Over the last two years, Portland’s Mexican restaurant scene has undergone a fairly massive transformation. In just 24 months, it’s as though the city collectively moved past the grim, cynical depictions of South of the Border fare, past the bottomless bowls of melted queso, and beyond fishbowl-sized frozen margaritas. All at once, Portland diners were craving either more authentic fare, or versions of Mexican classics that were more inventive. Owners Tod Dana and Alex Fisher have always been among the first to respond to changing attitudes about Mexican food, first with El Rayo Taqueria, the converted gas station on an underused hillside in the West End that endeavors to deliver taqueria classics, and now with the new Cantina El Rayo, opened right next door.
The restaurant’s interior is hip and sophisticated, exuding Mexican charm without resorting to caricature. There are no mustachioed, bandolero-wearing waiters, or Corona-branded papel picado banners crisscrossing overhead. Instead, attention is given to the details: The dominant texture here is the cool, grey polished concrete that shapes the bar and many of the tables, with the occasional mosaic, and lots of overhead track lighting creating dramatic spots and shadows. It’s the kind of room that you allow to swallow you up, while you sit in the corner drinking round after round of margaritas, not noticing until you try to stand that you may have had one too many.
Jillian: Reading about Cantina El Rayo was like a siren song from another life I’ve lived. There are no late nights on the town these days, no need to soak up tequila with spicy bar snacks, no short skirts and cowboy boots, no twisted ankles in the middle of the street. Walking in for dinner recently, though it was so early servers were still going over the specials, I knew it was a great place to get intoxicated. Not just drunk on liquor, but by the night, where you are so in the moment as to transcend ordinary time.
In spite of our solemn vow to never again let tequila pass our lips, I couldn’t resist Cantina El Rayo’s “Slow Burn” margarita, a multi-layered $9 cocktail served martini-style in a cold glass rimmed with spicy Oaxacan “mystery powder.” The combination of habanero-infused tequila, olive juice, lime, triple sec, and dry vermouth is a complex affair; it starts with a tartness and a brine that puckers your lips, and then kicks you in the back of the throat with a level of heat uncommon in Mexican cuisine in Maine. It’s palate-confusing stuff; your brain can’t quite accept that drinking a cold liquid is making your meal more spicy, rather than less.
The menu is made up mostly of tapas-style small plates, ideal for sharing. We started with an order of the hibiscus pickled deviled eggs ($4), three chilled deviled egg halves piped with creamy egg yolk. The surprise here was in the pickled whites; the jamaica pickling adds not just striking color to the eggs, but a firmness and tartness that provided a wonderful contrast to the yolk. A few rounds of cocktails and deviled eggs would be enough to base an evening around, but we also tried the chorizo fundido, a hot crock of melted cheese and fresh Mexican chorizo, in almost equal portions. Served with a few warm tortillas, the dish reminded me of a warm bowl of spicy liquefied Slim Jims, which you should know I only intend to be completely complimentary. The surprises continued with a bowl of Cantina El Rayo’s version of chicharron, crispy spice-dusted rings of inflated fried wheat flour, instead of the customary puffed pig skin typical in Mexico. They were fine, but not thrilling; once a snack has been invented using crispy pork, it’s hard to imagine wheat as an appropriate substitute.
We tried Cantina El Rayo’s version of pozole ($12), the traditional Mexican soup that pre-dates that country’s conquering by the Spanish, typically made with pork or chicken and nixtamalized corn. Cantina El Rayo’s version is presented not as a soup, but as a tall heap of shredded achiote chicken and braised pork, served with a compliment of sliced radish, jalapeno, and avocado, shredded cabbage, and strips of crispy tortilla. The dish also comes with a small teapot filled with a hot, pungent broth, intended to be poured over the bowl of meat. Though there didn’t seem to be any hominy in Cantina El Rayo’s pozole, there were plenty of other textures, temperatures, and hearty flavors to form a complete dish in a presentation completely new to me. It wasn’t soup, exactly, but it was delicious.
We were equally surprised, though much less impressed by, the chicken stuffed with sausage from the evening’s specials board. Based on the description, we imagined a giant, dinner-sized portion of chicken leg, split and stuffed with chorizo and bathed in achiote. Instead, we received a dish more appropriate for a charcuterie board, a pork rillette wrapped in chicken , which was tasty, but not entirely appropriate for one person to be eat as a meal. It’s a detail that we would have appreciated from our server, who was otherwise friendly and helpful.
Jillian: I ordered the chicken. I was afraid I was being obtuse, but everyone else at the table also imagined the appetizer would be a proper thigh, perhaps a discernible drumstick stuffed with chorizo. I don’t know how the logistics of this would work exactly, but I was looking forward to it and I’m sure my face fell when a room temperature rillette arrived, looking wan on the plate. When you’re expecting a cold, pressed, pretty meat presentation that’s one thing, but anticipating a juicy, rustic, satisfying dish and being served fanned out delicate rounds of poultry and pork was like asking for Javier Bardem and getting Justin Bieber.
The El Rayo Cantina or “ERC” burger ($12) is one of the most inventive takes I’ve seen, in my ongoing mission to find a Mexicanized version of a cheeseburger. Served on a light, buttery brioche bun with a side of house-made crispy potato chips, the chipotle-marinated hamburger patty is topped with lettuce, fried jalapenos, pickled red onions, tomato jam, guacamole, and a fried, crispy round of cotija cheese. The fresh jalapenos, battered and fried until crisp, are sliced so thin that they don’t provide a ton of heat. They contrast beautifully with the tartness of the pickled onions and the tomato jam, and the crunch of the burnt cheese round, with the avocado lending a creaminess that I really enjoyed. Though I normally stand steadfast in opposition to a brioche hamburger bun, it held up fairly well under the weight of the burger’s toppings. The combination of ingredients brings traditional Mexican flavor to the all-American cheeseburger in a really thoughtful, creative way.
Jillian: I could have gone deep and danced all night. I had stamina, like I used to, before babies and boppys and bumbos and bjorns and Sophie the Giraffe colonized our life. I could see meeting friends here after work and accidentally staying until close, making friends and enemies in equal measure. You know those nights that begin with boundless hope and charm and end in a puddle of shame and regret? The possibility exists at Cantina El Rayo to experience an inventive meal, excellent conversation, and a couple of missing hours come morning.
Almost across the board, traditional Mexican dishes are completely reconsidered and reinvented from the ground up at Cantina El Rayo, requiring you to set aside your expectations for the way a dish “should” be. Sometimes, as with the “ERC Burger” or, to a lesser extent, the pozole, this works exceptionally well, combining flavors and unexpected presentations in a way that delights the senses. Even if a few dishes are less successful, the sheer creativity on display in their preparation makes you happy to have sampled them. With the exception of a few dishes that seemed incomplete or too subtle in the face of the “Bigger! Bolder! More!” heat provided by the Slow Burn margarita, Cantina El Rayo is bringing admirable, imaginative new ideas to Mexican cooking and cocktails in Portland. It’s a cool, scenester-filled space that will allow you to enjoy a night out, without requiring you to work a second job to pay the check.