It’s hard to imagine the uphill battle Margaritas faced when it first opened in the late 1980s, in a pre-Fore Street, pre-Hugo’s Portland. Then, Portland’s restaurant scene was somewhat limited to either a platter of fried food at the Weathervane, a very special shawl-wrapped and Liz Claiborne-scented evening at DiMillo’s, or another acceptable-but-hardly-inspiring meal at The Village. A New Hampshire-based Mexican restaurant chain blowing into town, with their imported hand-carved wooden chairs, their handmade Mexican talavera tiles, and their deep-fried chimichangas, was probably serving pretty challenging cuisine for a lot of people at the time, who had been eating smoked Finnan Haddie for 500 years. I like to think that’s how the menu took shape, and how it devolved into an avalanche of melted Jack, tortilla chips, ground-beef nachos, and “Kickin’ Chicken Fajitas,” a menu that seemed less designed to be delicious, and more to appeal to the broadest possible group of people, and to provide an inexpensive, absorbent base for cheap well tequila.
Our first visit to a Margaritas was late last Summer. We were feeling nostalgic about our time in Mexico, and decided that even some Tex-Mex-style Mexican food was just what we needed. We visited the Margaritas on Brown street in Portland, and weren’t terribly surprised by what we found: tortilla chips ground into the wall-to-wall carpet, some dried blobs of salsa here and there, and a happy hour after-work crowd that was definitely there not to thoughtfully sample some of Mexico’s more subtle flavors, but to see how many $12 pitchers of margaritas they could drink in between trips outside for cigarette breaks. We definitely don’t thumb our nose at these kinds of places, and certainly find ourselves eating in them as often as anyone else. A middle-brow Mexican restaurant can fit in perfectly well with a day of running errands, or to console yourself with a crock of hot cheese dip after a bad day; it’s not, however, the kind of place we usually find ourselves getting excited about, when they announce a new menu.
It was with this sense of resignation that we explored the possibilities offered by the new “Taco Temptations” menu, which is being offered at Margaritas until the end of June. The new limited-time menu seemed inspired by real Mexican street food: grilled or stewed meats, lightly topped with fresh vegetables, and folded in tiny corn tortillas, without any melted cheese or sour cream in sight. It’s a refreshing break from the style of faux Ameri-Mex that you see so often, though based on our earlier experience with local Mexican, was one that we approached with some reservations. Could a chain restaurant possibly be delivering any kind of “authentic” Mexican experience? We headed to Margaritas’ St. John Street location to find out.
We started with the “Tuna Taco Appetizer” ($10.99), a combination of seared tuna served with a chipotle cream sauce, in miniature white corn tortillas. This is the kind of dish that can go terribly wrong, where an inventive chef in a tapas restaurant decides to “upgrade” Baja-style fish tacos, and ends up with a mushy, tangy mess that neither references nor improves on the original. Margaritas nails this dish, however: The tuna is expertly seared, with a cool, pink center. The chipotle cream sauce isn’t at all overpowering, with a roasted, smoky spiciness that compliments the fish without masking its natural flavor. The fish is rolled in achiote before searing, for an authentic touch that surprised and tickled us. Achiote is made from the annatto tree, and lends not just a bright red color, but a sweet, peppery flavor to stewed dishes and street food classics, like tacos al pastor. We didn’t expect to see it used in an American chain restaurant, and this attention to detail made us more excited about our next dishes.
Next, we tried the “Chicken Tinga Tacos” ($12.99), a cast iron skillet filled with slow-cooked shredded chicken, braised in a tomato and chipotle pepper sauce. They are served simply, with warm flour tortillas, beans and rice, and a few slices of pickled red onion. This was another detail that proves that Margaritas’ Executive Chef, Martha Leahy, was committed to introducing some of Mexico’s somewhat unseen flavors into their new menu. The sharp tang of the pickled onions, found in many pork dishes in the Southern part of Mexico, provides a nice balance to the intensely smoky chicken. We were also quite surprised at the levels of spice that Margaritas is experimenting with; there is a heat to the Chicken Tinga that probably borders on the uncomfortable for some diners, particularly in New England. The accompanying stewed black beans provided some relief, when the spice became overwhelming. The “Mexican” rice (which we have never actually seen in Mexico) wasn’t a standout; it was the same ketchupy, standard-issue sticky rice with bits of vegetables that you have seen in chain restaurants dozens of times.
We also sampled the “Fried Carnitas Tacos,” a combination of delicious shredded pork, cheese, lettuce, and a very fresh-tasting pico de gallo. This seems, on the surface, to be the most “Americanized” of the new taco offerings, but again, Margaritas surprised us with their attention to detail. Instead of pre-formed Old El Paso taco shells that break and fly apart like giant, flavorless Doritos, Margaritas is actually hand-frying flour tortillas to order, which results in a very light, flaky crunch that holds its shape, even halfway through. I didn’t taste any cheese, but the pork itself was delicious, with light seasoning and an authentic, slow-cooked flavor. Once again, we were surprised to find the carnitas tacos served with a zippy salsa verde, made with green tomatillos and avocado, that added a freshness to the other Earthy flavors of the dish.
Though stuffed to the gills and wondering if we could nap silently in our corner booth with nobody noticing, our excellent server, Beth, persuaded us to finish our meal with the “Sweet Dream Taco,” a dessert concoction seemingly invented by an 8-year-old Mexican street urchin in the midst of a fever dream. A flour tortilla is lightly fried, and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, before being stuffed with cheesecake, and finished with sliced strawberries and a shot glass full of chocolate syrup. It was, for us, the least successful dish of the evening: tongue-itchingly sweet, with a dull chocolate syrup, and synthetic, chemically “cheesecake” filling. It was disappointing only because the other dishes we tried were so thoughtfully designed, with such nods to authenticity. It would have been much nicer to see a dessert that was a little less overblown, like a simple baked caramel flan, or churros with a cup of spiced Mexican chocolate.
Overall, we were very, very pleasantly surprised with the new selections from Margaritas “Taco Temptations” menu. The seared “Tuna Taco Appetizer,” in particular, will get in your head; we can clearly imagine splitting an order at the end of a long workday, with a 22-ounce Dos Equis. Where we expected salty, sterilized interpretations of some of our favorite Mexican street fare, we were delighted to find Margaritas’ versions of some classic dishes, each developed with several nods to the authentic, less-well-known flavors of Mexico. Chef Martha Leahy has found a way to include several of these “real-life” Mexican ingredients in her new tacos, while still keeping them accessible and safe; the result are several new, delicious plates that appeal both to more adventurous eaters, as well as to those who may never have strayed far from the chicken quesadilla.