Restaurant Review

Güero and Chalino Riff On Mexican Cuisine—with Unexpected Results

The Mexican-inspired spots are two of Portland's most anticipated restaurants this year. How do they stack up?

By Karen Brooks July 10, 2017 Published in the August 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Chalino makes art out of chips, salsas, and a halibut ceviche—adorned with shiso leaves, watermelon radish cubes, and oranges.

Image: Michael Novak

Two of Portland’s most anticipated restaurants this year take Mexico as their muse: loosely, playfully, passionately. The similarities end there.

Güero, making the leap from food cart to brick-and-mortar on NE 28th Avenue, celebrates Mexican tortas and healthy “bowls” in a leafy bower that juxtaposes vintage Frida Kahlo photos with a giant sports screen. The place perfectly exemplifies Portland-style optimism: built from the ground up, run by a couple with no chef creds. Off North Williams, Chalino builds from the top down: co-owner Johnny Leach is a former chef de cuisine at Má Pêche in David Chang’s New York restaurant empire. Leach, who calls himself a “quarter-Mexican, half-European mutt,” is going for broke with an idiosyncratic vision—a riff on Mexico City’s cosmopolitan food scene refracted through the lens of local bounty, with a side of “just cooking what we like to eat” attitude. 

Things don’t always work out as expected. So far, Güero’s street-smart kids have clarity and focus to match the room’s endless stream of music—as carefully considered as their torta rolls from a third-generation Mexican baker. Chalino takes more risks, but, alas, it’s a muddle. Let’s dig in.

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Güero's easygoing front room

Image: Michael Novak

My introduction to Güero involves wolf howls, strange voices booming overhead, and a super toasty, Jaliscan-inspired ahogada sandwich, stuffed with carnitas and ankle-deep in an electric tomato sauce. It cartwheels across the tongue like a smiling demon. Between the candles and cacti, the room feels like an expat’s garden shop in the Yucatán jungle. The whole thing is like a David Lynch dream sequence. Turns out, those animal noises are a signature of Chances with Wolves, a New York radio program spinning lost and found music. The cult show is a house obsession, and, like everything here, an extension of young owners Megan Sanchez and Alec Morrison. They live for food and music, and it shows.

The duo initially found inspiration in Sanchez’s Hispanic-Egyptian family feasts and Morrison’s infatuation with New York’s deli culture. In 2012, their Vermont house parties evolved into a tacos-by-bike business, which led to a coast-to-coast exploration of street food in Mexico. In 2013, they moved to Portland and joined the local cart movement, turning from tacos to tortas after meeting baker Felipe Cabrera Hernandez, who still delivers fresh telera and bolillo rolls daily. Güero carries its cart favorites, including a masa-potato torta that puts other veggie burgers on notice. But the newer tortas are the stars: that ahogada and the desayuno (braised beef, fried egg, and chicharrón de queso). 

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Güero’s addictive ahogada torta, stuffed with carnitas and lounging in spicy tomato sauce

Image: Michael Novak

Consistency is still an illusion, and the popular hamburguesa is so drippy it requires a new workout move: napkin lunging. Meanwhile, queries on the mescal selection yield answers like: “I don’t know, I’ve only tried one!” So, they’re still working things out. But Güero already feels like one of those essential Portland spots.   

Chalino’s problems run deeper than early kinks. I admire the kitchen’s gambit: a rules-free, vegetable-forward menu tethered loosely to Mexican techniques and palate. This kind of freedom drives much of Portland’s food scene, for better (anything goes) and worse (anything goes). But Chef Leach’s ambition is hobbled by half-formed ideas and a cold, cinder-block room with a mushy sound system. Tucked on the ground floor of a new development, the space feels one step away from becoming a Quiznos.

The menu kicks off impressively. The house chips elicit X-rated moans. Chalino goes the distance with three salsa options calculated to span the flavor spectrum—a bright, live-wire tomatillo-Thai basil; a sweet oniony roja with a barbecue sauce glow; and a savory peanut-ancho. The menu’s closing argument also convinces: divine devil’s food cake under horchata cream and toasted coconut.

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Chalino chef-owner Johnny Leach prepping dishes at his chef's counter

Image: Michael Novak

What to eat in between? That’s anyone’s guess. The menu has no through-line. Even ingredients on the same plate, however well prepped, often seem like strangers on an elevator.

One minute the kitchen conjures a delightful smoked trout tostada showered with chives and mottled with “deviled egg salsa.” Jewish bubbes everywhere laugh and smile. But it also delivers a “carnitas vietnamita” tostada brandishing enough fish sauce to make Clint Eastwood squint, a situation not helped by limp pickled bean sprouts. No one from either Mexico City or Saigon is leaping to claim this one.

Then comes a stunning halibut ceviche, balancing art and texture, watermelon radish squares and purple shiso leaves, bitter orange juice and fruity heat. It’s everything you hoped Chalino would be. Then, whiplash again. When the beet mole arrives, it’s mostly a beet puddle under cooked beets—all mole flags fly at half-mast. Meanwhile, where fried chicken, overwhelmingly spiced with annatto, fits into all of this is a mystery.

Leach and partner David Haddow have ample tools to dig out of this hole. But first they must figure out, as Güero has, who they are and what we want to eat.

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