The backless barstools with fun phrases at Jefe Juan’s are surprisingly comfortable. Photos by Angie Bryan

When my drinking companion and I walked into Jefe Juan’s, Hank Williams Jr. was blasting – for me, always a good sign.

The front wall opens up onto Wharf Street; the interior features a long wooden bar with hooks underneath and surprisingly comfortable backless wooden stools with fun sayings on them. A narrower wooden counter with barstools runs along the wall. A closer look revealed photos and license plates from Mexico, courtesy of Juan Cordero, as in Jefe Juan himself, the chef at sister restaurant Mash Tun, also on Wharf Street.

Cordero’s influence doesn’t stop with the décor. Jefe Juan’s specializes in tequila and local beers, and word on the cobblestoned street is that the burritos (veggie or authentic barbacoa chicken/pork/beef) are particularly tasty.

The official cocktail menu has 10 options, including a $9 Paloma and a $10 drink cleverly named Mexico, ME (Blanco tequila, coffee brandy and Vespertino, a tequila crema that I’m pretty much obsessed with). Also intriguing is the $10 Peach Beerita (blanco tequila, peach, triple sec, fresh lime, orange and Hefeweizen, a German weiss beer).

Passionfruit and spicy mango margaritas from Jefe Juan’s in Portland.

There are loads of specials, which on the day of our visit included the $10 Heels on Wharf St. (Bacardi, cranberry, pineapple and agave topped with prosecco). My friend and I were in the mood for margaritas, though, so she ordered the $10 spicy mango margarita (blanco tequila, fresh lime, cranberry, mango and a habanero tincture, complete with a super-spicy smoked chile salt rim), and I followed the bartender’s recommendation of the $10 passionfruit margarita (blanco tequila, passionfruit, fresh lime and coconut water). The bartender assured us that all their drinks are made with fresh lime and agave – no sour mixes in sight.

We loved both our drinks, as well as the service, which was fun, friendly, and fast – three of my favorite characteristics in a bartender. The mango margarita achieved the perfect balance of sweet, sour and spicy.  The drink menu also lists 12 tequila options ranging from $8 (for Hornitos blanco or reposado) to $22 (for Don Julio anejo), and the tap list has around 15 primarily local options in the $5-$8 range.


The front wall of Jefe Juan’s opens up onto Wharf Street.

Jefe Juan’s opened in October 2021, and I’m sorry that it took me so long to get there. During a future visit, I’d like to check out some of the food options, most of which are $12 or under; the most expensive item is the $15 shrimp ceviche tostadas (three in a serving). A late-night menu, served from 10 p.m. until closing, features $12 large burritos and $7 smaller ones. There’s even a delicious-sounding $10 salad: fresh greens, corn pico, queso fresco, avocado, seasoned tortilla chips and chipotle ranch dressing.

The one negative aspect of our visit was the volume of the music. As much as I love Hank Jr., my drinking companion and I could barely hear each other – and we were sitting beside each other at the bar before any other patrons had arrived, so there wasn’t any other noise from conversation. So I wouldn’t go to Jefe Juan’s if I wanted a good catch-up chat with friends, but it would be a great place to go if I were trying to avoid talking to someone: “What’s that you said? Oh, sorry, can’t really hear you (chomping on burrito while smiling to myself).”

Another reason to go back? To enjoy a really great margarita, an authentic burrito, and a fun atmosphere.

Retired diplomat Angie Bryan writes about Maine’s cocktail bars while making as many puns as her editor allows.

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