Nick Zukin is the unrivaled king of Portland-area holes-in-the-wall. On his blog Extra MSG and his food-centric online community PortlandFood.org, Zukin’s opinions about Portland’s lesser-known eateries have inspired a generation of hungry diners looking to break away from the ordinary—and any day now, he’ll be opening his own.
Mi Mero Mole—set to open soon at 5026 SE Division Street—will be Zukin’s first solo restaurant (he co-founded popular downtown deli Kenny & Zuke’s) and will dish up Mexico City-style Tacos de Guisado inspired by his many trips to the capital city. Here, he chats with us about moving into the now-booming SE Division strip, his life-long love of Mexican food, and his favorite Mexican spots in the area (other than his own, naturally).
1. When you were looking for a spot to lease, did you originally imagine the space in the SE Division area?
I didn’t have a specific spot in mind. I had looked at the spot that Oswaldo [Bibiano, of Autentica] is building out for Mextiza over on North Killingsworth. There was a spot on Woodstock I was very interested in, as well as another spot not far from Reed College. I live in the Mt. Scott/Arleta neighborhood, so Woodstock is my closest walking and shopping district. However, I do live in the same zip code – only 5 minutes away – from the spot I chose at 50th and Division. The first year at Kenny & Zuke’s I was working over 100 hours a week and living in Vancouver about 30 to 40 minutes away. I ended up keeping a cot in the office. Being 5 minutes away from the taqueria means I will occasionally see my wife.
I was trying to avoid two areas of town: Alberta Street and Hawthorne. The two streets are already saturated with taquerias, and Hawthorne has Por Que No, which, despite a very different menu, is the place I suspect most customers are going to compare Mi Mero Mole to. The space was too good a deal to pass up, so despite only being one major street away from Por Que No, I decided to go for it. The nice thing is how the neighborhood is blossoming, with spots like The Woodsman Tavern opening.
2. Why Tacos de Guisado? Tell us a bit about your Mexico City food experiences that made you want to bring the local cuisine back to PDX.
I was familiar with tacos de guisado—or at least guisados—prior to my trips to Mexico City. Guisados or guisos are Mexican stews and stir-fries. Many large Mexican supermarkets and carnicerias (Mexican butchers and meat markets) will carry some in the United States, and a decent number of taquerias have one or two. One of my favorite places in PDX, Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon out on the edge of Gresham, specializes in them. But it wasn’t until I went to Mexico City that I realized the variety of guisados available or realized how strong a tradition there was for places devoted to them.
Guisados feature more prominently in Mexico City than any other place I’ve been in Mexico. I think it’s because guisados are really home cooking-style dishes. The people in DF, like other very urban cities, probably don’t cook at home as often and so these fondas and puestos serving a variety of home cooking probably sprung up. I rarely have seen a street stand elsewhere, even in large cities like Puebla and Guadalajara, selling tacos de guisados like they do in Mexico City. Some of my favorite stands in DF sell a dozen or more choices. Other than Super Cocina in San Diego, I don’t know of any place in the United States that really offers the type of variety you would see in Mexico City.
One of the things that will set Mi Mero Mole apart, even from really good places like de Leon, will be the variety. I already have several dozen recipes developed and expect to rotate through* 50 to 100 different guisados* in the first year. I’m focusing on dishes that are common in Mexico that you don’t see here enough and interesting dishes that you would really only find in Mexico—and a lot of those dishes are vegetarian and vegan. Most of the taquerias and taco trucks in the United States focus on simple meat tacos—carnitas, carne asada, al pastor, and the like. If they have vegetarian dishes, they’ll be entirely inauthentic dishes using soyriso or soy curls, maybe some beans and rice, or sautéed chiles. You’d think Mexicans didn’t eat vegetables if you just looked at a taqueria menu, but vegetables feature prominently in guisados. Thirty to forty percent of my menu will be vegetarian or vegan, but authentically so. And the dishes will be interesting and flavorful, stuff like tinga de calabacitas, a stir-fry of summer squash, onions, tomatoes, and chipotle chiles or mushrooms stewed in a sauce of guajillo chiles and cream or scrambled egg and cactus paddle in a bright and spicy tomato sauce.
3. Give us your top five Mexican eateries in the greater PDX area.
Don Camaron (14130 SE Division St.) specializing in mariscos, Mexican seafood, and they do very well with shrimp dishes such as their shrimp empanadas, aguaschile, ceviche, and camarones zarandeados.
Puerto Marquez (1721 SE 122nd Ave.) also specializing in mariscos. They do the best version of pescado zarandeado, a butterflied and grilled fish dish, plus several different very good ceviches.
Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon (16225 NE Glisan St.) specializing in guisados. They always have half a dozen or more stews. Their cochinita is untraditional but addictive and their beans are probably the best in PDX. Excellent tamales and carnitas, too.
Bora Bora Taco Truck (158th & Division) specializing in dishes from Sinaloa. Great Mexican-style grilled chicken, Sinaloa-style beans, and guacamole made with tequila.
Ochoa (943 SE Oak St, Hillsboro) has an extensive menu. Very good salsas and they do an excellent al pastor on the spit on weekends, along with grilled chickens. Best carnitas in Portland.
I’d need another five suggestions just for Woodburn, which is the best concentration of delicious Mexican food in Oregon – easily.
4. Tell us a little bit about the name. Why Mi Mero Mole?
I thought of a lot of different names, this one just worked in so many ways. While people may find it a little difficult to pronounce, it’s relatively approachable and has the word “mole” in it, which most gringos are familiar with and which suggests the kind of food the place will have. It also means, literally, “My Own Mole” and figuratively, “My Thing” or “My Cup of Tea”. Mi Mero Mole is my first restaurant on my own, and it’s also doing what’s my first love, Mexican food. I’ve traveled to Mexico many times, focusing on their culinary traditions, avoiding areas like Cancun and Cabo, instead going to places like Puebla, Veracruz, Merida, Morelia, Guadalajara, and, of course, Mexico City. I own over 100 Spanish-language cookbooks, many rare and regional. I’ve taught Mexican cooking classes at In Good Taste. I’m a gringo, but I was born in California and my parents grew up in California and Arizona, eating Mexican food since they were teens. My mom actually has a story she likes to tell about making chile rellenos and trying to flip them without a spatula, like you might with a pancake. She tossed it so hard it stuck to the ceiling.
Plus, “Mi Mero Mole” allows me to use the acronym “MMM” like in mmmtacospdx.com.
5. A while back you mentioned special bean plans—did that pan out?
Yes! I am going to serve (and sell to-go) Rancho Gordo beans, probably the premiere grower and seller of beans in the country, especially Mexican beans. I don’t believe anyone else in Portland carries them. I’ve been an online friend with Steve Sando, the owner, for years through sites like Mouthfuls Food and eGullet. We’ve been talking Mexican food for nearly a decade now. His beans are fantastic and he’s doing a great service finding heirloom beans in Mexico and preserving them.
5 1/2. So, what’s the latest on the opening date?
We’re pretty much ready to go. Finishing up some painting. But really I just need my seating and tables to be done. So it could be anytime.