Originally seen in the print version of the Daniel House Quarterly
When we sat down with Walter Espinosa, manager of Alto Bajo, downtown Portland’s newest Mexican restaurant, we had no idea of the treats that lay in store for us. First, we should make one thing very clear: this isn’t your typical Portland over-the-counter street taco situation, and we’re glad. It’s a more nuanced, elegant undertaking, featuring dishes specific to Oaxaca, Mexico.
Its interior is spare, but not cold. There are subtle clues this is a restaurant featuring food from south of the border, but they come in the form of an alluring combination of board formed concrete walls, white plaster, sophisticated yet exuberant geometric textiles, and colorful ceramic dishes (not Fiestaware). It feels a bit more like a highbrow Mexico curated by mid-century Latin architects Luis Berrigan or Oscar Niemeyer, than a corrugated metal cantina with indoor/outdoor spaces cobbled together. In short, this place is a sign that times are changing in grungy old PDX.
Alto Bajo is in the new Hi Lo Hotel at the corner of SW Stark and Third Avenue, in one of Portland’s oldest reinforced concrete buildings. It’s a lovely, unassuming structure, made more noticeable by its fresh soft blue and white exterior paint and the new life going on behind its giant, plate glass, street-level windows. Few hotels in Portland beckon to passersby as this one does, with its gleaming lobby designed in grays, emeralds and dusty pinks by the local interior design firm of Jessica Helgerson. It’s sexy without being unbuttoned, and we like it.
Mr. Espinosa is the sort of man who deserves to be addressed by his last name. However, he was such an inviting host, it feels odd to write about him as though he weren’t a friend, so we’ll henceforth call him Walter. To be truthful, while we are finely attuned to the palettes of the built design world, none of us at Daniel House would refer to ourselves as “foodies,” yet Walter sat us down and served us complimentary fare as if we were the city’s most prolific critics. He started us off with a sampling of Alto Bajo’s specialty drinks. They have partnered with the fairly young Royale Brewing Co. to deliver their guests a red ale specific to the restaurant. We all love a good, cheap Dos Equis, but even with our limited food knowledge, we could tell the Alto Bajo Rojo would go further in accompanying the flavors ahead. And for the non-beer loving crowd, Walter suggested the pineapple cider, another drink prepared especially for the restaurant by Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider. We’re still thinking about how refreshing it was! (Seriously, it’s delicious, you should buy it.)
Apart from the moles (which we must admit we haven’t tried yet), the most exciting Oaxacan dish on the menu is the sikil pak. Where one ordinarily expects to find guacamole, Alto Bajo offers a pumpkin seed-based dip a bit more comparable to hummus than any Mexican sauces we’ve experienced. Its flavor was light but its texture was dense and when, after only a few minutes, we finished the dish, we were not the least bit repentant we hadn’t eaten our favorite guacamole instead.
Perhaps even more than the food and ambiance, we liked Walter and his staff. Everyone executed their service roles admirably, but they were also well-mannered, which is not always the case in Portland. The place felt both professional and familial.
After we’d finished sampling the menu, Walter toured us around the rest of the hotel. He showed us its numerous small to midsized event spaces, the ample hotel gym and the well-appointed guest rooms, where we found even more local collaborations from reclaimed wood wall surfaces, to specialty lotions and soaps. Finally, Walter showed us the basement level kitchen. He pointed to a line cook and said, “if you come back next Tuesday around lunch time, he and I are having a cook off. I’m making my pork enchiladas in just a little bit more traditional style.” We assure you, we’ll make every effort to make it back with the rest of the office for the experience.