When TJ and I lived in Phoenix, Arizona, there was a little restaurant about a mile away called Roliberto’s. Located in a sketchy strip mall, on the outside it was nothing to look at, but inside, the most magical things happened in the kitchen: burritos brimming with succulent carne asada and guacamole, tacos and nachos, no sour cream to be found. We ate there when I didn’t feel like cooking, when it was the weekend or just because it was freaking delicious. At one point, TJ had a Mexican coworker whose mom or grandmother made tamales for sale. We’d order fifteen or twenty at a time for a $1 each and when they’d arrive, still hot, wrapped in corn husks in a plastic bag dripping with condensation, we’d gorge on two or three each before freezing the rest. When we left Arizona, TJ went to the Bay Area, and I went to North Carolina. Mexican food wasn’t quite the same in either place. It was, in a word, “Americanized”: meaning not spicy enough, covered in cheese or sour cream and dumbed-down flavors.
Then TJ moved to SoCal, first Chula Vista and then Ventura. Chula Vista is just under 8 miles from the Mexico border, a shorter distance than I currently drive to work one-way. Once, TJ told me that in Chula Vista was the first time he felt like a minority. One night we ate a restaurant where no one spoke English. We ordered by pointing at the pictures on the menu. We drank micheladas and ate a whole Tilapia, head still-on, so good we dug into the meat behind the eyes. In Ventura, TJ found a taco truck, situated in the parking lot of a lumberyard. We would sit at one of the two park benches with tacos or burritos and Mexican Coca-Cola, the southern Californian sun unforgiving, and watch men come and go for lumber.
Now in Portland, we’ve been spinning our wheels looking for authentic Mexican restaurants. We’ve been to dives and family restaurants. Every time, there’s this wonderful anticipation before the food comes. We look for good signs: when the chips are lightly salted and the salsa requires more than one glass of water. And it’s even better when there’s pickled self-serve carrots and onions, and three different kinds of salsa. But still, the food comes and we can see cheese, not queso fresco, but shredded cheddar. And inside the burrito or the taco is salsa or too much beans or too much rice. We leave disappointed. Can someone help us find authentic Mexican food in Portland? We have passion, will travel!