Instead of asking me the inevitable, “What’s your favorite place to eat?” when people meet me, I wish they’d ask, “Where do you go when your favorite restaurant is closed?”

Some people are afraid of spiders, some fear clowns or enclosed spaces. Me, I’m terrified of impromptu restaurant meals on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ask any regular restaurantgoer, and you’ll hear the same.

We make a spontaneous decision to head out with friends, then spend the next hour or so wandering as every spot we select reveals itself to be fully booked or unexpectedly closed. This is where having an old standby comes in handy. I have three: one for each of the first three nights of the week.

None of these backups is my favorite spot in town. Each is comfortable and consistent, with enough appeal that eating there never feels like settling. And in a state that has pioneered ranked choice voting, it seems appropriate to hold a few good, second-best candidates in reserve at all times, just in case the first choices are too divisive or unavailable.

Lenora is on the fast track to making my very short shortlist.

Lenora’s chips, guacamole and verde cruda salsa. In back right: a Cadillac margarita. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That’s not faint praise. Perhaps most of all, I admire the egalitarian, come-one, come-all attitude this Portland newcomer displays with pride. The Mexican street-food-inspired joint does not accept reservations. Yet the restaurant – co-owners Jen and Rian Wyllie (both alumni of the late Little Giant and Boston’s Deep Ellum and Lone Star) prefer the term “taco bar”– always seems to have room for customers. That’s thanks to 100-ish seats inside, another 25 on the sidewalk patio, and opening hours that extend from early morning to … early morning (1 a.m.) every day.


“Basically, all of our tables are transformers,” marketing and events manager Jen Wyllie told me. “If you come in at 3 in the afternoon and ask if we can seat your party of 18 together, the answer is yes. Flexibility is important to us. This is always going to be a place for you, even if it looks crowded, and we’re walk-in only. We’re pretty much always going to be able to sneak you in.”

Lenora’s La Luna Rosa. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

From what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, that’s true. Head indoors and you’re likely to find a seat where you can nibble on house-fried tortilla chips and guacamole ($12) and nurse one of co-owner Max Toste’s bittersweet grapefruit-and-mezcal Luna Rosas ($13), upgraded Cadillac margaritas ($14) or warm-spiced and minty Agua de Tamarindo cocktails ($14).

What’s more, nearly every chair is positioned at barstool height (apart from a few comfy banquettes along the front windows). This “no tiers” trick is a brilliant design maneuver that collapses the yawning volume of the dining room and allows you to make eye contact with everyone in the space without looking up or down.

The Wyllies had to do something to neutralize the former Walter’s ’90s-retro, hotel lobby décor, after all. The duo did a lot more than just even the level of the chairs – they also ripped out the kitchen, rotated it by 90 degrees and tucked it in at the rear.

“What we wanted most was an open, airy space that felt like a bar when you walked in,” chef Rian Wyllie said. From the dual-belted drive belts powering ceiling fans in languid rotation, to dusty pastels and earthy tones that echo the Zapotec clay pendant lights that sparked the inspiration for the room’s design, the Wyllies hit their mark.

Tim Cisario, bar manager at Lenora, pours a Cadillac margarita. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On the food front, the story is more or less the same. Rian Wyllie’s dinner menu comprises the sort of small plates you might find at a stand-up taqueria where an alcoholic drink or, at the very least, a bottle of Jarritos soda ($5) is mandatory.


Even the textured melamine tableware reinforces Leonora’s unstuffy aura. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the admittedly cute plastic dishes at first. But because the menu is mostly individually portioned small plates, the heft of bowls and plates matters. If not to you, then to your busser who has to fetch a dozen or more dishes for every table.

Single-serving tacos are all served on chef Wyllie’s excellent, house-made corn tortillas. His Baja fish taco ($6.50), loaded with crunchy, beer-battered Casco Bay hake, mango-habañero aioli and slightly sweet pickled red cabbage slaw is a knockout. Order two.

The barbacoa ($6.50) is also a solid choice, although I found the combination of banana-leaf-wrapped smoked brisket, pickled onions and cotija cheese to be too savory without a few extra squeezes of lime juice or an extra spoonful of effervescently bright apple-and-tomatillo salsa cruda ($5, served with homemade tortilla chips).

The Tijuana Caesar ($13), a nod to the original (yes, original) Mexican whole-leaf version of the salad that Caesar Cardini created exactly a century ago, arrived lovingly smothered in shaved parmesan and guajillo-chile-toasted breadcrumbs. Like the barbacoa taco, it required complete deployment of its grill-charred lime garnish to balance out the salt. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m an advocate of the kitchen doing most of the seasoning correction before a dish hits the table.

Lenora’s coffee flan ($8), on the other hand, required no flavor enhancement. Rian Wyllie and his team get the loose texture and wide-set base of a Latin-inspired flan correct, introducing crunch with shards of a cocoa-nib-and-pepita brittle that I’d order on its own.

From what I saw, service at Lenora tends towards the folksy side of casual, and is mostly distributed – whoever is nearby will get you another drink, collect the teetering stack of melamine on your table or, unfortunately, spritz the tables next to yours with disinfectant as you’re eating.


Lenora’s Oaxacan hot chicken torta. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

One way to avoid caring what’s happening nearby is to order something with the power to steal focus, something like the intoxicatingly spiced Oaxacan hot chicken torta ($16). And before I forget, order a glass of cooling, dairy-free horchata ($7) if your spice tolerance is low. You might need it after you’ve polished off a few bites of juicy, buttermilk-marinated, masarina-breaded fried chicken thigh. Not so much because of the dry rub seasoning, but because of a housemade Mexican chile oil that chef Wyllie embellishes with allspice, clove and cocoa powder.

“We serve that with a slaw of red and Napa cabbage and avocado ranch to help with the heat,” Rian Wyllie said. “But it is one of the spicier dishes on the menu, and it gets spicier as you eat it.”

Hotter, yes. But ever more interesting, especially when rivulets of maroon chile oil seep into the pockets of the Maine Grains Portuguese roll it is served on. Eating this messy, softball-sized sandwich is like watching a complicated foreign movie where all you want to do is go back and watch it again with the subtitles off.

I know I’ll get that chance this summer, when visitors to Portland confound my weekday dining plans and I look down-ballot in my ranked choices. Lenora will be there, not far from the top, ready to offer a compromise that feels more like a win.

Lenora’s Baja fish taco. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: *** ½
WHERE: 2 Portland Square, 207-536-0423.
SERVING: Daily, 7 a.m. – 1 a.m.
PRICE RANGE: Tacos and tostadas: $5.50-$8, other plates: $5-$16
NOISE LEVEL: Hands-on science museum
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: Portland has needed good late-night dining and drinking options for some time, and Lenora – the new project from Little Giant alums Jen and Rian Wyllie delivers on both counts. Chef Rian Wyllie’s Mexican-street-food-inspired menu features the dishes you’d expect, served on cute, funky melamine dishes you might not. Baja fish tacos, housemade tortilla chips to dunk in green-apple-and-tomatillo salsa cruda or guacamole, and a Oaxacan twist on a Nashville hot chicken sandwich are all standouts, as are cocktails like the grapefruity Luna Rosa. Service ranges from good to oblivious, but don’t let that put you off. Overall, Lenora is an enjoyable spot to spend a few hours, and the double-whammy of a capacious dining room and no-reservations policy makes it likely you’ll find a table without much hassle.


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

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: