Andrew Shaffer, kitchen manager, shows off a lobster taco at The Highroller Lobster Co. in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

If you’re craving tacos this Cinco de Mayo – or any other day of the year, for that matter – there’s almost surely something in Greater Portland that can satisfy your tastes.

You can easily find classic “street taco” offerings like al pastor, carnitas and barbacoa tacos, while the American-style, crispy-shell taco with ground beef is available at any number of restaurants – including the originator of that style, Taco Bell.

More adventurous palates can indulge in goat meat tacos at Taco Trio in South Portland or cow tongue tacos at Old Port’s Taco Escobarr, while the diet-conscious can find vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options at most taquerias these days. There are Mexi-Cali style fish tacos at places like El Rayo and Cantina Calafia. You can even enjoy regional and international mash-ups like Lobster Cheese Crisp tacos at The Highroller Lobster Co., or Korean beef bulgogi tacos on handmade organic Maine corn tortillas from the Tacos del Seoul food truck.

But while foodies tend to consider traditional Mexican tacos, like carnitas or carne asada served on soft corn tortillas, to be more authentic than other kinds, one prominent taco expert argues that notions of authenticity can be too limiting.

Steven Alvarez is a professor at St. Johns University who teaches a course called Taco Literacy. He recently gave a presentation at Bowdoin College. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I feel like ‘authenticity’ is a search where no one will find an origin,” said Steven Alvarez, a professor at St. John’s University in Queens, New York, who teaches a course called Taco Literacy, which uses tacos as a way to explore larger issues of Mexican immigration, cultural assimilation and how Mexican foodways have stretched into the United States. A Mexican American originally from Arizona, Alvarez has also written about tacos for Eater and Bon Appetit. In late April, he gave a lecture on the subject at Bowdoin College.

“Sometimes when we use that term authentic, it’s more about being a, quote-unquote, cultured eater. To act like you’re better or more intelligent than another eater,” he said recently, speaking from his office in Queens. “I’d rather have the taco experience be inclusive, and to think about how these things change and adapt. As a taco travels, by virtue of its context, it takes on the identity of where it’s at.”



“The local ingredients are going to shape what’s available,” Alvarez continued, giving the example of Bourbon-marinated carnitas tacos he enjoyed when he was teaching in Kentucky. “And I’m thinking somebody up (in Maine) is probably making some bad-ass lobster tacos.”

He’s right: Highroller’s lobster taco has been one of the restaurant’s top sellers stretching back to its days as a food cart in 2015, all the more popular because it’s a gluten-free option.

Highroller kitchen manager Andrew Shaffer explained that they make the taco’s cheese shell by searing a blend of cheddar and Swiss cheese on a flat top, then shaping it over a taco holder before filling it with shredded lettuce and lobster.

Lobster taco at The Highroller Lobster Co. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“There are definitely some staple places around when it comes to the typical, traditional taco, and they all do it very well,” said Shaffer. “Ours is obviously out of the box when it comes to Mexican cuisine, something that nobody else offers. As long as the chefs in town are taking a chance and it’s received well by the consumer, then authenticity doesn’t matter much. Portland is such a diverse culinary city anyway; there’s definitely room for all that creativity from everybody.”

“The taco is sort of a perfect vehicle for interpretation, or reinterpretation,” said El Rayo co-owner Tod Dana, who describes the tacos at his restaurants in Portland and Scarborough as modern Mexi-Cali street tacos. “It’s almost analogous to pizza in a way. It’s a blank canvas for culinary creativity, whether it’s a Jamaican interpretation with jerk chicken or a Greek interpretation with lamb.”


The house brunch taco with tofu at Bird & Co. Photo by Bon Vivants Creative

Bird & Co. co-owner Jared Dinsmore said when he and partner Wills Dowd launched their internationally influenced taco restaurant in 2019, they aimed to reflect how Portland has become a “cultural melting pot.”

“The food scene here in Portland when we were young men was not very diverse at all,” Dinsmore said. “Over time, our city has become more and more diverse to cultures and cuisines that we previously weren’t. When it came time for us to open our first restaurant, we drew upon the cultural diversity that had accrued at that point.

“Neither of us are Mexican, but we both love tacos,” he continued. “There were so many traditional Mexican restaurants already, and we wanted to be different and showcase our passion for other cuisines using a tortilla as the canvas. It really is something for everyone, that was our concept.”

Dinsmore said it also would’ve felt “fraudulent” for them to try to launch an authentic Mexican taqueria. “I don’t intend to pose as somebody who has a deep knowledge of authentic Mexican cuisine, and I respect the effort and the knowledge and generational recipes handed down in that culture, and we were simply not going to be able to present as that.”

