Autentica’s $3 Taco
North of the Border
When you think of places where you’re likely to find good tacos, the Pacific Northwest doesn’t exactly spring to mind. Yet Portland has recently registered on the radar of several nationally acclaimed taco connoisseurs, including Robb Walsh, award-winning author of The Tex-Mex Cookbook and longtime Houston, Texas-based food writer. In fact, Walsh was so impressed with what he ate in Portland, which he calls “virgin taco territory,” that he chronicled his conquest in Gourmet magazine last September.
“What blew my mind when I went to Portland was, you order the taco and they take a piece of masa and press the tortilla in the tortilla press and then throw it on the griddle. You guys don’t know how lucky you are!” Walsh says. “Believe me, they aren’t doing that in Mexico. No way!”
So even though we might be a bunch of Left Coast taco-eatin’ virgins, such praise left us hopeful that we could indeed find the holy grail of tacos right here in our own backyard. After gorging on them for more than a month, we stumbled across a taco at Autentica (5507 NE 30th Ave, autenticaportland.com) that was so knee-bucklingly good, we’ll even go out on a limb and claim that for $3, you simply won’t eat anything better—anywhere.
Behold our choice for the best damn taco this side of Tijuana: Autentica’s taco al pastor. —B. Barker
The simpler the tortilla, the better, says Autentica’s chef and owner, Oswaldo Bibiano: “No salt—nothing.” Bibiano makes his tortillas fresh every day by combining water and masa (corn that has been dried, boiled in water, washed with lime, and then finely ground) to create a dough so soft, it dimples when you touch it. Bibiano says that it’s crucial that tortillas be cooked in a pan over a flame, not an electric burner. Cooking over a flame makes for a hotter griddle, which in turn singes these beauties ever-so-slightly, thus imparting a richer flavor.
Tacos al pastor are always made with pork. Bibiano uses a combination of relatively lean pork leg and a fattier cut of pork shoulder or butt. As is traditional with al pastor, Bibiano cuts the meat into small, one-quarter-inch cubes. Any smaller and it would turn into something akin to ground beef—which is what we encountered at other taco joints around town. To marinate the meat, Bibiano
sprinkles it with salt and vinegar, then coats it with a puree of garlic, oregano, black pepper, clove, cumin, chili powder, bay leaf, and toasted guajillo peppers. After sitting in this savory marinade for 24 hours, Bibiano cooks the seasoned meat with just a smidge of olive oil in a steel pan over a hot flame for under a minute, until it’s crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
When customers at Autentica ask for their tacos sans cilantro, Bibiano walks directly to their table with taco in hand and says, “When you take out the cilantro, you’re not going to have the same flavor.” With just a few pinches of chopped cilantro on top, a taco goes from pleasant to downright transformative.
That lime wedge garnishing your taco serves an important purpose. Do not stuff it into your Negra Modelo. “A little drop of lime completes the flavor,” Bibiano says. The acidity helps balance out the spiciness and meatiness of the taco’s filling.
Bibiano uses only diced white onions—not the yellow kind. “Some people use yellow onion, but it’s too strong for tacos,” he says.