Mexican Fare at El Rayo Cantina
What appealed to me so much about the newly opened El Rayo Cantina is its unyielding charm as a casually elegant venue for inventive Mexican cooking that’s typical of cantina-style fare. Call it Mexican comfort food.
It’s the brainchild of the two chefs familiarly known as Cheryl and Noreen who gave us El Rayo ( the taqueria that shares the parking lot with Cantina), the Portland Lobster Company and countless other start-up kitchens including the fondly remembered Café Always from days long past.
The Cantina is a more dressed up, grown up version of El Rayo, which by no means says it’s stuffy or pretentious. The room is small but attractive, and on the weeknight that I was there, the bar was full with diners in addition to a packed house in the dining room. All together it was a lively, fashionable crowd who usually flock to new restaurants en masse. In this case, I think Cantina will keep pace well beyond its early days.
As a new restaurant I was surprised at how well the wait staff knew the menu, describing the dishes in detail and keeping up a steady service pace. The kitchen, too, was in fine form, never slowing down as the restaurant reached full capacity.
Cantina doesn’t accept reservations but what I noticed is that people were coming in, putting their names on a list and then going next door to El Rayo for drinks until a table became available. Now that’s synergy.
As for the food, from what I sampled there wasn’t a clunker on the menu. There are about a dozen appetizers from small plates like spicy nuts, guacamole, fritters, tequila cured salmon and mussels cooked in coconut milk among other choices.
We tried the corn and jalapeno fritters and hibiscus pickled deviled eggs. The fritters were encased in a delicious batter and the filling was zesty and mildly spicy. The accompanying barbecue dipping sauce complemented it well.
I also loved the deviled eggs, colored from its pickling process in hibiscus. The lighting is low in the room, and the egg whites looked brownish, but in bright light one would have seen that it had red hues.
The selection of main courses was an interesting mix of Mexican fare and Latin-inspired influences. Some of the choices included pozole (braised pork and achiote rubbed chicken), grilled pork chops with a tamarind glaze, seared scallops over an orange avocado-jicama salad, pollo and frijoles (braised local chicken breast) and a cheeseburger creation that sounded terrific: topped with a cotija crisp, fried jalapeno, tomato jam and avocado spread..
We sampled the braised beef and the fish relleno. The Bistec con Café that I had was a braised shoulder of beef rubbed with coffee and cocoa in a bracing tortilla sauce set over velvety polenta. The meat was beautifully prepared and fork tender, and the dark brown sauce, which is sort of a play on mole without the same complexity, was an intensely flavored creation on its own with definite high notes of coffee and cocoa. The polenta was the perfect foil for this sauce-rich dish.
The fish relleno was an appealing dish with its filling of crab and shrimp wreathed in a filet of white fish enlivened by a garlic aioli and an incredibly good side of Spanish rice.
For dessert, my dinner companion and I shared a vanilla flan, which was one of the best I’ve had recently—rich and creamy but not overly sweet as many are.
As for the restaurant’s margaritas, the usual drink of choice in Mexican restaurants, they’re well made: very pungent but a little light on alcohol, perhaps because we didn’t chose one of the premium tequilas available.
Considering the many Latin inspired restaurants in Portland like Sonny’s, Zapoteca, Local 188 and the sundry taquerias, Cantina holds its own without adding redundancy. The cuisine is distinctive, the vibes are cool and fun, and it’s definitely the kind of high caliber casual restaurant that is in short supply in the city.
El Rayo Cantina's website is not up and running yet but they are located at 101 York St., Portland, ME 207-780-VINO
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