El Rayo lets the ingredients shine
By BRIAN DUFF | July 8, 2009
We live in an era in which we are grateful when people get the big things right, even if the details are off. Too often these days we find the opposite: well-titled books with little insight, an economy that "grows" but produces nothing of actual value, clever people who lack the deeper qualities of character. In this context it's good enough to have a president who is basically responsible even if he routinely betrays gay people, or a tennis champion who plays with unspeakable grace even as he lets Nike dress him up like a clown. And it's more than good enough that the new El Rayo Taqueria misses a few details while delivering some very good casual Mexican food.
El Rayo has done a nice job livening up a blocky building that once housed a gas station on York Street. The effect is sort of Mexico-meets-art-deco, and both inside and outside are colorful and bright. While the best taquerias out west are a bit grimy, dim, and cave-like — with big ugly squeeze bottles of red and green salsa on the table or counter — El Rayo seems cleaner and more upscale, which is fine. But it makes certain scrappy details, like the little plastic cup for your guacamole, seem out of place. And the green salsa is too hard to find. El Rayo follows established taqueria practice by having you order just inside the door, so that a queue will quickly extend outside. It's good marketing, as are the utilitarian picnic tables out front. The spectacle of people eating and standing in a parking lot on an ugly stretch of road makes you think the food must be pretty good.
And it is. The taqueria staples of burritos and tacos are particularly so. The tacos come on a properly lumpy warm tortilla — good but not quite as good as Loco Pollo's. The fish seemed fresh, and was enhanced by its modest seasoning, diced avocado, and crisp cabbage. The taco might have been a bit tangier, either through more vinegar in the slaw or the addition of a white sauce. A pork taco came with lots of crisp iceberg, which worked nicely with the fattiness of the meat. The little chunks of grilled pineapple were a nice touch. The carnitas was moist and tender if a bit underseasoned, and came with plenty of big, soft, sweet grilled peppers.
The burritos are straightforward, which allows the quality of the basic ingredients to show. The pork version had the right mix of the fatty tender meat with the barely chewy beans and rice. The big tortilla that housed this pleasant mush was perhaps a bit spongy and over-steamed. A thick quesadilla was filled with plenty of mozzarella and jack cheese, and big tender pieces of dark mushroom. The pork chilaquiles offered lots of tender meat and soft queso over the soggy chips. The texture was broken up by crunchy bits of bitter red kale. A salad came with big pieces of grilled chicken, a nice tangy dressing, and lots of chopped cilantro.
Full Article at The Phoenix
My co-worker and I went to El Rayo back in May, but I got a little sidetracked. Funny story: we actually got the scoop about this new restaurant before it hit the Portland gossip blogs because Kinko's accidentally switched their photocopying order with J's. Lo and behold, when J opened up his box expecting marketing materials, he found architectural plans for "Taco Land." Needless to say, we were disappointed that they went ahead and changed the name midway between construction and opening day.
We met a vivacious, friendly Lorie Dana, the wife of the couple co-owner duo of Lorie and Tod Dana, at the door who oriented us around the menu ordering setup and also dished what her favorite dishes on the menu were. With the open kitchen setup set against the diner bar, we could easily peek through and see chef Cheryl Lewis, of former Aurora Provisions and Cafe Always, cooking away fresh tortillas and wrapping up gorgeous burritos and tacos. See the LiveJournal.com
— El Rayo Taqueria was intended to fill a void in Portland by serving straightforward, good, cheap Mexican food. Two of its four owners, Cheryl Lewis and Norine Kotts, undertook that mission after long careers operating high-end restaurants, most recently as executive chef and dining room manager, respectively, at Black Point Inn two years ago.
Since El Rayo opened the crowds have arrived with open arms and open mouths. ''I think the price point is a huge part of our success,'' Lewis said, with modesty.
If one of the tacos held dry chicken and another had some overcooked fish, the endeavor has resulted in a variety of triumphs, from fat, moist burritos wrapped in the freshest flour tortillas to crisp, perfect quesadillas and an excellent corn tortilla casserole, called chilaquiles, that showed off eloquent chunks of pork.
That naturally raised, Canadian pork speaks to a certain theme of this business -- one Lewis described over the phone after two visits (on one, at least, I was recognized).
''We've done a lot of tweeking with the carnitas. We've brined it, we've salted it. Now it's just salted and braised with orange juice and milk,'' Lewis said.