The bahn mi taco at Bird & Co. in 2019. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Instead, Bird & Co.’s menu features tacos with innovative fillings like bacon, brie and fig; pork belly with tamari-agave glaze; Vietnamese banh mi-style; Cubano-style with pork, mustard, cheese and pickles; vegan barbecue cauliflower; and updated takes on classics like lamb tinga and a fish taco featuring local haddock.



“The foodways are always evolving,” Alvarez said. “Tacos keep changing because more and more people keep coming (to the U.S. from Mexico), and also the food down there is changing. So for example, the posts you see on social media of elotes covered in hot Cheetos, that’s in Mexico City too. That stuff is spreading everywhere. The traditions change depending on the context.”

Birria-style “Tijuana” tacos at Bird & Co., with dipping jus. Photo by Bon Vivants Creative

Alvarez pointed to birria tacos – stewed meat and cheese in griddled tortillas served with a dipping jus – and how birria morphed from its origins in the state of Jalisco to become a trend in the United States. Traditionally made with stewed goat in western Mexico, birria spread up to Baja California in the 1950s, where Tijuana cooks started making it with beef, which was cheaper and more readily available.

In the 2010s, birria tacos crossed the border into San Diego and soon went viral on social media. In Maine, they’re served as specials at places like El Rayo and Nosh Taco and are on the regular menu at Tacos La Poblanita in Westbrook, Taqueria 207 in Old Orchard Beach and Bird & Co., which has a shredded pork version called the “Tijuana.”

Though we think of them broadly as Mexican food, traditional taco styles first developed in particular Mexican regions based on the most readily available ingredients. For instance, Alvarez said, flour tortillas are thought to have originated in northern Mexican states, where wheat is more plentiful than corn.

Alvarez noted that the state of Puebla has its al pastor – first popularized by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico in the early 20th century who cooked meat on a spit shawarma-style – while Michoacan is all about braised pork carnitas, and Sonora is known for carne asada, thin-cut skirt steak grilled over fragrant mesquite. Baja California, with its ample coastline, has plenty of shark and stingray tacos.

The pescado taco at El Rayo, made with local fish. Photo by Winky Lewis

So it makes sense that many taco iterations in Maine would feature local seafood.


“We like to use a lot of local seafood and put Mexican flair to it,” said Corey Gamache, executive chef at El Rayo. In the summer, they offer scallop tacos with lime, cilantro, avocado and cotija cheese. “Those seem to do really well with the tourists.”

Like other area taquerias, El Rayo also uses seasonal vegetables that are plentiful in Maine, like winter squash and sweet potatoes. “It’s such a versatile form of food that you can take ingredients from all over the place and make it unique,” Gamache said.

El Rayo employs a lot of cooks from Latin America, Gamache said, and encourages them to develop recipes based on their own culinary experiences. One Mexican staffer contributed a recipe for chicken tinga (shredded chicken stewed with tomatoes and guajillo peppers) popular in his hometown that the restaurant features in a number of specials, including tacos.


Gamache said, when he started with El Rayo 11 years ago, there was only a handful of taco restaurants in the area.

“At least a dozen places have opened up since then, and business here is still booming. I feel like pretty much all the pub food places even have tacos on their menus now,” he said. “I think the variety here is huge.”


Dinsmore agreed. “That whole market has exploded,” he said. “Since we opened five years ago, we’ve seen six or seven openings with taco offerings ranging from authentic to creative in Greater Portland. It’s great to see more and more availability of those foods to the people who live here.”

“The proliferation of tacos in Maine and the U.S. in general speaks to the fact that everybody can find what they want,” said Dana. “Tacos have mass appeal, and you can find one that suits your tastes. It’s super-accessible to most people.”

Alvarez said he expects tacos to keep evolving, as Mexican immigrants continue to introduce new food traditions. Similarly, he said, tacos will necessarily adapt to fit their local and regional contexts in the United States and beyond.

“All these ways of reading culture can happen through our food,” Alvarez said. “And not just tacos, any food. Think about lobster in Maine, and the lobster roll itself could be a venue to think critically about the culinary identity of this region, and how the lobster roll becomes part of American cuisine, but distinctly regional as well.”

Alvarez plans to continue to use tacos as a springboard for larger discussions of the evolution of Mexican culture and foodways.

“You can see how there are so many lessons in a single taco,” he said. “I think it was Socrates who said the unexamined life is not worth living, but I’d say the unexamined taco is not worth eating.”

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