One of the great beauties of Portland is that it is recognized and appreciated for being undeniably food centered. Carts and trucks peddling quirky food combinations and authentic ethnic selections line the streets. Hole-in-the-wall restaurants and high-scale establishments alike provide shelter from our signature storms as well as belly-stuffing sustenance that cannot be beat. In such a blossoming culinary environment, comparisons and competition are not only guaranteed, but necessary for maintaining the standards of excellence that we’ve come to expect from Portland food.
None of these observations on the nature of the city’s food are meant to establish my credibility as some kind of professional critic, as that is something I simply am not. I am, however, a hungry young omnivore with working taste buds, an occasional influx of disposable income burning a hole in my pocket, and a hankering to share my unique perspective on what I’ve been stuffing my face with lately. As a relatively recent transplant from Southern California, there are certain families of food that have gone from practically coursing through my veins to being a rarity that I must savor in the golden moments where I’m able to capture them. One prominent example is Mexican food.
Now, this is not to say that good, authentic Mexican food doesn’t exist in Portland, or that all Mexican food in California was perfect; on the contrary, both parts of the country have unsatisfactory examples as well as relatively flawless, ideal versions of the food. However, its proximity to Mexico tends to give points to California in this competition. As long as I live in Portland, I will continue my passionate search for more authentic, higher quality Mexican food, and part of that search will always involve the inexpensive, belly busting, greasy tortilla-swaddled bundles of heavenly joy served in almost any Mexican restaurant: the burrito. In order to put my taste buds to the test, I recently embarked on a three day journey to determine what the best burrito in the Franklin district was based on the general criteria of taste, price range, presentation, freshness, structure, and what each one brought to the table to set itself apart from any other street burrito. Out of six wonderful restaurants, selected based on personal recommendation, popularity, and Yelp rating, with six borderline seductive burritos, here is what I found.
The first restaurant I visited was Los Gorditos (4937 SE Division St), a familiar favorite to most Franklin students as the school is an equal distance away from both of their Southeast Portland locations. The menu item that jumped out as the most unique was their affectionately named Garbage burrito ($8.50). This delightful crime against arteries was “stuffed” (as described by the online menu) with not just one meat, but three: beef, chicken, and a house marinated pork (as well as a generous filling of beans, rice, cheese, sour cream, a scoop each of red and green salsa, onion, and cilantro). As one could anticipate, this ambitious, carnivorous creation packed a distinct punch from the first bite to the greasy collapse of its last bites. It was a sizable beast that on its own was perfectly filling, if not more than that, considering I had to split it with a partner. The tastes and textures of the meats and the rest of the filling combined in a way that was responsible for more of a succulent, juicy bite throughout the eating experience, as opposed to a mushy, overcrowded burrito. Overall, it was more than satisfactory and capable of justifying its higher price point if seen as a luxury burrito, if a little inherently flawed in construction (or, in other words: major leakage).
“This tender, sweet marinated pork dressed with pineapples was like experiencing a technicolor disco club in my mouth.”
The next burrito on my agenda was at Adela’s Food Cart (5299-5201 SE Woodward St), the recently opened restaurant across from Franklin’s Performing Arts Center. The storefront itself is somewhat deceiving, because once you have entered you’ll find that, as the name suggests, it is a food cart directly connected to the building. Here, I ordered the Pastor burrito ($7.00), of which the stand out ingredient was quite obviously the pork al pastor. This tender, sweet marinated pork dressed with pineapples was like experiencing a technicolor disco club in my mouth. On top of this, it was one of the more structurally sound, least leaky burritos I encountered in my adventure, and I was able to fully enjoy the entire package of the burrito all the way through to the last bite. However, this is where the compliments to its structure end, because despite the deliciousness of any of the individual ingredients, the assembling of the burrito itself left much to be desired, with meat and rice panned entirely to one side with beans and vegetables on the other. But this is most likely just a one time dance with burrito disaster, and I was still left very pleased with my burrito experience.
