On the way to the restaurant, I realized that I was harboring a few preconceived notions about Taco Escobarr, the new, slick taco place on Congress Street in Portland, recently opened by NOSH Kitchen Bar owners Matt Moran, Jason Loring, and Tom Barr. I realized, too, that these preconceptions weren’t altogether positive. Since the newest entry in Portland’s year-long rush of new efforts to improve upon the Mexican restaurant scene was being spearheaded by the good folks at NOSH, I expected the taco offerings would be anchored by plenty of over-the-top dishes, so-called “stoner cuisine,” where good technique plays second fiddle to layer upon layer of foie gras, pork belly, fried eggs, sriracha, and bechamel. I expected the tacos to be delicious by virtue of their inventive excess, if not necessarily by their appreciation for Mexican taqueria authenticity.
Second was the name. I just couldn’t get past the name. Because, oh, right. It’s a taco bar. Oh, and I get it, because one of the restaurant’s founders last names is “Barr.” And, that thing of how Pablo Escobar, the wealthiest, most bloodthirsty Columbian cartel kingpin and cocaine trafficking drug lord of all time, also totally loved tacos. I see what you did there.
This hit-you-over-the-head theming continues when you walk into the small restaurant space. In addition to the bright, bold green, yellow and blue walls, softened somewhat by plenty of shiny galvanized roofing, exposed ductwork, and curved, Mexican architecture-inspired shapes, the first thing you notice is an enormous luchador, rendered in a heavy comic-book style by artist Mort Todd, punching his way through the restaurant’s brick wall. This wrestling theme continues onto the well-designed bright paper menus, which proudly promise to “BEAT ANY MEXICAN IN PORTLAND.” Subtle, Taco Escobarr ain’t.
The restaurant’s bar takes up the bulk of the inside of the restaurant, making it a great option for a fast lunch. I also imagine the restaurant turns into quite a scene late at night, with customers waiting three-deep for tacos and tequila shots. The drink menu was extensive, offering everything you could hope to compliment your taco order, with several different margarita and tequila options, Dos XX Amber on tap, and some specialty cocktails. I was particularly happy to see a “Painkiller” listed, one of my all-time favorite blends of British rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, coconut milk, and nutmeg. We opted for one of the high-top window seats, where we could spend a leisurely lunch watching the bug-eyed bath salt zombies shuffle by along Congress Street.
The menu is limited, which I was happy to see. Portland suffers from too many places trying to be all things to all people, and it’s refreshing to see a restaurant who isn’t afraid of choosing one thing, and trying to do it very, very well. Taco Escobarr sells just three things: Salads, burritos, and tacos, which come with six different fillings, and three different shell options, as well as a full compliment of salsa ranging from “Red (Mild)” to the spicy “Habanero (Stupid).” Tacos cost just $3 dollars each at Taco Escobarr, which seems like the right price point, especially when you order them three at a time. If you get the same kind of shell for each taco, the combo will set you back just $7.50. I went with Carne Asada, Beef Picadillo, and the Braised Pork, served in one of each of the three different kinds of shells, with a side of “Stupid” salsa and a bowl of guacamole.
As soon as my tacos were set in front of me, my brain began to flash on some of the restaurant’s more thoughtful details that ran contrary to my initial perceptions of the place. Each table held a bottle of both Cholula and Valentina hot sauces, and I had to admit that a restaurant that didn’t view these as interchangeable, was showing much more attention to detail than I expected. The “Stupid” salsa I ordered, served on the side in a covered plastic container, was made of honest-to-goodness habanero peppers, finely chopped, with a little bit of water or vinegar added, just as it’s done in Mexico. Most importantly, the soft, pliable corn tortillas appeared to be handmade, slightly thick with browned, charred spots which, as regular readers know, has been a sticking point for us with every new Mexican restaurant we have tried. It’s such a simple detail that so many places overlook, and I was happy to see Taco Escobarr get it right. As I started in on my tacos, I wondered what other surprises the restaurant had in store.