Given the crowds that have visited, the question became, she said, ''How much can we fit in one pot and have it still be really delicious?'' A batch of guacamole made with 15 avocadoes once a day is now two daily batches, each made with 30 avocadoes.
Perhaps that was why the smooth guacamole ($4.50), mixed with tomato and onion, was emerald green one day and fading olive the next. The prettier version tasted fresher, but both were buttery on the crisp chips.
But first things first. The drinks list offers the tart Tango ($8) made with mango, ginger and lime, and Sauza Hornitos Tequila Silver, distilled from blue agave. Lewis said her liquor distributor told her El Rayo has sold more of that tequila than the whole state of Maine since opening at the end of May. A signature drink called the Snake Bite adds jalapeno, cilantro and lime. The house Margarita with lime juice, squeezed fresh every day, is a good version, leaning away from oversweet.
Nonalcoholic drinks are just as delicious -- one made with cucumbers and mint cooled me down on a hot day, sitting partly outside an umbrella's shade at an outdoor picnic table.
Inside, tall, tiny tables and two narrow counters can be awkward, especially if you feel uncomfortable on one of the tall stools. But the décor is lovely.
The vivid color scheme was inspired by the floor. ''In Sanford's Marden's they had this fabulous orange rubber floor,'' Lewis said. The rest, the cornflower blue wall covered with large white flower-like designs, the hot pink, the cobalt, the glittering ends of bottles stuck inside a barrier between the kitchen and a counter, and the molten glass shades on the hanging lights all infuse the atmosphere with energetic joy. It will be a sanctuary from the bleak landscape come Novembet.
Back to the food. The tacos now come with their small corn tortillas doubled up. That saves the envelope from sure destruction under the assault of chunky pork and pineapple salsita in the al pastor (shepherd style) taco ($3.95), a take on Mexican pork sold from a spit with pineapple rings stuck on top, basting and tenderizing the meat.
Or you can just divide the ample filling and make two tacos to share.
The pescado, with grilled fish, while dry, was good with chipotle sauce and sliced avocado. Verduras ($4.25) could have had its filling cooked longer -- to make the grilled carrots, for example, more tender.
Ranchero sauce is made with toasted cascabel, chipotle, New Mexico and ancho chilies ground up and mixed with tomatoes, onions, and spices, then simmered for two hours. Its dark, meaty flavors haunt the pork in every dish, including the carnitas burrito.
The exceedingly tender tortillas are from Ricardo's Tortilla Factory in Jamaica Plain, Mass., and the corn tortillas are from Lynn, Mass.
Snell Family Farm Swiss chard made the chilaquiles perfect, amid the pieces of softening corn tortilla, chunks of pork, slightly bitter, unctuous salsa verde and the perfect addition of salty cotija cheese, ''Sort of a Parmesan, but moister and crumbly,'' Lewis said.
El Rayo makes kids' burritos with a 6-inch tortilla (bean and cheese, $1.75), and a little quesadilla, too (cheese, $1.25). Kids no doubt love those tall stools.
Desserts with a little flair are devised by pastry chef Tracy Burke. Chocolate pudding ($3.95) heats up with cinnamon, Rice Krispies squares ($2), studded with pepitas, hold their own secret heat, and good key lime pie ($3.95) has a tangy and creamy filling.
Lewis, Kotts and two partners, Tod Dana, owner of Asia West, and Alex Fisher, owner of Planet Dog, are engaged in a long-term plan to demolish the old Popeye's building up the street and build a Mexican dinner restaurant.
In the meantime, and within the next few weeks, the kitchen will start offering specials in order to build a menu for the dinner restaurant to come.
And because of its popularity, El Rayo itself may be enlarged. An Air Stream trailer is undergoing renovation and was intended to serve as a bar area for the outdoor seats, but it could be incorporated into a new addition. Nothing has been decided yet.
N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.
Serves meat, veg options available. Opened in 2009, this casual taqueria serves Mexican food with happy hour specials. Vegetarian options include grilled vegetable tacos, veggie chilequiles, and portabello burrito. Gluten-free options. Sources locally grown ingredients. Free wi-fi. Dog friendly. See The Happy Cow
I'll be the first to admit my logic might be flawed. But here's how I judge the authenticity and originality of a Mexican restaurant in Maine: If my dish is not slathered in jar-style red salsa
and buried under a solid layer of melted cheese, I'm happy.
I want to taste different flavors and spices, not just be overwhelmed by heat and gooeyness.
Using those standards, El Rayo Taqueria on York Street gets high scores. Actually, using any standards.