Next in line was something of a gem that some who live further West in the Franklin area may not be aware of: Fernando’s Alegria at the Portland Mercado (7238 SE Foster Rd). Initially, I was intimidated by all the options at the cart, which sports nine distinct burritos as well as a handful of wraps. However, I trusted my gut (and the advice of the wonderful man who served me that day) and ordered the Fernando’s Special burrito ($8.00). While being one of the smallest burritos out of my veritable burrito smorgasbord, it stood bravely against the others. Where the Garbage burrito had a kind of hot, explosive vibe within every bite, and the Pastor a more bright and bouncy taste experience, this burrito had a mellow, warm, and almost fuzzy feeling. While the others had more of a chew to them, Fernando’s had a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth excellence, especially with its more noticeable cheese. The ingredients were blended together quite nicely, allowing for a little bit of everything in each bite. This created a delectable molten flow that, with the addition of jalapeños (unlike the previous two burritos) also left something of a spicy tingling in my mouth that only grew with each consecutive bite. The pricing was acceptable for the overall quality of the burrito, but I wouldn’t advise making it an everyday choice if you’re a penny pincher like myself.
Then came another local favorite, Taqueria Lindo Michoacan (4035 SE Division St). Here, I was advised by the staff towards one of their most popular choices, their Carnitas burrito. One appealing factor of this cart over the others is the amount of variety in each burrito, as every option comes with two sub-divisions of size (Regular or Super) and filling (Basic with rice, beans, onion, and cilantro and Supreme, which adds tomatoes, sour cream, lettuce, and cheese). Naturally, I was drawn to the Supreme option and added this option to my order, but dialed back on the size for the sake of price, settling on the Regular Carnitas Burrito Supreme ($7.00). This long, slim scoundrel of a burrito with a deceptively thin yet chewy tortilla sealed the fate of the white shirt I wore when I went to eat it, as this burrito was incredibly oily. The cheese, both in taste and texture, jumped out here the most, reminding me of its presence in every bite. The addition of lettuce benefitted this burrito, making it one of the more veggie-filled items of the general tour, but otherwise it didn’t stand out much. This was definitely a burrito made for casual eating on the go, as opposed to a sit down meal for someone looking for a burrito to change their night.
Next, I visited Cha! Cha! Cha! (3433 SE Hawthorne Blvd), a local and personal favorite where I purchased the Fundidos burrito ($8.95) off of the Los Originales section of the menu which offers unique and original recipes. This burrito in particular, while not the most authentic, was a delightfully eccentric combination of flavors and textures. The factors that jumped out at me the most was the presence of grilled steak and ham, as well as three different kinds of bell peppers which by themselves made this the most noticeably vegetable loaded burrito of them all. In addition to receiving points for wild, flailing culinary experimentation, this burrito was also the most solidly constructed by far. In one moment of hubris, I found myself tossing it up in the air, and it still managed to hold together. Thanks to this miracle of burrito architecture, the grease was kept extremely minimal, but it was still present in the form of an acceptably small patch at the bottom. However, as much as the taste proved to be very satisfying, the price to substance ratio was definitely the most imbalanced out of all of the burritos, so only spring for this if you’re feeling like a big spender with a small stomach.
Finally, the burrito that stands above all the rest within the bounds of our community, in this writer’s most humble opinion, can be located at a somewhat unassuming food truck called Poblano Pepper (4263 SE Belmont St) at the cart congregation “The Bite on Belmont.” When approaching the counter, I was unusually confident in my choice of burrito, the Chile Verde, which had a label next to its listing on the menu that read, “The Killer!” However, when the order eventually came out of my mouth, I was told that that burrito was unavailable at the moment, and I feared that this would be my first and biggest failure in my food journey. Suddenly, though, the woman behind the counter offered me something even better: a burrito that wasn’t even on the menu yet. And so I present to you, the Cochinita Pibil burrito ($7.00), the smallest but most fierce burrito of all the six, and by far the best. I could tell from the first bite, sinking into the magical combination of pork, refried beans, rice, tomatoes, onions, and a garlic flour tortilla that was perfectly unobtrusive, but still present: nothing short of burrito perfection. My mouth was attacked by a series of localized taste fireworks displays of every color, and soon it was on fire with the aftermath of irresponsible, unchecked fireworks displays: chaos and destruction. This burrito was potentially one of the spiciest things I have ever placed in my mouth, and it hurt to breathe on my own lips well into the hour of recovery that followed. This burrito is a challenge, one that almost beat me despite my best efforts, but I can say with absolute confidence, as someone who is now more burrito than man, that Poblano Pepper’s Cochinita Pibil burrito is the best burrito in our corner of Portland.