Hidden Clandestino Is Portland’s Best New Mexican Restaurant
You might not know about Clandestino. But you will. Since December, the casual, experimental Mexican spot has been quietly making noise inside the walls of Lil’ Dame, a collaborative restaurant space in the former home of Northeast Portland’s iconic Beast/Ripe Cooperative. The vibe is word-of-mouth, underground, and popping with food we want to eat: familiar yet special and parked right in that easy-to-love zone. The mode is dinner only, Mondays to Wednesdays. Already, it’s a must-go situation.
In the kitchen: Lauro Romero, former chef of Mexican-forward restaurant República and recently, a pop-up sensation making cult carnitas for devoted followers and industry folks. Let me put it this way. I was so taken with Clandestino's tuna confit empanaditas—earthy, tender, surprising, raging—that I returned the next night for more.
Roughly a dozen options roam the à la carte list. A simple quesadilla hiding serious technique shares the table with a jewel-like seafood crudo made from aged kampachi, three kinds of citrus, and a dusting of charred corn husk powder. On top: a handful of the kitchen’s cacahuates garapiñados, glorious candied peanuts with crunchy, burnt-sugar exteriors. Whole grilled fish arrives like a beach party: fluffy white tufts of dorado coaxed off the bone, then dispatched with plump frijoles, bright pickled red onions, and a basket of fresh tortillas. Dessert might include natilla, a custard the kitchen thickens not with the usual eggs, but masa. Salsas are a pride of the house, up to four per night, creamy-rich guacachile to a smoky molcajete.
Beverages are as important as the food. Lil’ Dame’s friendly crew opens up allocated Burgundy gems alongside recent releases from buzzy local winemakers. Your somm might be a sweet dude in a sweatshirt enthusing about a 2020 Willamette Valley tempranillo, the one with a demented skull on the label. The name of the wine captures the moment in horror-film font: “You Are Still Alive.”
“Have a taste. It’s seriously good,” he says, grinning. “They’re not serious about the optics.”
The same could be said about Clandestino, part of the evolving Dame Collective, an inspired group of food folks trying to survive in the new world, sharing space, expenses, headaches, and staff. The décor, for now, is wine boxes on the floor, candles on communal tables, with Romero and his trusted posse cooking in the middle. The vibe is one of hanging out in a friend’s kitchen while dinner is being made. On the sound system: Für Elise as Beethoven never imagined it, played furiously on a flamenco guitar.
This is the Portland we’ve been missing, the Portland we hope might return: laid-back, not wedded to preconceptions of what a “restaurant” means. What matters here is good food, good wine, good fun; something genuine, personal, and open to wherever the moment goes.
That Clandestino exists in this space is a case of one door closing and another opening. Late last summer, Romero departed República. A few months later, Naomi Pomeroy ended her 15-year run at 5425 NE 30th Ave. Pomeroy, with Beast and then Ripe Cooperative, helped pioneer Portland’s DIY dining scene, on its own terms. Just up the block from Pomeroy, another risk-taker was evolving: Jane Smith of Dame Collective. Over the years, on nights when her restaurant Dame goes dark, Smith and company have hosted numerous chefs and roving businesses looking to test-drive ideas and build community. Five of the pop-ups have gone on to open brick-and-mortar restaurants.
Expanding into the former Beast/Ripe space was a natural next step. Smith dubbed it Lil’ Dame as a placeholder, but the name has stuck. One of her first moves was partnering with 41-year-old Romero. Together, they hope to throw out the rules and create a new kind of restaurant—interestingly, as Beast once did in 2007. The idea is to do hospitality in a new way, at Lil’ Dame and the Dame Collective as a whole.
“The best nights are like a dinner party,” says Smith. “You trust the cook, you drink what is open, and you have no expectations. When guests give us the reins, that is when the magic happens.”
Already, it’s translating into one of the city’s best food corners. As Clandestino thrums at Lil’ Dame Monday-Wednesday, another vision of Mexican cuisine is going down steps away at Dame, as chef Luna Contreras settles into the dining room with her playful Chelo menu. On Saturday mornings, rocker turned baker Adam Thompson unleashes his Bialy Bird pop-up, where non-traditional versions of the famed Jewish bread rolls rule. Black tahini and chili crisp bialy anyone? Veteran chef and Paley’s alum, Patrick McKee, anchors Dame and gets room to play with fun snacks at Lil’ Dame Thursday-Sunday. The energy is infectious.
It's just a beginning. But three nights a week, Romero can let loose creatively, without the crushing personal and financial pressures that often come along with opening a restaurant. “I think of Clandestino as a place in a constant state of reinvention,” says Romero. “I can just be me, go wherever I want to take it.”
The tiny kitchen has limitations. Romero, who talks with diners while he cooks, almost apologizes that he can’t nixtamalize his own masa. It hasn’t stopped him from making heart-stopping empanaditas, fat with tender gold-and-blue masa. The insides boast wild mushrooms or an excitement of tuna confit, all set over a blazing salsa verde and a rounded peanut morita. A few ideas didn’t work. Smoked trout roe seemed lost on a scallop tostada one night, and pork cochinita was a hair too salty, too dry. But mostly, I could eat this food every day.
The heart of Clandestino is embedded in the name. The idea of being underground or a secret thing speaks directly to a journey to America as an undocumented immigrant. At age 14, Romero, who grew up in Hidalgo, Mexico, jumped the border in search of a different future. Now, after years of working up from dishwasher to executive chef, he’s captain of his own ship.
“I’m fully legal now,” Romero says. “But I still think of myself as clandestino. I wanted to start a conversation about that. I want to inspire people who are like me.” He notes that people from his community often get stuck cleaning and washing dishesCa “Nothing wrong with that,” he says. “It’s honest work. They gave their life for this. But I thought, ‘Why not dream bigger?’”
Luckily for us, he did.
Clandestino x Lil’ Dame, 5425 NE 30th Ave, walk ins or reservations at dame-collective.com.