Ok, its time for an embarrassing confession. As a child of the 70’s who was raised on a steady diet of “Star Wars” movies, books and toys, I somehow got it in my head that the word “cantina” referred specifically to a place where aliens convened to eat, drink and settle old scores with one another. My confusion has its basis in the famous Mos Eisley Cantina scene, the one with the aliens playing jazz instruments and that John Williams instrumental that—even if you are only one-tenth the dork that I am—you’ve undoubtedly heard 10,000 times in your life.
Most likely, some other kid referred to that scene as “the cantina scene” and I just took it a bit too literally (as in “The Cantina” scene). It never occurred to me that “cantina” was not a proper noun, much less that it was just a term used to generically refer to a place where food and drinks are served to us regular old human beings. And while I doubt that I was naive enough—even at that age—to actually believe that the aliens in “Star Wars” were real, any reference to a “cantina” by my parents, their friends or in popular culture would send my imagination spinning.
34 years old nine years old before anyone clarified things for me. But to this day, there’s a small, impossibly nerdy part of me that clings to the hope that I’ll walk through the doors of anyplace branding itself a “cantina” and encounter that youthful fantasy of alien bounty hunters and shitty jazz.
Alas, there are no Wookies, Aqualish or Rodians at Cantina El Rayo (85 York Street, Portland), the sister restaurant of El Rayo Taqueria, with which it shares a parking lot. But there was a burger—dubbed the ERC Cheeseburger—and I, having heard a few things about it, was determined to check it out for myself.
(Oh, but but as long as we’re on the topic of names, I should mention that I’m not entirely sure what the correct name for Cantina El Rayo is. I’ve seen it referred to in all of the following ways: El Rayo Cantina, the Cantina at El Rayo, Cantina by El Rayo and Cantino El Rayo. Even the restaurant’s own web site (which basically consists of just a “coming soon” message at this point) refers to itself by two different names. So, for the purposes of this review, I’ll just refer to it as “El Rayo.”
My visit to El Rayo took place on rainy weekday evening in January. As it was early in the dinner service, I pretty much had my choice of where I wanted to sit. I briefly considered sitting at the bar, but was dissuaded by the tall “director’s chair” style barstools that use swatches of leather for the seats and backing. Like many fat dudes, I’ve a tendency to look at chairs like these, do the math and realize that its not a great idea.
Instead, I opted for one of the more stable-looking bench-style seats just beyond the bar.
Once seated, I took a look at the menu. I was definitely tempted by dishes like the Tamarind Glazed Pork Chop, a Fish Rellano made with crab and shrimp and the Bistec con Cafe. But I had come here for the burger and was determined to stick to my guns. I did decide to order an appetizer and a cocktail—featuring habernero-black pepper-chipotle infused tequila, lime juice, dry vermouth, olive brine and triple sec—called the Slow Burn ($9). The menu notes that the Slow Burn is “served up and rimmed with spicy Oaxaca mystery powder,” which sounded interesting, to say the least.
While waiting for my drink, I admired the decor. With its hardwood floors, tiled bar and subdued lighting, the Cantina has a more upscale flavor than the restaurant next door. The dining room isn’t huge, but windows and a large mirror mounted on one wall add a lot of depth to the area. There are a lot of fun little touches, like the candles and cactus flowers on the dining tables, and—in the restroom—mason jar sconces and a tequila bottle repurposed as a soap dispenser.
Along with my cocktail, my waiter—a friendly guy named Miles who had a great knowledge of the menu—delivered a complimentary dish of wagon-wheel shaped chicharróns. Though the dish is traditionally made from fried pork rinds, El Rayo’s version uses wheat flour—a healthier alternative to pork fat—along with a light dusting of spices. With a taste that reminded me a bit of a more sophisticated version of the Bugles brand of corn chips, the chicharróns were fun to nibble on in advance of my appetizer and entree.
Taking a look at my Slow Burn, I noticed that only about half of the rim had received the coating of “mystery powder.” Wondering if this was deliberate or unintentional, I took my first sip from the coated side and quickly got my answer in the form of a spicy roundhouse kick to the mouth that made my tongue, lips and lungs feel as though they were being liquified. It was one of the dumber things I’ve done in recent memory, and I’m not really any closer to being able to tell you what’s in the powder (though I suspect equal parts uncut cocaine, dehydrated rattle-snake venom and Gary Busey).
