Zapoteca is a new Mexican restaurant in Portland, occupying a free-standing building where Siano’s Pizzeria used to be.
It’s also a tequileria. And a very popular spot at that.
I left tequila flights to the aficionados, and sampled a few cocktails. Margaritas came in individual shakers, our server giving the final flourishing tumble and pour. GuavaRita (lime juice, guava puree and silver tequila; $9) bowled us over with its pinky citrus and peppery tones — shades of food to come.
A crimson blood-orange margarita (silver tequila, lime juice, blood orange juice and mint; $10) was bold, not girlie. An unadulterated mojito, a summer refreshment I favor, was less minty than some I’ve had. It could have used more muddling, perhaps.
To this promising start, we added three appetizers: a chunky guacamole with house-made tortilla chips ($8), a deliciously spicy Maine crab cake full of crab and served on a thin, poblano cream sauce ($11), and a trio of ceviche — seafood that’s marinated and “cooked” in an acidic mixture, usually lime — with more chips ($17).
In keeping with the restaurant’s upscale character — complete with valet parking — the ceviche sampler ($17) was a flashy presentation. A tray arrived with each type served in a martini glass. The proportions were about half seafood, half chunky marinade.
In one glass, white fish mingled among jalapenos, olives, avocado, lime and tomato, and was bright and spicy. In another, steamed Maine shrimp and calamari were tossed with lime, orange, habanero, jicama, red onion and cilantro. This one came across more briny and chewy, but still good.
Fruit enhanced, not overwhelmed, the contents of our third glass — steamed lobster with grapefruit, mango and guava. It was gentler on the tongue; citrusy and vivid.
Kudos to the kitchen for making each preparation distinct and intriguing. We enjoyed this cool and revitalizing medley, which was just right on a summer night.
Halibut marinated in lime and topped with tomato, olives, raisins and plenty of capers was at first reminiscent of Mediterranean fare, but pickled jalapenos and carrots in the pan gave it a welcome Mexican kick ($24).
A split game hen was moist and full of flavor, and came topped with a deep and complex mole poblano sauce. Served with a portion of deliciously spiced black beans, the entree was dark in expression and rich in texture ($21). Both dishes were outstanding.
The restaurant uses a wood-fired oven. (A staff member told me that Zapoteca is one of two Mexican restaurants in the country cooking with such a hearth. That sounds impossible to confirm, but Zapoteca is probably among only a few.)
Here, enchiladas, stuffed poblano peppers and halibut are roasted to a finish. Those dishes arrived in pans atop plates, a rustic and attractive presentation. Two servers delivered the heavy and hot platters all at once to our table of five.
Enchiladas filled with shredded and moist adobo-glazed pork with caramelized onions was on the mild and sweet side, with pickled red onion garnishes and that same excellent puree of black beans sprinkled with a soft and crumbly queso fresco ($16).
A deep, rich and slightly sweet mole smothered chicken-breast enchiladas, advancing the drier meat into goodness ($18). Smokey Maine shrimp and crab filled a third plate of three enchiladas, the creamy green chili sauce not so fiery that it did damage to the local seafood flavors.
Both came with that same spread of black beans and ensaladas that were just a smattering of greens tucked in a corner.
We savored and enjoyed all the plates. The food here is nothing like the chains or the hole-in-the-wall spots serving up burritos and tacos or fancier dishes that all taste pretty much the same.
The kitchen thoughtfully uses an array of ingredients — poblano, jalapeno, habernero and serrano peppers; interesting salsas such as oregano-cilantro, chili rajas and tomatillos; their own pickled items — and crafts each plate into an epicurean invention.
Zapoteca’s dining room is brick and earth-toned, uncluttered and comfortable, with booths and chairs for seating. Masks adorn one wall. A bar and elevated tables sit in a separate room, to which you enter from the street.
The menu lists all items in Spanish, with English descriptions following. The atmosphere feels contemporary and welcoming — haute without attitude. It’s not overly formal, nor is it working hard to be hip.
Our server didn’t miss a beat all night. She knew the menu and the wine list, suggested pairings, and even pointed out a better value, all the while maintaining a friendly desire to make us happy on all fronts.
Vanilla flan was flavorful, rich and denser than the French creme caramel it resembles — as is typical of the Mexican variety ($7).
Deep-brown churros — really a snack more than a dessert — had a thick crust, covering a middle that was thin and doughy rather than light and cakey ($7).
But do not be deterred by a less-than-stellar snack. Everything else here — service, atmosphere, drinks and food — shines like the Baja sun.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.