I started with the Beef Picadillo taco, served in a soft tortilla. This seemed like the most “American” filling, a soft, saucy ground beef, topped with shredded lettuce, diced tomato, cilantro, and crumbled cotija cheese. The beef was interesting, but not my favorite of the three, with strong cumin and chipotle notes. The homemade tortilla stood up to the filling perfectly, never breaking or tearing, and the minced habanero in the spicy salsa added a terrific amount of heat. It was good, but not outstanding; I would eat several of them late at night, after a few drinks, but probably won’t have them again for lunch.
The Braised Pork was served in Taco Escobarr’s “Crispy” shell, which didn’t work well, at all. The pork was beautifully prepared, simmered until falling apart in big, shredded chunks of delicately-seasoned, flavorful meat. The crispy shell was a poor choice for this filling, however; it appeared to have been cooked until soggy and greasy in oil that wasn’t quite hot enough. It never got crispy, and when matched with the moisture from the braised pork, it fell apart immediately. Like the Beef Picadillo, though, it gets high marks for flavor, particularly from the melted queso fresco.
My last taco was the Carne Asada, served in a “puffy” shell. Having never encountered such a thing in Mexico, I wondered what this could be, imagining a flour tortilla, deep fried, like the shell on a chimichanga. Instead, Taco Escobarr’s “puffy” shells are the same corn tortillas, fried in such a way that they inflate and puff up, offering plenty of crunch and a slight chew. This wasn’t particularly thrilling on its own, but what filled the taco was: thick, succulent chunks of delicious charred carne adada, heavily seasoned, with a charred crust on all sides of each piece of meat, giving way to moist, flavorful beef in each bite. Like the others, this taco was topped with lettuce, tomato, cilantro, and more of the habanero salsa. The combination was everything I look for in good Mexican food, offering crunch, charcoal smokiness, heat, and (from the one meager wedge of lime served with the dish), a strong hit of acid to finish everything off. Everything worked in perfect concert, delivering one of Portland’s first great tacos.
The guacamole was similarly successful, with big chunks of avocado mixed with diced tomatoes and onions, and served with chips that were piping hot, crunchy, and flecked with big grains of coarse salt. Everything had a brightness that I really enjoyed, and that is too often missing from Mexican food in New England. I didn’t love every taco that I tried; I’d love to see Taco Escobarr ditch the “crispy” shells, and just serve “puffy” and “soft” versions of their tacos. Next time, I will keep it simple, ordering three Carne Asada tacos, with soft shells, or perhaps even one of Taco Escobarr’s “Kilo Burritos” (could these really weigh 2.2 pounds?), filled with rice, avocado, and beans.
What was most satisfying, though, was to be so pleasantly surprised by a place that I thought I had made my mind up about. I expected more marginal, Margarita’s-style, refried-bean-and-quesadilla, happy hour bottomless margarita soul-sucking sadness, that would perhaps be improved somewhat by the atmosphere and style famous across the street at NOSH. The thinking, I assumed, would be that if the luchador painted on the wall was big enough, and the walls bright enough, no one would notice that the guacamole came from a 55 gallon drum in the back of the kitchen.
Instead, I had it exactly backwards: The food at Taco Escobarr is much, much better than the garish name and art would have you believe. If you can push past the obnoxious cartoons, ignore the triple-pun forced into the name of the restaurant, keep the longhorns hanging above the open kitchen out of sight, ignore the jukebox playing Kings of Leon, and just order a basket of tacos, you will be happy with the results. It’s not “authentic,” but it almost doesn’t matter. Taco Escobarr is cranking out some delicious, inexpensive, mostly well-executed tacos, that show a real knowledge and appreciation of their source material, paired with fiery salsas and simple side dishes. There’s finally a real taqueria right smack downtown, and I look forward to going back.