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Dine Out: Eat in or take out. Either way, Taco Trio gets most things right

Long an area favorite, the Mexican restaurant is now producing old favorites and an expanded menu in bigger digs in South Portland's Knightville neighborhood.

7 min read
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Enchiladas Verde, a cheesy, chicken-and-soft-tortilla bake dunked in a luscious tomatillo stew of pulled white-meat chicken, is Taco Trio's most popular dish. But it doesn't hold up for take-out as well as many of the restaurant's other dishes.
Enchiladas Verde, a cheesy, chicken-and-soft-tortilla bake dunked in a luscious tomatillo stew of pulled white-meat chicken, is Taco Trio's most popular dish. But it doesn't hold up for take-out as well as many of the restaurant's other dishes. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A few years back, I interviewed a bartender, someone with an interest in forecasting beverage trends. I asked why he thought the negroni, a bittersweet red cocktail, was becoming so popular. “It’s because it’s impressive and easy to remember the recipe: one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari,” he answered without a pause. “A Vieux Carré has a lot of the same ingredients, but you’ll never see it blow up because that’s a complicated recipe. You have to get the ratios just right. But a kindergartner could make a good negroni.”

I remain unconvinced of the wisdom of letting a 5-year-old into my liquor cabinet, but his point about ratios is sound. It applies to food as well. Perhaps even more so. Lean into simplicity for a few centuries and you wind up with salt-cured pork belly; buttery pound cake; or the genre’s biggest success, the crusty, three-ingredient baguette.

Depart even slightly from basic recipes, however, and you quickly find yourself having to calculate and compensate. It’s just a hunch, but I believe relying on stripped-down, easy-to-reproduce recipes is why so much mediocre restaurant food tastes the same. It takes confidence and skill to go off-script. Ratios are hard.

But South Portland stalwart Taco Trio has always been ahead of its peers on the ratio front. Since it opened in a pokey, shack-like space facing the Knightville rotary 12 years ago, Taco Trio built a following loyal to owner Manny Peña’s Central Mexican recipes – aguas frescas ($4) made with crushed cantaloupe, agave syrup, maybe a little sugar; or tamales that change filling every day ($5.85) yet remain custardy and smoky, especially when there’s shredded chicken and house-made mole inside.

Peña learned most of the taqueria’s recipes from his family (his mother, in particular). As the restaurant has matured and ultimately found a spacious new home down the road on Ocean Street, more dishes have been introduced to the menu through line cooks and kitchen staff who brought their own heritage recipes from Mexico.

“Most of our staff who are from Mexico come from the Puebla region, which is not too far from where Manny is from (Guanajuato), and the things we cook reflect that,” co-owner Karen Rasmussen told me. “But everybody’s experience of Mexican food is different. I liken it to the styles of barbecue or clam chowder. There’s plenty of true Mexican food that my Mexican husband has never had in his life. So it has been fun to introduce some of those dishes.”


One is the California-style burrito pastor ($15.15), a hefty bundle of black beans, spit-grilled pork, pico de gallo, and in place of the French fries you might spot in Southern California or Baja, here you’ll find the burrito lined with home fries. Consider it a free upgrade that absorbs sauce and juices better than French fries ever could, one that allows you to add an extra slug or two of Taco Trio’s salsa to the dish.

My favorites of the seven (yes, seven) salsas I tried at the restaurant’s complimentary salsa bar are the sweet, floral mango and an eye-watering arbol chile salsa that made my scalp glisten under the track lighting in the restaurant’s new Knightville home.

“We had been looking for a bigger space that wasn’t so old, and we’d even gone through the process with South Portland to expand our old building, but it wasn’t really working out,” Rasmussen told me. “As fate would have it, the person who opened Big Babe’s (Tavern) had very unfortunate timing with COVID, and so when that space became available, we knew it was the right choice for us to move and to give up our other plans in Saco, especially since Manny’s health requires more care these days.” (Peña is undergoing treatment for cancer.)

Taco Trio in the hopping Knightville neighborhood of South Portland.

With an out-of-town expansion off the table, Peña and Rasmussen were able to focus on retrofitting Big Babe’s Tavern’s bar-focused space, building a prep area in its basement, exposing a section of the kitchen to the dining room, and cutting two takeout windows into the side of the building. Even now, with the vibrantly hued dining room filled to its 76-seat capacity, about half of Taco Trio’s business still comes from to-go orders.

Why? Because after a decade in their teensy former digs, this taqueria has figured out how to ensure that carryout dishes travel well. I’ve got the leftovers to prove it.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that my order of four soft, double-corn-tortilla tacos ($5.95 each, or $16.35 for three) withstood a car ride well, especially the cumin-scented braised pork carnitas, crisp-fried haddock, and calabazas asadas (grilled squash-and-peppers) varieties. Tacos are portable by design, after all.


More impressive is that nearly everything I thought would not work as takeout, actually did. Like soy-and-cumin-marinated carne asada sope – a soft, deep-fried disc of masa smothered in beef, beans, lettuce and crumbly queso fresco ($6.50) – or chorizo quesadillas loaded with melty Jack cheese and homemade, guajillo-fiery pork sausage ($14.90).

My hunch is that the minimal difference between eat-in and take-away dishes has a lot to do with Taco Trio’s service model, which is already quite a bit like ordering carryout: Diners place an order at the counter, find a seat, then collect their own food when their electronic buzzer dings. It’s takeout-adjacent, right down to the shared array of all-compostable containers and dishware that are deployed for dine-in and out.

Perhaps the similarity ends with the flan ($5.50), a jiggly, coconut-strewn custard that I found to be a little too loose and eggy on-site. Taking it home makes the situation worse. Nor does travel benefit the restaurant’s most popular dish, enchiladas verde ($15.85), a cheesy, chicken-and-soft-tortilla bake dunked in a luscious tomatillo stew of pulled white-meat chicken. Trust me: Order and eat this in the dining room, preferably sitting at the table underneath the portrait of Frida Kahlo, a legacy left behind by the mezcal-and-tequila fans who owned Big Babe’s.

Bartender Abigail McCormick makes drinks at Taco Trio. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Rasmussen and Peña continue the distilled-spirits tradition at their own bar, where the tequila flows alongside a few less common Mexican potables like Sierra Norte corn whiskey ($12-13) and Sotol ($12-13), a grassy, resinous liquor made from fire-roasted desert spoon shrubs.

Apart from the excellent spicy jalapeño margarita ($11), you’ll have to order most alcoholic drinks for consumption on-site. But that’s a great excuse to taste one of the restaurant’s signature cocktails. My favorite is the Tequila Honey Bee ($13.50), a zippy, slightly funky sipper made with aged Corralejo tequila, lemon, bitters, and a microscopic “rinse” of one of the most expensive mezcals on the list, Bozal (usually $15/shot). It’s balanced and light, ideal as a companion for spicy food, and as with so much at Taco Trio, the ratios are just right.

A quiet afternoon in March at Taco Trio. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

RATING: *** 1/2
WHERE: 60 Ocean St., South Portland. (207) 767-9055.
SERVING: Mon. – Sat., 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Tacos, sopes and tamales: $5.55-$6.50. Larger dishes: $9.40-$16.85
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails
BOTTOM LINE: Since it first opened in 2011, Taco Trio has been a Portland-area favorite. It has gone through expansions (Riverton, a never-opened Saco site, a food truck) and contractions in the dozen years since, leaving it in 2023 with one remaining location: a roomy, 76-seat space in Knightville. Owner and original chef Manny Peña’s family recipes still form the basis for most of the menu’s dishes, like puffy sopes, soft tacos and well-balanced aguas frescas (cantaloupe and hibiscus, in particular). In its new home, Taco Trio makes more of a feature of its Mexican liquors without losing a step in the kitchen. The space can get noisy on weekends, but takeout meals are nearly as good as dine-in meals at Taco Trio. Just down that Tequila Honey Bee before you head home with your designated driver.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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