I’ve always had a soft spot for authentic Mexican restaurants in America. So many Americans think Mexican food consists of red salsa, burritos, nachos and quesadillas all covered in gooey yellow cheese. Ditto the American understanding of the Mexican corn chip. Trust me, they are nothing like you get at the grocery store. True Mexican cooks would never use commercial corn chips . . . they make their corn tortillas themselves, starting with masa dough rolled into small balls and pressed in a tortilla press. Nor do they use flour tortillas or hard corn tortillas, except in Mexico’s northern states frequented by American tourists. But what really makes my heart go out to the humble Mexican restaurant owner is the many times I’ve heard Americans tell Mexicans how to make Mexican food.
One such place that makes their own corn tortillas is Los Portales, located just south of Tervis Tumbler on South Tamiami Trail. The restaurant is a family affair, melding the families of married chefs Marla Peña and Jimmy Lopatinsky. Marla has been a chef for twelve years, while Jimmy has run a kitchen for over 25 years. Between they have 8 children, who, along with mom and dad make up the names of Los Portales’ 10 craft tacos. One of the children, Gia, was our server when we dropped by for dinner a few days back. “I’m the vegetarian,” Gia explained. “That’s why there isn’t any meat in the Gia taco. Trust me, you won’t miss the meat.” Gia said, sounding like every knowledgeable vegetarian I’ve ever met!
Los Portales offers a cantina-like atmosphere, laid back and casual. It made perfect sense, therefore, to order up a classic margarita and a cerveza while we looked over the menu and asked Gia for recommendations.
From our very first bite, we enjoyed the distinct difference between Mexican food and Tex-Mex . . . what many Americans think Mexican food should taste like.
Take, for example, the chips and salsa, served complimentary after we placed our order. The corn chips are thick, obviously made in-house, and therefore stand up to multiple dips of salsa. A little salt sprinkled on top opened up the flavor even more, but it wasn’t really necessary. The salsa itself is not thick or dark red like Tex-Mex salsa. Made fresh, this salsa is more finely minced than what you may be used to, resembling more of a broth than a sauce, and not so tomato heavy. That being said, the salsa was packed with flavor and not overly spicy.
“The salsa is a little different every day, ” Gia explains. “Chef Marla makes it from fresh vegetables that she picks up at the market every morning.” The tomato is diced so small that the juice is more golden green than red, mixing well with minced cilantro, onion, garlic, and jalapeno. We had to order a second bowl!
For his dish, Mart ordered the Viva Mexico, the most popular dish on the Los Portales menu. Starting with the homemade corn tortillas, Chef fills them with chicken and cheese, then dips them in their homemade enchilada sauce. Lined up three on a plate, they are topped with green, white, and red Mexican sauce, ultimately resembling the Mexican flag, a topped with queso fresco. Viva Mexico indeed! What I enjoyed about Mart’s dish was the focus on flavors vs. being drowned in cheese. You could really enjoy the chicken and spices in this dish, and each sauce was enjoyable on its own.
When you place your order there are a number of different sides to choose from. Getting two sides with each dish, Mart and I both agreed to include the Creamy Elote Rice as one of our choices, with Mart also choosing the Avocado Fries. The rice was a pleasant surprise. Mexican cheese is melted into the rice and tossed with grilled corn . . . it is then topped with queso fresco, chili powder, and cilantro. We highly recommend trying it.
Mart tried to tempt me into ordering the Mahi Mahi Veracruz, but the Chile Relleno Con Camarones had my vote from the start. A large Poblano chili pepper is stuffed with shredded cheese (not cheese sauce!) and shrimp, then drenched in Los Portales red Mexican enchilada sauce then drizzled with Mexican sour cream that is more like a crema than sour cream. This was a delight. The pepper was obviously fresh, offering a bit of texture even after being cooked. I appreciated the shredded cheese while noting that it wasn’t the star of the dish. You know what I mean, right? The enchilada sauce was slightly sweet vs spicy. For my sides, I ordered the Creamy Elote rice and a Nopales salad. (Nopales are the leaves of cactus, with the stickers removed!)
At Gia’s suggestion (probably after we peppered her with questions) Chefs Marla and Jimmy dropped by the table to see how we enjoyed our meal. We then continued to ask questions regarding the difference between Tex-Mex and Mexican food.
“When we first opened a number of guests asked for items that weren’t on the menu, like burritos and quesadillas. We didn’t even have flour tortillas at the time and only started offering them when we expanded our menu to include some of these American favorites, but we try to keep the flavors as authentically Mexican as possible while using flour tortillas. We’ve also gotten questions about the flavors of our salsa and enchilada sauces, but only until guests taste them. What people don’t know is that each of the 31 states in Mexico has its own story that plays out in their food. There is no “classic” enchilada sauce, no “classic” salsa. There are only the flavors you grew up with.”
Having lived in a number of different cities and states in Mexico, Chef Marla and Chef Jimmy like to incorporate flavors from different areas of the country. When Chef Marla goes back and forth to Mexico she avoids the larger restaurants and instead chooses small places where more authentic food is prepared. “My favorite culinary experience in Mexico is visiting “off the main road” cantinas where food is often prepared with improvised cooking utensils. I also shop heavily for herbs and spices that we can only get in Mexico.”
Chef Jimmy recently made a snapper special with Huauzontle that was a big hit with their customers. He then had to apologize to guests who came back for the snapper dish . . . he’d used up all the spice and couldn’t get anymore without making a trip to Mexico. Hey, we don’t profess to know every secret, tasty spice in existence, but we always hope to learn something new and delicious each time out. In this case – mission accomplished!
In addition to the fresh flavors coming out of the kitchen (Los Portales does not have a freezer!), they also offer great value on their lunch specials, where Monday-Friday you can order a chicken or ground beef taco on a 4-5″ corn tortilla for $1 each!
So if you’re a huge fan of the real deal Mexican food, we highly recommend a visit to Los Portales in Osprey. You’re sure to be welcomed as family!