For reasons too boring to recount, I've made many trips to New Mexico. Therefore those familiar with New Mexican cuisine will have no trouble understanding my unhealthy obsession with the green chile—a large, flavorful variety grown and roasted in the southern part of the state. When this particular chile—whose rich earthiness ranges in heat from "mild" to "jalapeño on steroids"—is made into a sauce or stew, the angels sing and I float a little closer to heaven. I was so obsessed that any friend flying back from the state was ordered to remain until they had these delicious chiles in tow.
Eventually, for reasons too boring to recount, I stopped going to New Mexico, went through a lengthy withdrawal, and practically forgot about God's favorite chile until two weeks ago when I visited Encanto.
Located on the north side of Lombard's long curve, Encanto is Portland's newest love letter to this delicious and oft-neglected cuisine. Owner/chef Michael Martinez is best known around town for his Saturday Farmers Market food cart, "Perfect Day"—which, like its name, serves up invigorating breakfast burritos that feature the New Mexican chiles of his birth. Last year, Martinez was this close to leaving Portland for his home state when he saw the space for lease on Lombard, and envisioned a new spot that serves somewhat traditional New Mexican cuisine.
Unlike Mexican and Tex-Mex, New Mexican food doesn't focus on gloopy cheese, raw onion, and cilantro—at Encanto, it's all about the chile sauce. There are two varieties, green and red (both made from the same chile, but red is the ripened version). Personally, I favor the green; I salivate for the earthy sweetness of the sauce, and when it's combined with lean pork to make a green chile stew (as prepared at Encanto), my obsession comes roaring back with the ferocity of a freight train. On the other hand, the red (bearing more of a piquant flavor) is an excellent match for the carne adovada stuffed sopaipillas—slow roasted pork prepared in thick red chile sauce, inside a pillowy sopaipilla.
Like seafood, the challenge of creating the perfect chile sauce lies in its freshness, and Martinez has his roasted chiles flown in from Hatch, New Mexico—home of the finest variety. Newbies wanting to get the full effect of these flavors should try the pueblo-style enchiladas, which can be stuffed with either cheese, roasted vegetables, or grilled flank steak, and slathered with this remarkable sauce. (Plus, cholesterol freaks can have it topped with a fried egg—a traditional, albeit heart-stopping finish to a perfect dish.) I went with the flank steak, and was a real jerk about sharing it with my companion, who was just fine with her cordero sofrito: slow braised lamb in a Spanish tomato base, and topped with a mint crème fraîche that deliciously cooled the heat.
When visiting, don't bypass the bar, which serves a landslide of terrific high-quality tequila-mixed cocktails. I flipped for the Eldorado, which muddles lemon and honey with Sauza Hornitos to delightful effect. (And check out the new outside patio, as well as the happy hour and late-night menus, which should be in effect right... about... now.) Obsessions can ruin a person's life—or they can make it that much sweeter. Encanto's an obsession that's worth a return to rehab.