At this point, it's become de rigueur for any new restaurant that takes itself seriously to tout its reliance on local and sustainable ingredients. This occasionally permits "feel-good" eating (as opposed to "taste-good" eating), provoking such justifications from the diner as, "Doesn't it feel good to gnaw on this winter salad of greens with the consistency of tarpaulin?" It's true—Portlanders live in a part of the world spoiled by a terrific climate for growing food. Now every restaurant opening its doors smacks you square in the gullet with this fact.
Upscale Mexican restaurant Trébol is no different. Former Higgins sous chef Kenny Hill has taken the local philosophy and applied it to his grandmother's Oaxacan cooking. Upholding the tradition of the cuisine is not the point here, and the menu has some adventuresome twists. As a result, there are many things to admire about Trébol. There are also more than a couple missteps, and some unnecessarily haughty pricing.
Each meal begins with soft tortillas concealed inside a napkin, accompanied by two kinds of salsa. The not-quite-warm tortillas are bland and chewy, and pair better with the robust red salsa than the anemic green one. Starters include the aforementioned green salad, which should probably be avoided until more chewable greens are in season. A plate of five empanadas stuffed with potato and chorizo came with an excellent red mole sauce, but the smoky complexity of the mole did not justify the plate's $12 price tag.
Entrées were equally mixed. A daily special of pork cheeks was absolutely fantastic, with rich succulent meat atop a hearty mix of winter root vegetables; everything was cooked perfectly and each ingredient complemented the others. A similarly themed stew of oxtail and pork shoulder was not as successful, with too many uninteresting flavors battling each other. The chicken and layuda (flatbread) was more coherent and far tastier.
For refreshment, there's a list of tequilas as long as your forearm. The house margarita ($7) was weak in both flavor and punch, and not worth the price, but the tamarind version was bold and sunny. Go during happy hour, when the price drops to $4. A negligible wine list and a couple Fish Tale Ales on tap round out the drinks.
Situated on the north end of the Mississippi strip, Trébol has a tiny outdoor patio that could be great for happy hour in warm weather. Inside it's painted in deep yellows and reds; a TV hangs above the bar. On one visit, surfing footage did nothing to lighten the rustic severity of the room. But on another, the place was made more festive by the lowbrow presence of a cheap B-movie starring masked Mexican wresting legend Santo.
Trébol's waitstaff was effective and friendly, if occasionally enthusiastic to the point of seeming insincere. Each server was clad in a Trébol T-shirt, and the check came with a comment card more befitting a mammoth chain restaurant. These impersonal touches give the place a sleek corporate feel.
Mexican fare can be both comforting and complex, humble and ambitious. Trébol has many of these qualities, and the restaurant's focus on local and seasonal produce is laudable. Still, let Trébol be a lesson to the restaurant scene at large: It doesn't matter how "feel good" your ingredients are when your product is inconsistent and overpriced.