Milwaukie has no shortage of Mexican food, but the options can be overwhelming to an outsider. You might scoff, thinking of Jim Gaffigan's take on Mexican food, content that it's all the same and probably a safe bet no matter where you go. Be forewarned: there's enough variety in Mexican food to have bad Mexican food. There's also enough good Mexican food that you'll miss out if you stick to Cha Cha Cha's.
When traveling off the beaten path in search of one of those quirky, hole-in-the-wall, family-owned joints we Portlanders are so fond of, it can be hard to tell whether the place's oddness errs toward charming or alarming. Not to mention, some places really stiff you on vegetarian options. That's where this little guide comes in.
Head for the hills: Nancy's Bakery and Restaurant
2818 SE Park Ave, Milwauke, OR 97222
In theory, this place is brilliant -- pastries, espresso drinks, and Mexican food are the theme of Nancy's. Who doesn't love those things?
The chaotic service is the first warning sign. On three separate occasions about six months apart, the service was pretty much the same: stand around in the eerily quiet foyer, eventually get greeted by a surprised-looking waitress, stand around a while longer, get seated and notice that you're the only people in the restaurant, order in an awkward exchange with the waiter that makes you wonder if somehow ordering food was the wrong thing to do in this place, wait, eat, leave. If you've just come to the panadería for a latte and a croissant, it's the same routine minus the seating.
Folks patient enough to endure this still may not find it in their hearts to forgive Nancy's sad vegetable burrito consisting of solely of beans and shredded lettuce. It's unfortunate, but there are no truly redeeming vegetarian dishes on this menu. Best to whip up something better in your own kitchen.
"Asparagus farm?" What does that have to do with Mexican food? Listen up, locavores -- this is actually where the food on the menu comes from. Casa de Tamales' produce comes directly from either the Canby Asparagus Farm, or Winters Farm in Troutdale. So give the deep-fried asparagus with chile sauce a try! It may not sound like typical Mexican fare, but it's delicious and, quite literally, "farm fresh."
The restaurant itself has a bizarre vibe, featuring sparkly chandeliers, dolls, antique toys, and other random knick-knacks dangling from the ceiling and hanging off of the walls (but hey, this is the Portland metro area, so it's really not that weird). The place is family-run, and sometimes the service is a little awkward and the dining area is a little bare -- red flags, in most cases, but not here. You can put up with a bit of quirkiness for authentic, good-tasting food like this.
The tamales are always a good bet. They are made in bulk from fresh ingredients, frozen, then steamed in corn husks (which is the traditional way to reheat them). Their tamale menu has special sections for vegan, vegetarian, and dessert tamales. Check out the regular menu for traditional fare with plenty of vegetarian choices. The prices aren't bad, but stop by during happy hour from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. to get a feel for the place at a jaw-droppingly excellent price: tacos are $2.oo (you get about three tortillas with tons of toppings), and margaritas are $3.00 (and pretty strong for the price!).
Casa de Tamales makes the rounds through the farmers markets, and they are regulars at the Milwaukie Sunday Farmers Market (which opens again in May).
(A word of warning: The website states that the store's hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Wednesday and Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday, but I think these hours become "flexible" when business slows down.)