Want to know one of the hidden gems of September?
It’s catching up with friends you haven’t seen that much over the summer — and in my circle, that means finding a new place to eat and talking for hours.
Seems like Portlanders scatter hither and yon over the summer; it’s hard to leave the city when it’s so warm and jumping with activity, but vacations beckon, campers go off exploring, and families in other corners of the country are visited — or are here visiting us.
So September is when we start to reconnect. Come the end of August the texting and phone calls from pals start coming in.
“Where you been? Food carts Tuesday?” or “It’s time to celebrate so-and-so’s summer birthday — where should we go?”. That kind of thing.
Think I’m exaggerating? I have gone out four times in the past week (turning down two other invites) and have three more meals out in the next five days alone, and come October I’m sure I will look back on the previous month as a blur of lattes, bourbon drinks and non-stop eating.
I want to show you one of the places I’ve found in my travels this past week.
I’d been wanting to try this Southeast restaurant for a while. The original Taqueria Nueve began in 2000 on 28th with Billy Schumaker at the helm and it was a resounding success. It was a big hit, and much loved.
When the recession hit, however, it was forced to close in 2008 but its loss has been much lamented ever since. A few years back, Eater PDX proclaimed it the most missed restaurant in Portland.
One very successful Kickstarter campaign last year later changed that, and now T9 (as it refers to itself on its Facebook page) is back with both Billy and Brent Richford (another of its original employees) as the new owners, and they seem to have found their groove in their SE Washington St. home (formerly Beaker and Flask).
Let’s start with those margaritas everyone talk about.
There quite a few different versions here but the waitress recommended El Jefe –a top of the line margarita featuring Antiguo Anego, Cointreau and fresh lime. No generic triple sec here — we’re talking the thoroughbreds of the liquor shelf, and Good God, it was spectacular.
Maybe the best margarita I’ve ever had.
We hopscotched across the menu, making sure to begin with one of the recommended starters.
Totopos y Guacamole.
Although we devoured the entire platter piled high with the warm excellent homemade chips, I felt a big conflicted on this one.
At almost seven dollars, I wanted the guacamole to knock me off my feet, but it didn’t; its creaminess lacked a pure avocado punch, and it seemed like it had been thinned with something (tomatillos?), forcing the two to share the stage.
I like heft and chunks in my guacamole, but perhaps there are those who prefer the dippability of this lighter version. Texture quibbles aside, it was seasoned well and the pickled vegetables/jalapenos and eye-popping fresh salsas were a nice touch, too.
Next up, a variety of tacos.
You can’t hear the name T9 without hearing about the wild boar carnitas tacos (and they’ve even started intermittently serving them out of a cart out front) and while reliably tasty, they didn’t leave a lasting impression.
Has my predilection for carnitas and constant eating of them numbed me to an excellent version, or were they just having a poor showing on that particular night? (I suspect the latter as we all three ordered this version and none of us were floored by it.; it was just a tad too chewy and oily for our likes).
One friend’s carne asada grilled steak taco was more tender, and my other pal enjoyed her fish taco with its tangy dressing added to it.
Bear with me people.
Sure, we liked (if not loved) the first couple things, but prepare for a steep trajectory ahead.
I’m about to show you some of the ways that T9 can really shine. Some of the other dishes we tried nabbed our attention and held on tight.
Like the Octopus, otherwise known as Coctel de Pulpo.
A large martini-like glass is brought to the table with a scattering of saltines and corn tostada shells.
How to distribute this spicy tomato-y broth and octopus pieces to all of those at the table?
Generous chunks of the freshest seafood is given kid glove treatment and arrives unspeakably tender.
This unusual dish was tastier than it had any right to be, and all of us would have ordered it again in a country minute.
And then another must do according to our waitress, found in the side dish section of the menu.
The grilled green beans.
Are you familiar with those beans on Chinese menus that come out licked by wok’s intense heat and arrive both tender and crinkled? These were like those, a little smoky from the char but also tangy from a bit of lime and onion (and epazote, the waitress’ best guess).
They were outstanding and I could have eaten a hundred or more of these.
And then for me what was the star of the night.
Ceviche of the day.
Hurray — the day’s special featured fresh Oregon tuna.
Tiny cubes of the freshest tuna was tossed with lime, tomato, onion and cilantro and then served on another of those crispy little corn shells. Avocado crowns this beauty.
Do you know how much I loved this?
We ordered one for the table to share, and then when it came to order entrees, my friends ordered a number of tacos but I ordered a single taco and ANOTHER order of this.
I believe my message was clear: This one was mine, and as much as I love you gals, if you so much as look at my tuna, there’s going to be some serious hair-pulling.
My gluttony felt justified.
T9 — your ceviche is killing it.
No complaints about dessert either — a dense chocolate brownie and ice cream with goat cheese caramel.
And a sparkler for a pal who couldn’t be any kinder, wiser or more loving.
Happy birthday, Lisa!
And T9 — I’ll be back, giving your tacos another chance (maybe at the cart or bar?), checking out your enchiladas and gorging on that amazing tuna ceviche — would you consider selling it to me by the pound?