When you live in Portland and you find yourself returning to a certain restaurant within a month or two, it must be offering something that really resonates with you.
You see, it’s so hard to be loyal to one place when you know just around the corner another fantastic place awaits. It’s crazy how many rocking places there are — why overcommit when playing the field is often so satisfying?
But lately, Cruzroom is such a crowd-pleaser that I’ve been twice in six weeks — and everyone who’s been with me agrees.
Cruzroom is just straight up fun.
Admittedly, I was skeptical when my pal Elona first told me about it; any place that calls itself a Taco Lab is treading a mighty fine line with me.
You see, when done well, I think few pleasures surpass that of the simple Carnitas Taco — just a tinch of salt and lime is all that’s needed.
But Taco Lab?
Was this kind of the kind of fusion food that blends different cuisines and consequently does a disservice to them all? Clever, but not satisfying?
(Really, if you’re willing to mess with the almighty taco, is nothing sacred these days?)
Elona (who I trust completely) told me I would love it –and boy did I.
So much so that I returned this past week with other friends. And they loved it too.
Here’s why this place rocks.
First, let’s talk libations.
One intriguing option is something called Dynamic Duo’s.
The menu explains thusly: “Try one of our featured liquor and beer pairings, and save yourself a little money and heartbreaking indecision.”
Here is a pairing of an Elysian Immortal IPA and Burnside Bourbon.
What a staggeringly satisfying combo that was.
Another time there was this.
Two Towns Cider with a Pendleton Blended Whiskey.
It too was perfect; the cider was so refreshing with the various tacos I tried and the whiskey pairing was delicious for sipping at the end of the meal. And at just eight dollars for both, a steal.
Both times I went my friends got a cocktail, and I heard raves on that front, too.
You’ve got to love a drink featuring Eastside Distilling Below Deck Ginger Rum, lime, coconut milk, habanero syrup and one small red T-rex.
Behold the Bangkok.
Or the Te-Kill-Ya, featuring El Jimador tequila, St. Germaine Elderflower liqueur, grapefruit bitters — and a pterodactyl.
Now let’s move on to the food.
I’m a shameless Tater hussy — whenever I see Tots on the menu I have to walk that road.
(Even if it means largely doing it alone.)
Tots a la Cruz are heavily spiced tots covered in a smoked cheddar cheese sauce, guajilla salsa and dotted with tomatoes and green onions.
I would’ve liked the sauces alongside for dipping (heavily doused ones softened as they sat) but truthfully, they were all inhaled so fast that it didn’t matter too much.
Okay, let’s talk tacos.
Priced at 3.50 a piece during regular hours (and each a dollar cheaper during HH), these tacos are far larger than your standard taco, and I’d imagine two (three max!) is as many as you’ll be able to eat in one sitting.
Remember, it fancies itself a Taco Lab, so this is where some interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients come in.
Over the course of my two visits, I think I sampled nine of the fourteen tacos offered — and there are a lot of winners to be found here.
A couple really stood out for me– like these three.
Green Meanie: “Verde pulled pork braised in a tomatillo chili sauce topped with roasted tomatillo-poblano chili slaw.”
And The Jerk: “Sweet/spicy braised chicken topped with fresh mango slaw and fresh cilantro.”
Not to mention the Phuket Part Deux: “Thai braised chicken finished with coconut milk, citrus zest, topped with our peanut slaw garnished with roasted peanuts.”
Wait, there’s more.
Two other stand-outs were The Red Rocket (Carlton Farms pork braised in a spicy red curry sauce topped with a cilantro lime slaw and chicherrones) and The Shia La Beef (Slow braised sweet and sour beef with bok choy and cucumber pickles).
(Only The Forager with roasted cauliflower polenta cake and Bob’s Your Uncle with fish and chips left us wanting).
Were they the best tacos I’ve ever tasted?
Were they some of the most successfully creative ones I’ve tried?
Cruzroom succeeds because it doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not (a serious food restaurant or a pretty bar).
But they do have a combination that works here.
Generous, inventive cocktails using local liqueur priced just right.
Filling, creative tacos that are a fun change of pace.
All served up in a chill atmosphere with a wait staff that’s efficient but laid back.
With no crazy waits. And no huge tabs.
(And no complicated shopping, cooking or tinkering at the bar for you.)
Just Taters and Tacos and Dynamic Duos and little animals atop delicious boozy cocktails.
And sometimes, that’s reason enough to keep coming back.