Cha TaqueriaThe search for the cheap meal often ends up in a crap fast food establishment where you don’t get any real value for things that just act like food without really resembling or even tasting like food.

Over the holidays I managed to sneak a present into my wife’s stocking, Cindy Anderson’s Portland Happy Hour Guidebook, and since then (because of Kim’s great idea to follow through with the book!) we’ve been on a quest to avoid the fast food dark side in favor of cheap eats and drinks – real food and real drinks. Go figure!

So far, so good.

So far, so very good.

On New Year’s Day and a few days later, Kim and I treated ourselves to Cha Taqueria, which received a high rating from the guidebook and seemed to have reasonable prices. We left both times literally on a high and, in my case, a little buzzed from the cheap and delicious house sangria. The food was, indeed, that stupendous.

Well over a year ago, I wrote the following in a past blog entry:

I’ve had this continuing battle between my taste buds and my brain since I moved here almost a year ago. One of the things I greatly anticipated upon entering the gates of the San Diego area was its overflowing plethora of Mexican street food – tacos, burritos, quesadillas. