My Mexican friends have long been recommending La Jarochita as the best place to get authentic Mexican food in Portland. La Jarochita (“the girl from Veracruz”) is one of the hundreds of food carts you find around Portland.
Thursday night I was having a drink with my friend Isai, who is a sous chef and hails from Oaxaca, and he started reminiscing about his mother’s cooking. Then he started talking about La Jarochita, which is the closest he can get to his mother’s cooking without visiting his sister who lives in Washington.
So today (on Cinco de Mayo no less), I decided to finally give La Jarochita a try. I headed down to the food carts on southwest Alder Street and found the “La Jarochita 2” cart (the original is on Stark and 5th). I ordered a chicken tostada and a chicken sope, as Isai had recommended, and returned home to try what I have been assured by several Mexicans is the best, most authentic Mexican food in Portland.
I guess it’s good to be reminded from time to time that I am not, in fact, a Mexican.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the food. It was interesting, but I guess one way to define “authentic” in this case is “not adjusted to meet the expectations of gringos.”
First, the idea of an edible plate sounds good in theory, but when the edible plate is a toasted corn tortilla and it shatters when you take the first bite, the reality disappoints. Among the several things I learned from this experience is that nachos are tostadas they broke apart for you and poured into a bowl.
Second, there is a common component of Mexican cuisine I have always disliked, but only now do I know what to call it. Isai was talking about the inappropriate cheeses that are too often served in American Mexican food, like cheddar and jack. He explained that real Mexican food should have Mexican cheeses like queso fresco, queso blanco, and cotija.
I guess cotija is aged queso fresco. It’s the white stuff sprinkled on top of my tostada and sope in the picture. It’s very salty, dry and crumbly.
I don’t like cotija cheese. I’ve encountered it many times before, but I never knew what it was. When Mexican food is adjusted to meet the expectations of gringos, I think they avoid using too much cotija.
I think the chicken and other components might be tasty, but the aggressive saltiness of the cotija was overwhelming, so it’s hard to be sure.
I might try the sopes again, but have them hold the cotija. The tostada didn’t work for me for mechanical reasons, but the sope is served in a softer, thicker tortilla which works better as an edible plate.
I just read that developers want to build another hotel on the block where “La Jarochita 2” stands and where many food carts have been for years, so I guess they’ll all have to find a new place in a year or so.