TOP CHOICE: Loco Pollo’s chicken dinner.
To have been stuck with corn was the great curse of this continent. The early human communities of Eurasia and Mesopotamia found wheat — abundant, simple, delicious, large-seeded, protein-rich, easily prepared wheat — growing wild everywhere they looked. Wheat's abundant calories made possible everything that followed — bureaucracies, specialization, armies, colonialism. Here in the Americas, though, primitive maize was tiny, nutrient-free, and impossibly hard-shelled. It took the best minds of the hemisphere 10,000 years to breed and cultivate it into something like the edible form we know today.
|Loco Pollo | 52 Washington Ave, Portland | Mon-Sat 11:30 am-8 pm | Visa/MC | 207.899.4422|
It still has its limitations, such as those in evidence if you have ever tried to make a sandwich out of cornbread. The tamale, then, embodies the best and worst of the legacy of our hemisphere. A sort of steamed corn sandwich, it is an ingenious response to the difficulties of our native staple. It is also, basically, a wet ball of dough, and a cheap form of fuel for a calorie-starved people.
Loco Pollo gets the tamale right in many ways. They respect tradition without becoming mired in it. They use enough lard to impart some richness without making the dough heavy. They steam them long enough to keep them moist but not wet. They use several wrappings, cornhusk in the Mexican style and banana leaf like the Central Americans, which impart different subtle flavors to the meal. And they fill them with meats, cheeses, and chilis fresh and ample enough that the soggy aroma fills your head.
They also get the scrappy feel of a tamale place right. The two fellows who run the place are exactly the sort of friendly and laid-back young white guys in big T-shirts who like to eat cheap Mexican and say orale on the West Coast. The woman making tortillas and rolling the tamales is from Mexico City. The space, just a counter and four colorful mosaic tables, seems cramped even though there is a lot of empty room they could fill. Someone has stenciled the pumpkin walls with Aztecy symbols and there are other trappings of a charming space, but it does not actually charm. There are some communal bowls of fresh salsa on the back counter, which calls for some boldness during flu season.
The food charms enough on its own. While I liked the tamales, they should serve as an appetizer for the other items on the small menu. A pork stew came with fresh herbs and a complex broth and deep aroma of green chilis. It was great on a cold night.
Best of all were the beef and chicken dinners. These simple meals come in three sizes with beans, rice, and tortillas, along with a grilled poblano and scallion. The smallest size is plenty of food. The beef had been marinated with chilis, cinnamon, and honey, then grilled and chopped. The meat was very tender, and not overwhelmed by the unusual marinade. The cinnamon hits the nose and the honey and sweet pepper the tongue. The chicken, soaked in a blood-orange marinade with dried chilis, was both sweeter and spicier.
Everything in these dishes is simple and well done. The beans (choose pinto or black) are tender but not a mush, and seasoned, but not too much, with salt and a bit of chili-heat. The fresh tortillas, small, tender, and thick, really impart the flavor of corn. They are infinitely superior to the flat bland sort pulled out of a bag to be wrapped around most Maine-Mexican. I would have loved a bit of chopped avocado to go with this sort of quasi-fajita, but the meat is so sweet and tender you don't miss it much.
It is one of the sad ironies of our hemisphere that corn, from which it was once so hard to wring sustenance, is now (thanks to scientific monstrosities like high-fructose corn syrup) the chief culprit in our obesity. You could rack up the calories at Loco Pollo too, because the food is so good and they sell it so cheaply. There are sodas in the fridge, but you can bring your own beer or wine, so I suggest you leave the soft drinks alone and rack up your corn-calories the old-fashioned way.
Brian Duff can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.