CIRCLES AMID THE SQUARES Flores's delicious tacos.
No restaurant in Portland captures the look of a good hole-in-the-wall better than Flores, a new Salvadoran spot next to Bodega Latina — right where Congress Street starts to curve and head downhill, so to speak. At Flores the no-frills aesthetic is rendered so perfectly as to create a formalist masterpiece. Entering through the front door into a square space, four mismatched but equal-sized square tables form a perfect grid to your right and left. The tile floor echoes the square-within-square pattern. The whole setup is symmetrical, but not overly so — embedded on the sky-blue wall behind one pair of tables is an air-conditioning unit, behind the other pair is a flat-screen TV exactly the same size. The only decorations are some flags on the wall. It feels like you have stumbled into a Wong Kar-Wai movie set — like the lunch spot in Chungking Express in fact. They even have a girl behind the counter who looks like an actress playing a girl behind the counter.
It makes for a great place to sit, listening to Spanish conversation from the TV, the kitchen, and most of your fellow customers. Flores is a good place to eat as well. Salvadoran cuisine includes a few dishes, ingredients, and flavors that set it apart from other Latin American food. First among these is the pupusa, and Flores offers ones as good as any in town, for just a buck and a half — pretty amazing. They are a bit less cheesy than the Tu Casa version. The distinctive Salvadoran salsa is thicker than Sabor Latino's, and the Flores slaw is less sour. The basic bean-and-cheese version is hearty and thick. For a quarter more you can get it with crispy pork; also pretty amazing. A loroco pupusa, served with cheese and green flower bud, offers plenty of the unusual vegetal flavor of the distinctive Salvadoran flower.
The Flores version of chicharron (basically fried pork rinds) includes lots of juicy meat along with the crunchy skin. Their meatiness turns a salad of chicharron with yucca, cabbage, and tomato into something like a meal. The big pieces of yucca (cassava root, sort of resembling potato in texture) are boiled instead of fried. Salvadorans like to fry the tortilla in their tacos. But if you want to really appreciate the house-made tortillas at Flores it's better to get your tacos soft. Fresh tortillas are too hard to find in Maine, and Flores offers a nice thick, hand-slapped version made from corn. Warm, sweet, and a touch greasy, they are pretty terrific. The chicken taco is simple, with grilled meat, crumbly Salvadoran quesillo cheese, slaw, and thin salsa.
Flores has a pretty extensive menu, with a number of soups, Salvadoran sandwiches, and entrées like a simple platter of grilled chicken and beef. The beef was the standout. It looks unadorned until you bite into it and realize it is suffused with mild spices. It's very tender — almost braised in texture. The dish is filling, with plenty of rice, a bit of salad, and a creamy pile of refried black beans.