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Panucho party! Where to find the Yucatán’s signature dish in Portland

Is it a little odd that panuchos have emerged as the dish most associated with Yucatán in Portland? They’re not exactly easy to prepare, with their hand-pressed tortillas puffed up on a comal, carefully opened, stuffed with a black bean puree then gently fried. And that’s all before you get to a colorful toppings list that can include meat, lettuce, cabbage, avocado, cabbage, pickled red onion and more.

There are other options, too. Elsewhere, cochinita pibil, pork marinated with bitter orange and traditionally pit roasted, is probably more closely associated with the peninsula. The best-known restaurant in Maní, the small Yucatecan town where many Portland chefs were born, is better known for poc chuc, the citrus-marinated grilled pork. Salbutes are a distant cousin to the puffy tacos you might be familiar with from a trip to San Antonio (or here at Portland’s Podnah’s Pit).

But with apologies to those popular dishes, plus a handful of others (huevos Moltuleños, your time is coming), panuchos seem to have captured Portland’s imagination. With the opening of Ki’ikibáa, the metro area now has more than a dozen places to try panuchos, with each food cart and restaurant putting its own spin on the dish.

Earlier this month, we tried them all.

Far from hitting a wall, our big panucho party only underlined how delicious this dish can be, with bright flavors and a fun textural interplay between crisp tortillas and onion and tender black beans and meat. Plus, panuchos offer enough wiggle room that a chef can still show off her skill, dialing in the seasoning on the pureed beans, mixing up the toppings to include purple cabbage or carrot, mincing the pickled onion or slicing it thin. (That being said, a few kitchens were a little too enthusiastic with the ground black pepper.)

In the end, we found most of the city’s best panuchos in Northeast Portland, and not that far apart at that, from food carts in the Cully neighborhood to two great restaurants (Ki’ikibáa and La Mestiza) near the base of Rocky Butte. If you want to recreate our journey, you can start at La Mestiza, then make your way to Los Mayas on foot, hitting as many as three other spots along the way, depending on your appetites for eating and walking.

Though turkey might be a more traditional topping, for our purposes, we thought it would be useful to order our panuchos with cochinita pibil, the better to try two signature items at a time (at a surprisingly affordable $3-$4 each). That was a delicious choice, but in hindsight, you might be better off sticking with poultry, as the cochinita’s marinade adds a lot of juice to what can already be a messy dish, especially after an essential squirt of habanero salsa. As always, we visited each restaurant unannounced and paid for our own food.

Here are our five favorite panuchos in Portland:

Ki’ikibáa

Best modern panucho

Before making his name at Cully’s long-running Angel Food & Fun (home to its own panuchos, now with a healthy dusting of black pepper), Manuel Lopez was a sous chef at the Pearl District’s upscale Bluehour. That fine-dining experience carries over to the food at Ki’ikibáa (3244 N.E. 82nd Ave.), the Northeast Portland restaurant Lopez opened late last year with wife Suny Parra (inspiring this roundup). The panuchos are a fine example, with tortillas stuffed with a Vitamix-smooth black bean puree, cochinita leaking yellow-orange oil the color and viscosity of a farm egg yolk, and pickled onions minced rather than sliced thin, all the better to pick the whole thing up and eat it like a taco.

Price: $4

Other specialties: Tamales, salbutes, poc chuc, relleno negro, relleno blanco, frijol con puerco (pork and beans).

Tip: Some of Ki’ikibáa’s most interesting dishes have been weekly specials, including a rare Yucatecan blood sausage, and salbutes topped with chunks of house-made gizzard sausage simmered with the relleno negro.

La Mestiza

Best traditional panucho

Just our second stop on the crawl (after a quick jaunt to El Yucateco in Parkrose, a must-stop on any Costco run), Taqueria La Mestiza (8525 N.E. Fremont St.) delivered a textbook panucho, its tostada-crisp tortilla stuffed with just the right amount of nicely seasoned refried black bean. Toppings included a lining of green lettuce, millennial pink pickled onions, a sliver of avocado and super-tender cochinita with fatty chunks of meat leaking red-orange juice, plus our favorite habanero salsa of the trip. If it’s your first time trying panuchos, start here. Heck, you might want to start here even if it’s your 100th time.

Price: $3.50

Other Yucatecan specialties: Banana-leaf tamales, salbutes, poc chuc, relleno negro (pork meatloaf, hard-boiled eggs and turkey floating in a broth turned black from deeply charred tortillas and chiles).

Tip: Wander into the restaurant’s side dining room to find a dessert bar home to ice cream, fruit smoothies and flan floating in syrup.

A top-down shot of cochinita pibil panuchos from Lonchería Los Mayas, which have a robust, rustic masa flavor, magenta-pink onions and creamy avocado.