First, the place gets points for taking over a lonely looking gas station at High and York streets and turning into a festive-looking joint. The outside is bright red and yellow with the hip El Rayo logo done in orange and aqua. Outside, there are colorful picnic tables which afford a view – past some worn industrial property – of Portland's harbor.
Inside, the place is funky and cozy, with bistro tables and stools in the center, plus stools and counters on the sides of the dining room. Stools are the only seating.
When I went around 5:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, the place was packed, but the line moved quickly. The staff handed people menus, then took their orders and asked them to have a seat or wait for takeout. If you chose a seat, you were given a bi-lingual place holder to put on your table. Mine had a picture of the moon – luna.
I ordered chips and salsa ($2.50) and was given those right away. The chips were in a paper bag; the salsa in a plastic container. The chips tasted fresh-baked, and the salsa was not even slightly red. It was a a mix of colors and spices, and the heat was more like a curry – slow and steady – than like a bottle of hot sauce.
For dinner, I sampled a "pollo" burrito ($6.25), a 12-inch flour tortilla wrapped around "citrus and cumin marinated chicken" with guacamole and salsa, plus rice, beans, Monterey jack cheese and crema fresca (sort of like sour cream, but less sour). It was filling and very flavorful. All the burritos come with rice, beans, cheese and crema fresca. They range in price from $6.25 to $6.95.
Portland Press Herald June 18, 2009
From Gluten Free Gus
I’m clearly not the first to report that the Mexican restaurant on the corner of High and York streets, El Rayo Taqueria (http://elrayotaqueria.com), is the best new(ish) thing going. I discovered El Rayo this summer, when it appeared to have really hit its stride, accommodating a big crowd with the plentiful outdoor seating.
The food is simple, fresh and satisfying. The people at El Rayo recognize that sometimes all you want is a fish taco and a beer. In other words, you can actually eat Mexican food without needing a huge nap afterward.
The casual setting has outdoor picnic tables have been covered with a Hawaiian print oilcloth and inside, patrons sit on stools at the counter or small tables. The décor is funky, bright and retro. Being outside at El Rayo on a sunny afternoon puts me in a better mood. And with the portable heaters outside, El Rayo makes outdoor dining a possibility past Labor Day.
Both times I have been to El Rayo, I have been very pleased with my choice. The first time I tried the rice and bean bowl with roasted vegetables ($6.75). elrayo-saladThe contrast of the warm rice and beans and veggies with the cool raw tastes of chopped radish and fresh cilantro was very satisfying. The guacamole ($4.50) is simple and the flavor of the avocado is not compromised by too much lime or salt. The rice and bean bowl and half of the guacamole was definitely a very satisfying lunch. My husband had one Pescado taco ($3.95), with grilled achiote seasoned fish fillet, sliced avocado, chipotle sauce, and a crunchy veggie slaw, and one Carne Asada taco ($3.95), with chargrilled steak with rajas, shredded lettuce, and lime. Both were outstanding.
The second time I went there I ordered the El Mercado Salad ($6.95) – spinach, jicama, toasted almonds, orange slices tossed with sweet peppers, marinated onions and ancho chili vinaigrette. It really did taste as good as it sounds – flavorful but not spicy, fresh and colorful. My only problem was that I secretly wanted two of them… This time, my husband tried the Bistec burrito ($7.50), filled with grilled beef with charred onions, peppers, and ranchero sauce. Paired with a tall Dos Equis, he claimed it took him to higher levels of consciousness.
The service was friendly and attentive and because the restaurant was a little more than half capacity on the late mid-week afternoon we went. There were lots of children around, and even small tables to accommodate the wee ones. My four-year-old opted for an order of local organic applesauce($1.50) and an order of rice and beans ($3.75). Aside from the fact that they don’t traditionally pair well, I was thrilled she finished it and she wasn’t handed a kids menu where the only choices were chicken nuggets or hamburger. There are a lot of options for small appetites and eating outside is a bonus for kids. I think she subconsciously allows us an extra ten minutes to enjoy our food when we pick an outdoor place.
There isn’t a ton of parking and finding a place nearby can get frustrating. It’s no secret that this place is good. Unless you don’t mind crowds, I would opt to try El Rayo on an off-time, like mid-afternoon on a Wednesday. And maybe stay into happy hour, which runs everyday from 4-6. Who can pass up a $5 margarita made with top shelf liquor?
El Rayo is open daily from 11am-11pm.
From The Maine Menu