In a stroke of brilliance, the sign says it all: Soup of the Day – Tequila. Could there be a more perfect way to get your attention as you stroll down the South Waterfront on a sweltering summer day? And if the tequila doesn’t get you, perhaps the tacos will.
Welcome to the third year of TD’s Tacos & Tequila in Portland, the pop-up street taco stand situated just outside its parent property, Three Degrees. Sitting mere feet from the river, Tacos & Tequila makes delicious use of its best asset.
Location, Location, Location Large trees frame a view out across the Willamette, with the marina to one side and the Hawthorne Bridge to the other. On a typical Portland summer day, the water sparkles under a clear blue sky as throngs of pedestrians walk the riverfront. With such a view, who could blame Three Degrees’ newly promoted Executive Chef Lauro Romero from stepping outside every chance he gets.
We interviewed Chef Romero back in February, when he was still Three Degrees’ chef de cuisine. If the food was any indication at the time, the promotion was well deserved. To this day, he served up a cauliflower soup that remains among the best we’ve ever had.
Now helming both the restaurant, banquet service and pop-up taco stand, Romero admits to feeling the pressure of added responsibility. “All of the sudden it’s you!” He says, eyes widening, then narrowing as he laughs. “But really,” he says in all seriousness, “it’s now my name on the menu. It’s such a cool opportunity, but it’s also a great responsibility.”
As any truly great leader would do, Romero doesn’t take the credit all for himself, but instead heaps praise on his team. “It’s all on these guys,” he says pointing to the two staff members who normally man the stand, “I can’t do it without them.”
Watching them work, their value to the stand is apparent. Jordan Johnson, who has been with the company for only one month, beams with enthusiasm as he playfully yells to passersby strolling down the riverfront.
“Hey mam, got time for a taco?” He asks a woman walking by.
“No thanks,” she replies, but with a smile.
A group of dragonboat rowers walk by, oars in hand. “Hey guys, I know you had a long day out there on the river, how about a few tacos to recharge?” Johnson asks. They laugh and continue on, but perhaps the seed has been planted. Might they be back tomorrow?
“I love it,” Johnson unabashedly proclaims. “The food’s great and the vibe’s killer. The scenery is amazing and to cook for people and bring a smile to their face…” his voice trails off as his eyes glaze over in the moment, before he snaps back and says with a huge smile, “This is just a great stand we got here!”
Since the summer seems to have started early, TD’s Tacos & Tequila’s timing couldn’t be better. Development is booming on the South Waterfront, and more people necessitate the need for more restaurants, shops and other services. Still, with only 10 seats, you may find standing room only on a busy weekend day, which – in a way – suits the experience Three Degrees is going for.
“The idea behind this is more like a Mexican street taco experience,” Chef Romero explains. “A small group of people out here with the view and a wood fired grill. It’s back to basics, simple ingredients and good people, very casual and very laid back.”
Back to Basics Judging by the experience, it’s not hard to find yourself quickly slipping into a casual or laid back state; a state likely brought on by the Paloma de Tamarindo. Brought before you in a clay cup, mezcal combines with grapefruit soda, lime and tamarind for a truly unexpected taste. Without the tamarind, this would be merely a good drink. Add the tamarind, and it’s elevated to great. There’s a special blend of flavor that will leave you coming back for another sip, or three.
Tacos & Tequila also offers up classic and spicy strawberry margaritas, though Romero cautions to get the spicy strawberry margarita while the getting’s good. “We love strawberries, but we are going to focus on seasonality. There’s going to be menu changes,” he says.
Putting a focus on the fresh, local, seasonal foods is what gives Tacos & Tequila its strength. While Three Degrees has the resources to ensure local, sustainable seasonality, could they extend that to their pop-up taco stand? “Yes,” Romero respond matter-of-factly, and it shows in the food.
The frijoles churros reveal a master’s touch influenced by real home-style cooking. Beans, bacon chorizo, onions, peppers, pico, guacamole and a little queso fresco all make the base for a few strategically-placed pork cracklings. The cracklings aren’t overly dry or brittle and make a perfect foundation for the flavorful dip.
With the dip put away, six tacos provide a wealth of menu choice. From the vegetarian charred king oyster mushroom taco to the tequila-braised pork belly taco, the preparations speak to Romero’s childhood traditions as much as they do to his culinary skill.
“All of the housewives would go to market and buy produce for the week,” he says, “and when they got home there was no time to make dinner. In my town it was kind of tradition to combine all these ingredients and basically call them market tacos.”
The authentic touch shines through. While all the tacos are all individually good in their own ways, a couple of the standouts include the Tecate-braised beef short rib taco with pickled cabbage, tomatillo and ochoa fresco and the chili-rubbed Albacore taco with cucumber jicama relish and lime crema.
With several near-triple-digit days already behind us, summer is making its presence known, loud and clear. So chances are there’ll be plenty of lazy days spent strolling along Portland’s booming South Waterfront. Just be sure to keep your eyes and ears peeled for a couple of cheery guys offering you some tacos or tequila. Trust us, you won’t regret it.
TD’s Tacos & Tequila is open from Wednesday through Sunday from 12:00pm to close. They can be found on the riverfront side of the RiverPlace development, just outside of Three Degrees and facing the marina.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.