. The dish was more work than I wanted it to be. I ate in fear of knocking something over.

    The queso fundido was yummy. I ended up eating more of it than my boyfriend since, given the size of the table the only place for the molten dish was in front of me. It did look gross. But, I love cheese and didn’t mind. That said, I have a cheese hangover this morning. I can still feel the congealed cheese in my belly. I’m glad I’ve no plans to swim as I’m sure I’d sink in the ocean!… I think a smaller portion for two people would have been a nice option.

    At this point, we finished our margaritas and moved onto wine. We liked the Vinho Verde and Tempranillo they offered. Again, negotiating the table space was an unsettling juggling act. We were offered more chips to scoop up the rest of our apps, but, I honestly had no idea where our server would have put them. And, knowing we had two meals coming, we decided to not fill up any more than the queso fundido allowed.

    After reading Malcolm’s review, I was sold on the idea of Carnitas de Puerco. Your description of the flavors was spot on. I did find the meat not as moist as I would have liked, but, it was damn tasty. I adore black beans. These were so wonderful that if I had nothing but the beans, I would have been thrilled. My two complaints about the dish? The beans were not piping hot. The greens on the plate looked sad and wilted. I would, however, order this again. I agree that housemade tortilla would have put this dish over the top. OH– and I loved the habanero sauce.

    Now, here is where I got sad during my meal. I am one of those people who, if I’m enjoying my meal I really want the person I’m dining with to enjoy theirs as much as I’m enjoying mine. To my disappointment, my boyfriend described the roasted halibut dish in one word, actually, not even one word… one sound, “Eh.”

    Mind you, he sells fish for a living. He found the cut of fish to be poor and not particularly fresh. To quote him, “The flavor of the dish was decent. The quality of the fish just wasn’t there.” This made me sad for him.

    His dish did look pretty.

    A man, who I assume is the owner, came over to ask how I meal was. We both looked up (our mouths were full) and nodded that it was good. It seems to me that he would have gotten the hint that we were EATING and moved on. He stood there (again, I felt crowded and imposed upon) and explained to me the deconstruction of the carnitas. I wanted to say, “I got it, Dude. Nice job. Now let me eat.” Again, I nodded. I think I said, “Very nice.” He finally went away.

    My BF finished eating before I did. (not unusual) He ordered another glass of wine. It didn’t come. He asked me if he had, indeed, ordered the wine. I confirmed he had. He flagged down our server and ordered again. She was unapologetic about forgetting. (I’d have defended her if the place was really busy. It wasn’t.)

    I suddenly felt rushed when a server bussed his dish and began to bus my tortilla while I still have fork in hand. When my BF asked if I was done with the tortilla, sensing I wasn’t and prompting the server to pause and look at me with a sigh, I simply nodded my head. I put my fork down. I decided that I was finished feeling cramped and rushed.

    The table was finally cleared of all items except for our water and wine glasses. I finally relaxed a bit (perhaps from the margarita, wine, and cheese kicking me into food coma?). When we rejected the idea of desert, our bill was put immediately on the table as if to suggest “Get out.” We didn’t get the “oh– take your time” line that most upscale places might offer guests who were clearly still enjoying 1/2 a glass or so of wine and chatting away.

    At that point, I couldn’t wait to leave. We paid the check and I was, as I began, sad and disappointed. I didn’t feel happy paying as much as we did for an experience that left me feeling as I did…

    I don’t know if we will go back. If we do, I would make sure we sat at either the bar (I like sitting at bars) or at a low table. I realize this place is meant for those wanting a tequila experience. Maybe I’d order a flight or some such tequila straight up, but, pass on the margarita (I appreciate what they are trying to do with the upscale version– I’d simply rather have tequila or wine for my money.)…

    The salad with the fried avocado looked great. I’d want to try that. I might even consider the enchiladas…. But, that is if we do go back.

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    1. Thanks so much for following up with a report of your experience. It sounds like most of the issues were related to service, which would be a real shame. With the exception of the “meh” halibut, though, it sounds like you enjoyed what you ate? Mostly?

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  5. I had the Jalapenos Rellenos de Queso and it was very different from what is called jalepeno poppers. I have only eaten in a couple of authenic Mexican restaurants but after living with Tortilla Flat, Margharitas, Amigos etc. over the years Zapoteca seems divine. I have seen the “high tops” described above. I would never eat at them. On the other hand, I never walk into a fine dining restaurant without a reservation. The mole sauce with my enchiladas was incredibly rich and complex.

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