Portland’s Best Cubano Is Hiding at En Vida PDX

Two industry vets playfully mash up Cuban, Colombian, and Brazilian eats and drinks on NE Fremont.

By Karen Brooks November 10, 2022

En Vida’s medianoche Cubano

A jovial realm of pan-Latin food and drink is percolating at 1303 NE Fremont St. At En Vida PDX, Colombia, Brazil, Miami’s Little Havana, and Portland-style fun mingle freely in snacks, sandwiches, and entrees with industry vet touches. You can find vaca frita, a.k.a. “fried cow” and the pride of Cuba, or a hot dog served the Colombian way, enveloped top to bottom in pineapple sauce, tartare sauce, and crushed potato chips, lots of them. Wines hail from Argentina, Chile, or Uruguay. The vibe is neighborhood friendly, animated by raucous Mexican ska overhead. 

We’ve come, a sandwich-fiend friend and I, on a hot tip from Josh Alsberg, owner of Rubinette Produce: the Cubano is the best in Portland. Truth! En Vida quietly took over the former Acadia space this June and has been turning out a textbook-plus version of the classic ever since. Cubanos are all about texture, proportion, and synergy, and this one delivers on every level. Think ham, Swiss, and yellow mustard sandwiched on crusty bread, then hot-pressed and squooshed into something soulful, with a warm, toasty snap. What makes En Vida’s sing is the roast mojo pork, shreds and chunks cooked with oranges, garlic, and cumin, then crisped and caramelized on the edges to intensify the flavor. The pickles, layered on top, are sweet, tangy, and house-made. 

En Vida owners Victor Deras (left) and Mauricio Prado 

Image: Ryrie Johnson


Two versions are available: the classic Cubano and the medianoche. You want the medianoche. Both sandwiches have the same inner makeup, but the medianoche roll is a little sweeter and softer than a traditional Cuban loaf—and custom-made for En Vida by Portland’s Dos Hermanos Bakery. Before it’s grill-pressed, the kitchen dips the medianoche in a little pork fat to double the pleasure. Take it from Alsberg: “It’s a Cubano on steroids. It’s a mouthful of love.” 

En Vida is something of an autobiography for Mauricio Prado. En Vida’s chef and co-owner was born in Colombia and grew up between Brazil and Miami before later moving to Portland, where he has cheffed around for over a decade. His résumé includes time as the “right hand” to Janis Martin at Tanuki, Portland’s notorious cult izakaya. That would explain the menu’s $15 “omakase style snack bar,” available 9 p.m. to close. The idea: order a drink and get three or four decent-size snacks. “It’s from the Book of Janis,” says Prado. “As long as people are drinking, keep sending them food.” 

Front-of-house duties fall to co-owner Victor Deras, who worked with Prado in the Olympia Provisions restaurant network before the two teamed up to open En Vida. Deras, who is Mexican American and was born in El Paso, doubles as En Vida’s manager and congenial host. 

Mauricio Prado’s abuelita Alcira Gomez Herrera 

Image: Karen Brooks

En Vida’s bar goes its own way. There’s not a drop of vodka in the house. The nine or so cocktails feature traditional South American and Caribbean spirits like rum, pisco, and cachaça. Gin comes from Brazil and Mexico. Deras claims En Vita introduced Portland to aguardiente, the licorice-flavored national spirit of Colombia. “There was no aguardiente when we first opened,” says Deras. “There’s a point of pride in bringing something that didn’t exist here.” You can taste it in Inner Demons, a cocktail with coriander honey and an Herbsaint rinse. Or as part of the $20 “Botanico,” a spirit flight that includes Brazil’s acclaimed McQueen and the Violet Fog gin and Bolivia’s Singani 63, a brandy-like spirit distilled from muscat grapes. 

The 100 percent South American wine list offers glasses for $8–14. “They’re fun and more affordable,” says Deras.  

When he cooks, Prado hears the voices of his late abuelitas, who float among flora in a colorful mural that occupies one entire wall. The name En Vida (“in life”) is inspired by the Mexican poet Anamaría Rabatté y Cervi, whose book En Vida, Hermano, En Vida was a favorite of his abuelita Alcira Gomez Herrera. When he was growing up, he says, she frequently would say, “Do it while you are alive.” 1303 NE Fremont St,