We’ve teamed up with Travel Portland to highlight a few of the chefs behind Portland’s must-visit Mexican restaurants.
Like many international cuisines in Portland, the options for Mexican fare are layered with complexity. You’ll find popular taquerías with lines that spill out the door and around the corner, plus plenty of region-specific restaurants serving up dishes like birria from Jalisco and Puebla’s mole poblano. Naturally, there are some outstanding chefs in the mix who experiment with traditional foods in nuanced ways, showcasing tried and true classics in a new light while simultaneously honoring and respecting their roots. Here are some of the people and places that makes Portland's Latin American food community so special.
A Space For Culture & Community
The Portland Mercado—a community development initiative that was established by the nonprofit Hacienda CDC in 2013—is quintessential to the city’s Hispanic community and food cart pod culture. The Mercado is a hub for Latinx-owned businesses that serve a variety of regional cuisines to the Foster-Powell neighborhood, from Colombian almojábanas to Costa Rican gallo pintos. In addition to being a food plaza, it’s also a space that nurtures and promotes entrepreneurship. Since its inception, the Mercado has been a central location for the Latinx community and beyond to celebrate their culture, as well as support other small businesses like a meat shop, a grocery store, an incubator kitchen, and more.
From Humble Beginning to Mainstays
Amalia Sierra of Tierra del Sol opened one of the first carts at the Mercado in 2015. “When I started my business, I had to work with the King Farmers Market to source my ingredients,” she says of her early days with Tierra del Sol. Sierra was already working towards business training in Oaxaca before moving to Portland, where she spent time with the Oregon Child Development Coalition to provide family resources for young children. She recalls the struggle of introducing locals to Oaxacan tlayudas with the help of her daughter in 2013, passing out samples at that farmers market. “In Oaxaca we typically serve tlayudas as a closed tortilla, similar to a quesadilla, but to make it more popular we changed the look to be open faced, and full of lots of vegetables so that it looked prettier for customers.” Since then, Sierra has purchased her own larger food truck after outgrowing the truck she’d originally rented from the Mercado, along with a second location in Montavilla. Portland’s adventurous palate has helped Tierra del Sol become a fixture in the Mercado. “[My customers] are very open to trying new things like my tlayudas and moles, and they like to hear what I have to say.”
Thanks to the accessibility of food trucks like these, it’s common for small businesses in Portland to test the waters before investing in permanent locations just as Sierra did with Tierra del Sol. This was also the case with Güero, a Mexican eatery that has been serving the Sunnyside neighborhood for nearly a decade. When co-owner Megan Sanchez found a permanent home for Güero just over five years ago—a few blocks away from her original food truck—the business was able to solidify its status as a local favorite for years to come.
Sanchez grew up eating her dad’s tortas (Mexican sandwiches) in her childhood home of Fontana, Calif.; combined with her partner’s time spent around New York delis, it made sense to narrow their focus to tortas with the opening of their brick and mortar. Sanchez’s reaction to seeing more and more Mexican eateries pop up in Portland is “the more the merrier.” She recalls the excitement of seeing Mexican cocktail lounge Nightingale open just a few blocks down the street, and will go out of her way to her favorite Yucatecan spot for panuchos and salbutes.
Forging a Culinary Path in Portland
Despite the countless pandemic-induced closures of Portland food businesses, dozens of others shifted their perspective to view the experience as an opportunity. Many took risks and opened new businesses regardless, including Edilberto “Eddie” Puch of Príncipe Maya. Puch had lived in Portland for over 20 years before finally opening his cart in March of 2021, having moved from Yucatán to the U.S. to help pay family hospital bills. During his time in America, Puch worked his way up in the food world, graduating from dishwashing to cooking in restaurants around the city. He was inspired to bring the cuisine of the Yucatán to Portland while longing for the dishes from his youth, eventually working with his aunt to source the recipes for Príncipe Maya. “I would like to introduce the Yucatecan flavors to the community,” Puch says of the maíz, squash, beans, and chili peppers native to Mesoamerican Mayans. Utilizing local ingredients with imported spices, Puch’s Yucatecan dishes complement the creativity within Portland’s Mexican cuisine. “I love how everybody brings their own talent and flair, and there are so many unique things that the chefs here do,” Puch says.
A longtime member of the Portland coffee community, República co-owner Angel Medina found inspiration through his Mexican travels to Guadalajara and Tijuana, where he spent a portion of his childhood and returned more recently to work with coffee farmers in Oaxaca. The team behind República envisioned a space where they could share the history of indigenous Mexican foods with the Portland community. “There was now a space for people like me,” says Medina, reflecting on their 2020 opening. As Portland’s Mexican food scene continues to expand, República has become a destination for elevated Mexican cuisine within the city. Medina himself is equally excited to witness the ways that other aspiring chefs are approaching Mexican food in Portland. “There’s just so much intentionality there,” he emphasizes. Portland continues to inspire and enlighten diners new to the diversity of Mexican food and cuisines throughout Latin America.