At a lattice-topped patio table outside Bird & Co., a couple lingered over their churro strawberry shortcake ($9), spooning whipped cream and macerated fresh strawberries from the dish so slowly, the plate appeared untouched 10 minutes after being delivered. Both diners seemed to be avoiding the husky, sugar-dusted churros entirely.

A little boy just inside the plate glass window had exhausted his patience waiting for the couple to finish. “Dad,” he said to a man nursing a salt-rimmed margarita ($9), “Go stand over them and breathe heavy or something. It’s too loud in here. It’s making my head hurt.”

I sympathized. My own party of two adults and two pre-teens was corralled into the same geometric oddity of seating at the front of the Deering Street restaurant. Positioned so that each of us somehow wound up facing a different direction, we could neither see one another, nor make ourselves heard above the pandemonium.

The wall of glossy gray subway tiles, concrete bar and faux-concrete flooring all ensure that the room will never be especially quiet. But with nothing apart from a few throw pillows and a banquette cushion to absorb the clamor of 40-ish customers scarfing tacos and downing cocktails, Bird & Co. might well be the single loudest restaurant I have visited in Portland.

Which is not to say the space isn’t attractive. Designed in what chef and co-owner Wills Dowd describes as a “Southwestern industrial” style, Bird & Co. feels like a major upgrade to the shag-carpeted, 1970s rec-room vibe of its predecessor, Abilene.  The hard-edged décor also fits with Woodfords Corner’s charmingly schizophrenic relationship with zoning and development — is it residential? Commercial? Both? Is it time to dig up the street again? 

Dowd, who trained at Ocho Mexican Grill in Southern California and at Boone’s in Portland, possesses particular insight into this part of Portland. He grew up in a house just a few blocks away.

“My parents still live there, actually,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we picked this location after we shopped around for six months. It’s nice even though the parking is tough here. But it’s great to look up and see my cousins all walk down to eat at our neighborhood taco spot.”

Judging by the enormity of the crowds and frequent extended waits for a table, word has spread far beyond Dowd’s childhood neighbors and extended family.

Bartender Kaela Holmes makes margaritas. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Most diners during my recent Tuesday night visit followed the same ordering pattern: a few tacos, something from the “not tacos” appetizer section of the menu and a cocktail or beer. My guests (well, the adult one) and I followed suit.

Choosing among the dozen taco options can be tricky. Some are traditional, like the slow-roasted pork shoulder carnitas ($4), which gets a lift from pickled onions and avocado crema. Or a lighter version of the same taco made with nearly identical toppings, just substituting smoky grilled chicken breast for the pork ($4). I could have happily eaten another two of each.

Then there’s a food-truck classic from San Diego, the California ($6), which layers the restaurant’s bland guacamole with pico de gallo, sour cream, tough carne asada and French fries, all bundled into a flour tortilla. As I chewed (and chewed), I kept wishing the kitchen had thrown in a little more onion and had taken time to slice the skirt steak across the grain of the meat.

Others play with fillings but still hew conceptually close to the idea of a taco: creamy avocado chunks tossed in a New England-style clam breading, then deep-fried and piled with a salsa of roasted corn and black beans ($5) offered a hearty, well-executed vegetarian option. Another, a Valentina hot sauce-seasoned buffalo fried cauliflower taco ($5) missed the mark. Loaded with both undercooked cauliflower and the same too-crunchy deep-fried Brussels sprouts I tasted as a cilantro-lime-vinaigrette-dressed appetizer ($9), it was greasy and hard to eat.

From left, a banh mi taco, fried avocado taco and tuna poké taco at Bird & Co., which offers many unconventional takes on a taco.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Explore further, and you’ll find tacos that, for better or worse, are inspired by Asian ingredients and techniques. There’s a Chinese-influenced duck breast taco ($6), scented with five-spice powder and topped with the bizarre combo of arugula and plum sauce. To my surprise, it was pretty decent, despite the liver-y off-flavors that come when duck is cooked too long (nearly four hours, in this case).

That same organ meat flavor would have been right at home in the banh mi taco ($5), which had none of the funk traditionally provided by a smear of pâté, instead mainly bright, herbal flavors from lemongrass-and-fish-sauce-marinated pork shoulder, pickled carrots, and something mysterious that Dowd would only describe as “Asian marinade.”

Bird & Co.’s most successful crossover taco might also be its weirdest: a fried flour tortilla filled to bursting with a poké-style medley of avocado, wasabi microgreens, pickled radish and cubes of raw yellowfin tuna from Harbor Fish Market ($7). “People know they like raw tuna, and this gives them a way to have it and get some crunch from the flour shell. You don’t see that too often in Maine,” Dowd said.

Another dish that is rare around here is elotes, Mexican-style corn-on-the-cob. Bird & Co.’s version ($7) relies on mostly traditional ingredients like paprika, savory cotija cheese and cilantro, but it goes overboard in the sheer volume of glop slathered on the steamed cobs. Mine had a layer of lime-mayonnaise as thick as the kernels themselves. As I ate, globules slipped off the hot corn onto the plate, the table, and my lap.

More is not necessarily better.

Patrick and Hannah Varney of Windham have drinks and some food at the bar. Chef and co-owner Wills Dowd describes the decor at Bird & Co. as “Southwestern industrial” style. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

I imagine that couple on the patio, dawdling, not eating their churro strawberry shortcake (much to my young neighbor’s consternation) must have reached the same conclusion. In both the fruit-and-cream preparation and served on their own, rolled in cinnamon-sugar and accompanied by a tiny pot of bittersweet hot fudge ($6), Bird & Co.’s churros are too large for their own good.

Leave a too-chubby churro in bubbling oil long enough to cook its custardy interior, and you’ll wind up with an exterior shell that could stop a bullet.

Just ask the kids at my own table who made a few attempts to devour the churros we ordered, then gave up to focus on the fudge and whipped cream. “I can’t do it,” one declared with a dramatic sigh. “It’s making my head hurt.”

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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