We live in an era in which we are grateful when people get the big things right, even if the details are off. Too often these days we find the opposite: well-titled books with little insight, an economy that "grows" but produces nothing of actual value, clever people who lack the deeper qualities of character. In this context it's good enough to have a president who is basically responsible even if he routinely betrays gay people, or a tennis champion who plays with unspeakable grace even as he lets Nike dress him up like a clown. And it's more than good enough that the new El Rayo Taqueria misses a few details while delivering some very good casual Mexican food.
EL RAYO TAQUERIA | 101 York St, Portland | Tues-Sun 11 am-3 pm, 5-9 pm | 207.780.TACO | elrayotaqueria.com
El Rayo has done a nice job livening up a blocky building that once housed a gas station on York Street. The effect is sort of Mexico-meets-art-deco, and both inside and outside are colorful and bright. While the best taquerias out west are a bit grimy, dim, and cave-like — with big ugly squeeze bottles of red and green salsa on the table or counter — El Rayo seems cleaner and more upscale, which is fine. But it makes certain scrappy details, like the little plastic cup for your guacamole, seem out of place. And the green salsa is too hard to find. El Rayo follows established taqueria practice by having you order just inside the door, so that a queue will quickly extend outside. It's good marketing, as are the utilitarian picnic tables out front. The spectacle of people eating and standing in a parking lot on an ugly stretch of road makes you think the food must be pretty good.
And it is. The taqueria staples of burritos and tacos are particularly so. The tacos come on a properly lumpy warm tortilla — good but not quite as good as Loco Pollo's. The fish seemed fresh, and was enhanced by its modest seasoning, diced avocado, and crisp cabbage. The taco might have been a bit tangier, either through more vinegar in the slaw or the addition of a white sauce. A pork taco came with lots of crisp iceberg, which worked nicely with the fattiness of the meat. The little chunks of grilled pineapple were a nice touch. The carnitas was moist and tender if a bit underseasoned, and came with plenty of big, soft, sweet grilled peppers.
The burritos are straightforward, which allows the quality of the basic ingredients to show. The pork version had the right mix of the fatty tender meat with the barely chewy beans and rice. The big tortilla that housed this pleasant mush was perhaps a bit spongy and over-steamed. A thick quesadilla was filled with plenty of mozzarella and jack cheese, and big tender pieces of dark mushroom. The pork chilaquiles offered lots of tender meat and soft queso over the soggy chips. The texture was broken up by crunchy bits of bitter red kale. A salad came with big pieces of grilled chicken, a nice tangy dressing, and lots of chopped cilantro.
With these basic strengths, and margaritas with the tang of fresh lime rather than the chemical taste of a mix, El Rayo should do very well. If they want to work on the details they might start with the guacamole, which lacks zing, looks sad in its little cup, and is not freshly made but rather seems to have sat around to decompose into something too mushy. The crunchy pepitas would be better if they came before your meal, and were saltier with less brown sugar. The chips were warm and crisp on one visit but a touch stale the next. The salsas could be easier to find — by not requiring the assistance of a server (and green salsa was unavailable on one visit, but there the next). But details, schmetails. In getting the big things right El Rayo is more than good enough and certainly the best option in town for this sort of food. Line up now, because that queue is going to get awfully cold in the winter — another detail they might want to consider.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.