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.