Good food and chill vibe the mark of Mexican eatery

A Thursday whim took my wife and me to the Free St. location of El Rayo. Though there’s also one in Scarborough, the Portland eatery is more conveniently located for us. I hadn’t been since they were at their former York St. building on which now sits a nearly completed, giant, mixed use building. It had been so long that I hardly expected anything I remembered about them to be the same.

I didn’t know it going in, but the restaurant was counter service only. We had the option of sitting outside which sounded okay, but counter seating seemed to make more sense since that’s where the actual service was. We plopped ourselves down and I admired the well-lit liquor display in front of us highlighting a vast array of tequila and creating a very relaxed ambiance. On the wall above were the prices, categorized by the spirit’s age.

The counter-tender reiterated the happy hour specials which were listed on a sign outside. Margaritas were a five-spot and a selection of Mexican beers were a deuce. Though I thought a shot of tequila might be fun, we decided to pass on a drink. I stuck with water and she ordered a soda water with lime. The food menu listed all the typical Mexican staples and some variations thereof. In addition there were few specials listed on the back wall.

When it was time to order, she started with Golden Jet Pineapple – on a stick with chile powder, salt, and lime. I went with the Nachos Grande – grilled chicken, shredded lettuce, housemade crema, radishes, pickled jalapeno, cilantro, and taquerera salsa – guacamole on the side. We also placed our main course orders and got ready to consume.

Our apps came out much more quickly than I expected, but I wasn’t complaining. My nachos looked like a pile of lettuce, radish, and some crema on top with a few chips underneath. I prepared to give them a shot, taking a thick corn tortilla and placing a fair amount of the aforementioned toppings on it. It was good as the crema provided a nice fresh flavor.

About five chips in, I came to the realization that my nachos were much grander than I had anticipated. With most of the lettuce eaten, a glut of additional chips, chicken, and salsa were revealed. I worked them over, uncovering a few jalapenos in the process. I was particularly taken with the salsa which took the plate up a tier.

By the time I was nearing the end of my chips, I was quite full, but did take a bite of my wife’s pineapple. I found it to be outstanding for something that seemed so simple. The acidic, juicy fruit blended well with the chili, salt, and lime blend and told me that spicy pineapple margaritas were in my future. For certain, those flavors would translate beautifully into a cocktail.

As we rolled past apps and into entrees, I was presented with two tacos. The first was an Al Carbon – char grilled chicken with pico de gallo salsa, cotija cheese, shredded lettuce, and radish, garnished with cilantro. The other was Al Pastor – slow braised pork with grilled pineapple salsita, and shredded lettuce, garnished with cilantro. She went with a modified version of a Rice and Bean Bowl which included chicken, avocado, lettuce, and radish.

My tacos came in double layer warm tortillas and were absolutely stuffed with filling. I took a bite of the chicken first and found it delicious. The only issue I had was that it was a little light on the salsa. I love pico and, while I could taste it, I felt it was somewhat overpowered by the other ingredients. I actually felt the same way about the pork too. The salsita was deliciously sweet, but there just wasn’t enough.

With a couple bites left of my rolled pork pancake, I had to call it quits. The nacho had softened me and the tacos threw the finishing combo. I had bitten off more than I could chew. We got out for around $40 after tip since we didn’t drink and I was full up to my gills, so I thought that was quite fair.

I’ve always enjoyed El Rayo and I’m glad I finally returned. Their food is good, and while I wanted more salsa in the tacos, they were so big that I think it might be just the salsa to other stuff ratio that caused the issue. I recommend you go there and try the nachos, tacos, pinapple, and whatever else you like. And don’t forget some tequila, because they’ve got plenty and it’s sure to make you smile, even if you’re not there at happy hour.

Stay hungry.

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Peter Blanchette

About Peter Blanchette

Peter Peter Portland Eater grew up in Lewiston, Maine and graduated from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in English. After college, he left the state to work in Massachusetts, but the allure of a more comfortable life in his home state brought him back after eight years. Upon his return and after meeting his now wife – Mrs. Portlandeater, he slowly integrated himself into the Portland food scene by trying as many restaurants as he could afford. That and a desire to write for others again led him to start where he reviews restaurants and blogs about whatever Portland/Maine food topics he finds interesting.