Mexican Treasure Discovered @ Los Portales' Grocery

Sarah Green

OMG. It happened. I think, for about 40 minutes, I had an out-of-body experience where I traveled to Michoacan, Mexico and had lunch in the back of a bodega. It was a strange hallucination, considering four of my other foodie friends seemed to travel with me. Yet there we were, frantically gorging on the most authentic and outrageously delicious Mexican food any of us had ever eaten. Had I bumped my head during that twister? (note to self - always listen to Auntie Em.) It all began as we innocently followed a lead I had received from my sister-in-law about the best kept secret in Fairfield County. In an area packed with what seems to be an abundance of ethnic restaurants, and one that i think we should dub "Little Mexico," we found ourselves stepping through the doors of LOS PORTALESTaqueria & Mexican Grocery (literally, the portals) and we were trans-"portled"! There is NOTHING like this place, this side of the border, and I don't mean the Norwalk/Westport border! LOS PORTALES is the real deal. You simply MUST try it. Don't get me wrong, though. It is NOT your typical restaurant.

Los Portales is a tiny store that sells all types of Mexican food from spices and dried goods to fresh vegetables and baked goods. They even have a butcher section where meat can be purchased. There are soft drinks and juices, sweets and pastas, and pork rinds - lots of pork rinds. Two narrow aisles flank four small tables with benches. And there, at the back of the store, the jewel. A small, L-shaped counter (with about 5 stools) acts as the pearly gates, behind which Joel Gaytan, owner for the last 13 years, cooks his magic. In this dream, we floated to the back counter, levitating on the waves of delicious aromas, and sat our ctbites rumps on the stools. Upon the counter, in small containers, lay the "condimentos" in all their glory: salsa verde, salsa rojo (the HOT one!), pico de gallo, chipotle, ensalada rapojo (cabbage), and of course, all are hecho en casa! (I think we were already drooling, but that detail is rather foggy.) Joel was fantastically friendly and helpful and prepared for us what can only be described as phenomenal.

Here is what we ordered:

Naturally, because it was WAY past breakfast time, we ordered the HUEVOS RANCHEROS. A healthy portion of ferociously scrambled eggs, mixed with chorizo, tomato, peppers, onions, and cilantro was presented alongside a bed of yellow rice, scrumptious refried beans, ripe avocado slices, and marinated jalapenos. CREMA PURA, a Mexican sour cream-like spread was drizzled on top and soft QUESO FRESCA ("no name, it's just fresh cheese" was as close as I got to an answer when I asked how to translate!) was the cherry on top. As we wrapped the eggs in warm, fresh tortillas and took our first bites, we knew what we had to do. Devour. Next on our menu were three types of soft tacos: one with CARNITAS (pork), one with PASTOR, a special kind of bar-b-qued diced pork which is seasoned with red chile (must be where all that pork rind is coming from!) and one with CHICKEN. All the meat was outstanding and perfectly seasoned but the PASTOR really stood in a class by itself. Yet the most glorious aspect of these double-layered TACOS was that the "under" taco was a bit crunchy where the "over" taco was soft and chewy. Damn, they were good! We also ordered a BEEF BURRITO which may have had an entire cow's worth of meat inside! It was bursting at the seams with meat, veg and beans, and when drizzled with salsa verde or salsa rojo, was out of this world! The four of us attacked like Tiger's wife but, when all was said and done, we barely made a dent. Spectacular, too, was the GUACAMOLE! Superbly seasoned with just enough cilantro and tomato and a HEALTHY dose of lemon, I think it has bumped my previous favorite (a la "Rosa Mexicano" ) down to 2nd place. This is the GUAC that ROCKS! And now, believe it or not (and since this may have all been a wild flashback, you may NOT) the highlight from our lunch was ... drum roll please.... the NACHOS! These were not your everyday Tostidos with random Velveeta product and mystery meat. These were the NACHOS fit for the Conquistadors! Rich, delicately spiced ground beef, was spread in layers between crunchy, crisp chips and just the right amount of beans, lots of shredded lettuce, more than a hint of jalapeno, and was topped with that same gooey, spectacularly melted cheese. (Oh, don't worry about it, just take an extra Lipitor tonight!) BEYOND!

So we ate. Yes, we ate and we ate at a frantic pace until we were stuffed like a chorizo. We had ordered enough food to feed a dozen people, yet we managed quite well, thank you very much. We all had sodas or water, too, and the grand total for five? $42.00! No, really. The owner, our new amigo Joel, told us that on Sundays, they make home-made tortillas from 8-11 am and there are specialty items on the menu for this holy day of "rest-but-be-sure-to-EAT!" (BEEF SOUP and LAMB STEW to be precise.)

Really, I suppose, this is not so much a review but a letter of apology to my sister-in-law. She begged me not to write about LOS PORTALES, for fear that too many people would storm the place. Sorry, Lisa, this place is just too amazing to keep secret. Not that Joel and his wonderful crew could handle hordes of people anyway, as there is VERY LITTLE parking behind the store (although you can ALWAYS find street parking around there) and VERY LITTLE room inside the place. But Joel deserves a little slice of fame for his uncanny ability to make magic out of beans and ambrosia out of tortillas. My advice - take the "trip" I took and experience this place. The people are fantastic and the food is divine.

"Los Portales" is open every day from 6:00am -9:30pm. Don't dial 411for the address as they give you the wrong one. The actual address is 49 Fort Point Street in Norwalk (take exit 16 off

I 95 and head toward the water on East Ave. Turn Right onto Fort Point (by the Shell Station) and go past the STOP sign. "Los Portales" is on the right.

Los Portales Taqueria Mexicana & Mexican Food & Grocery