El Rayo Taqueria
101 York Street
El Rayo Taqueria has one thing that most Portland restaurants do not: a parking lot. So although the lot was, for some mysterious reason, filled with City of Portland trucks and tractors, I was easily able to secure a spot. Amid an implacable net of mist and fog, I entered El Rayo Taqueria.
Once inside, I was immediately pleased by the bright décor. El Rayo Taqueria's decorative style—and I intend this in the nicest way—reminds me of a franchise or chain restaurant. By that, I mean that colors, shapes, and other visual themes repeat throughout the restaurant, creating a uniform, tidy, and colorful ambiance. The restaurant even sells merchandise—I spied an El Rayo Taqueria belt buckle in a display case. Moreover, Spanish language education seems to be a key ingredient of this establishment; several signs contained both Spanish and English phrasings. Further bolstering this eatery's flair is a bar where customers can eat lunch while watching the kitchen staff work.
The menu included a good number of vegetarian choices. I was disappointed to see, however, that most vegetarian options lacked protein; by this, I mean that few to none of the vegetarian entrees featured beans and/or rice. For example, the one vegetarian burrito is described as: “Grilled portabello mushrooms, caramelized onions & poblano peppers with salsa.” This sounds delicious, but these ingredients force health-conscious vegetarians to order side dishes. Personally, I sometimes go out for Mexican food precisely because of the protein fix it promises. Don't expect to get that from El Rayo Taqueria.
After waiting in line for a little too long—the cashier seemed confused--I ordered the Tacos Venduras ($3.75), which the menu described as: “Chile dusted grilled vegetables with smoky tomato salsa & pickled onion.” I thought this sounded delicious. I also ordered some rice ($1.50) and a large guacamole ($2.20). I was very pleased that my meal, in total, was around seven or eight dollars.
Then my meal was delivered to me. I must say that I was disappointed—and surprised—by the portions. My taco (singular) was comprised of a store-bought tortilla with about a half a cup of toppings on it. I say a half cup because the veggies were fluffed up—it was probably closer to a third of a cup or a quarter of a cup. My side of rice was also small—about a third of a cup of loose, not packed, rice. Fortunately, the guacamole was sizable—also a third of a cup—but I worried that I would not have enough food to act as a vehicle for this, my favorite condiment. As the friendly runner set these items on the table before me, I said, “Wow. That's small.” With a smile, he asked if I wanted another [taco]. I did want another, but I looked at the line that had formed and the befuddled cashier behind the counter and realized that “another” would be a really long wait. I'll say this honestly: I am not someone who expects super-sized portions. I appreciate a small meal. So for me to say that the servings were small means that they were indeed small. Apparently, El Rayo Taqueria's patrons are supposed to know that the menu is a la carte. No one told me.
The taco itself tasted fine. It wasn't as flavorful as I would have liked it to be—I think I was expecting a lot more of a kick, with the smoky salsa and pickled onion that the menu promised. The rice was fine. It was rice. The guacamole was also okay. I heard diners near me saying, “Mmm, this guacamole is so good!” I wanted to interrupt and point out that it was fine, not “good.” The guacamole's color was a brownish chartreuse instead of bright green, indicating that it wasn't the freshest batch. Furthermore, I think the guacamole could have used more garlic. It was, however, creamy and appeared to be made from actual avocados, which is a good move. That being writ, there is better guacamole to be found in Portland.
After finishing my meal, I started to bus my table. This was no easy task. The trash receptacle and dish depositories were directly beside the long line of customers, and I found that both interpersonal and navigational skills were needed in order for me to successfully clean up as expected. Cords separating the dining area from the line area made this task even more difficult; fellow customers had nowhere to move, as they were cordoned off from the free space. Moving the bussing area would help El Rayo Taqueria with the flow of traffic.
I know from reading other blogs that authenticity is a criterion that many people use to judge a Mexican restaurant or any “ethnic” establishment, for that matter. Some people will claim that a restaurant serves “authentic” Mexican foods, and others will claim that the same restaurant does not. I will not engage in this debate. Yes, I have been to Mexico. I was there for a month, and in that month, I learned that food varies depending on who makes it. Because of this and other travel experiences, I don't believe in culinary authenticity. Chefs vary. Additionally, I enjoy innovation; I will not bemoan an “inauthentic” meal if the chef's interpretation brings new or lively flavor to the dish.
Unfortunately for El Rayo Taqueria, I didn't feel like the chef brought very much flavor to my meal at all. I could have made a far more impressive—and appeasing--meal at home.