Lonchería Los Mayas’ panuchos have a robust masa flavor, magenta-pink onions and creamy avocado.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

Lonchería Los Mayas

Panuchos, Portland-style

This Cully cart (4212 N.E. Prescott St.), a favorite of local chefs and food writers, makes one of the most unique panuchos in town, with wide, sturdy tortillas boasting a robust and real masa flavor topped with flecks of purple cabbage, carrots, sliced avocado and magenta-pink onions. Los Mayas’ cochinita was interesting too, seemingly seared to order in the way you sometimes see with carnitas or other taqueria meats, with thick, crispy-edged chunks of pork. It all added up to the most divisive panucho on the crawl — my dining companion found the pork dry, I did not. Panuchos, we learned, are like snowflakes: No two are alike.

Price: $4.50

Other specialties: Salbutes, poc chuc, spinach sopes.

Tip: A big patio extends from Los Mayas’ bright orange cart, a great setup for the return of warmer weather.

Panuchos with cochinita pibil, pickled onion and avocado from Los Tres Hermanos on a plate with a chrome background.

Panuchos from Los Tres Hermanos, a greasy-spoon truck that makes its bread selling loaded Cubano sandwiches to Cully neighborhood mechanics.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

Los Tres Hermanos

Best panucho deal

Years ago, Cully’s northern edge boasted one of the strangest eateries in Oregon: A somewhat Yucatecan taqueria next to the old Sugar Shack strip club where panuchos emerged from a giant double-decker bus. That block is now home to Las Adelitas, an affordable housing complex from Hacienda CDC (Community Development Corporation), but you can still get panuchos across the street every weekday except Tuesday. Across Cully Boulevard, in an alcove in front of HK Auto Sales, a busy truck serves up hulking sandwiches and panuchos to a crowd of mechanics and passing truck drivers. At $3, Los Tres Hermanos (5555 N.E. Cully Blvd.) offers the second least expensive panucho in town after the $2.95 version at Gateway’s long-running Antojitos Yucatecos cart. It was plenty tasty, too, with a leaf of lettuce cradling a generous portion of rich shredded pork, an avocado slice and pickled red onion. If you’re looking to fill up for under $10, come here and order panuchos by the trio.

Price: $3

Other specialties: None.

Tip: When we arrived, the truck’s small kitchen was as busy as a greasy-spoon Chicago diner. The order in front of us? A half-dozen massive Cubano sandwiches, each including breaded steak, a split hot dog, scrambled egg, shredded cheese, tomato, onion, avocado and pico de gallo on a telera roll for $11, being made for a crowd of hungry mechanics.

Snacky little panuchos with juicy shredded cochinita, pickled onion and tomato on a plate at Principe Maya, one of the standout carts at Portland Mercado.

Snacky little panuchos with juicy shredded cochinita at Principe Maya, one of the standout carts at Portland Mercado.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

Principe Maya

Most interesting menu

Unlike other Yucatecán carts in Portland, panuchos might be the least interesting thing on the menu at Principe Maya (7238 S.E. Foster Rd.). The cart’s snacky version of the dish has saucy shredded meat, diced cabbage, tomato slices and salty pickled onions — good, but not worth a trip on their own. But the menu here is wide and deep, with more Yucatecan specialties than any West Coast restaurant I’ve visited save Chichén Itzà in Los Angeles. In addition to the panuchos, salbutes and cochinita pibil, Principe Maya is the only place in Portland to find brazo de reina, a savory roll of masa and pumpkin seeds stuffed with hard boiled eggs, and kibis, the falafel-sized rounds of deep-fried grain and meat imported to the Yucatán peninsula by Lebanese immigrants. Anyone seeking to expand their Yucatecan food knowledge beyond panuchos should consider this cart a must-visit.

Price: $3.50

Other specialties: Salbutes, relleno negro, brazo de reina, kibis, codzitos (think taquitos smothered in tomato sauce), huevos Moltuleños (saucy fried egg tostadas, yum), polcanes (fried masa “serpent heads” stuffed with beans and ground pumpkin seed).

Tip: Barrio, Portland Mercado’s great bar, allows outside food and drinks, meaning this is one of the few places in Portland where you can pair your panuchos with a beer, wine or sangria.

A panucho with diced onion and pork from Cox Hanal, a kiosk at Rockwood Market Hall.

Even without all the other options at Rockwood Market Hall, Cox Hanal’s tidy panucho might be worth a special visit.Michael Russell | The Oregonian

Cox Hanal (bonus panucho!)

Gresham’s best panucho

Despite the results, our panucho search did take us outside central Portland. Of the five we tried east of 82nd Avenue — the area affectionately dubbed the Numbers — this Rockwood Market Hall stand was our favorite. Though not the most flavor-packed panucho of the bunch, Cox Hanal (458 S.E. 185th Ave.) clearly cares about quality, topping its handsome, bean-stuffed and fried tortillas with fatty chunks of pork, cabbage and minced pickled onion.

Price: $3.50

Other specialties: Banana-leaf tamales, salbutes, relleno negro, polcanes.

Tip: If you’re with a group, Rockwood Market Hall has other options, including stands serving up po’boys, wings, curries and more, plus a sit-down Mexican grill and a great kids’ play area on the other side of the plaza.

Read more:

Four places to try Yucatecan food in Portland

— Michael Russell; mrussell@oregonian.com

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