It took me a minute or two to recover from my brush with death, but once I did, I found the Slow Burn to be a rather intense-but-pleasurable cocktail. (That said, I’ll admit that I did avoid coming into direct contact with any more of the mystery powder.) I can probably sum up my fascination with this drink by telling you that it is the type of cocktail that made me feel like a Man. So much so that—with the powerful combination of tequila, vermouth and triple sec coursing through my veins and my testosterone surging to Draper’esque levels—I began to entertain fantasies of all the things I’d do with my newfound sense of Manliness. Super macho guy things like performing my own oil changes (maybe someday), getting through a whole episode of “Friday Night Lights” without sobbing, or posting anonymously to the “Missed Connections” section of Craigslist and instructing the blonde at the bar resembling actress Claire Danes to call me. (That’s sexy “Homeland” Claire Danes, not super sexy “Temple Grandin” Claire Danes.)
Somewhere along the way, my appetizer—a Quesadilla ($8)—arrived at the table. It didn’t look at all like what I picture when I hear the word “quesadilla.” That is to say, a big folded tortilla with some cheese and other crap stuffed inside of it. But my exposure to Mexican food has been more-or-less limited to fast food’y Americanized bastardizations, so this is understandable. What sat before me looked a little bit like a greenish-colored pierogi.
Whatever you want to call it, it was extraordinary. The cornmeal-and-cilantro crust—flash-fried and then garnished with a basic slaw, radish, pico de gallo and sour cream—was thick and flaky without being overly dense. Cutting through the outer shell with my fork, I unleashed a slow-moving river of cheddar cheese (El Rayo uses Pineland cheddar), scallions and cilantro. Fortuitously, the cilantro and sour cream helped to temper the heat of the cocktail, making this dish an ideal accompaniment for the Slow Burn and one which I’ll be sure to order in the future.
Just as I was taking my last bit of the quesadilla, my ERC Cheeseburger ($12) arrived at the table. The burger comes topped with tomato jam, avocado spread, fried jalapeños, lettuce, pickled red onions and a fried crisp of cotija cheese. (Cotija is a hard cow’s milk cheese somewhat similar to parmesan.)
I had ordered my burger medium rare, and Miles had gone to great care to explain to me that because the beef is marinated in a mixture of chipotles and chiles, it might appear darker than your typical medium-rare burger. I loved that he took the time to point this out, but it ended up not being much of an issue, as a dissection of my burger revealed that it was just the right amount of pink inside.
Taking my first bite of the burger, I was almost certain that I was going to find it too spicy for my liking due to the chili peppers. This was not the case at all. The jalapeños were there in abundance, but they had been so finely sliced—practically shaved—as to pose no problem at all. What heat they did give off was abated by the cooling effects of the avocado spread and a generous dollop of tomato jam. And while I probably would not have missed the lettuce had it not been there, I thought the pickled red onions were a great touch. The salty cotija cheese crisp added a nice textural twist to the burger.
Just as I had worried—needlessly—about the heat of the jalapeños, I had wondered if the chipotle and chile marinade would have the effect of altering the natural taste of the beef. Again, I’m happy to report that it really was not an issue. While the marinade was a nice accent on the burger, it was subdued enough to allow the flavorful beef to shine through. In fact, where the effects of the marinade seemed to have been most noticeable was in the consistency of the beef, which was tender and moist. (The grind of the beef almost certainly played a role in this as well.)
At a glance, the bun seemed a bit on the smallish side, but it was dense and chewy, and was more than adequate in terms of keeping the burger and its toppings together. The burger comes with a side of house-cooked potato chips. Salty and still-warm, they were the perfect companion to this well-prepared burger. Even if I could have it some other way (fries, onion rings, etc…) I’d still opt for these chips on a return visit.
I concluded my meal with a Caffè Americano and a Caramel Walnut Torte ($7) featuring chocolate and sea salt imported from Oaxaca. It was a terrific dessert, one that I would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn’t been so stuffed with beef, cheese and alcohol.
All and all, the Cantina at El Ray delivered on just about every level for me. The price was reasonable, the service exceptional and the food outstanding. I had arrived feeling rather skeptical about the prospect of a cheeseburger served at an establishment specializing in Mexican cuisine, but departed having enjoyed one of the better burgers in recent memory. I’ll return again soon, and the only question will be whether my Slow Burn is accompanied by another outstanding burger or one of the restaurant’s many other tempting offerings.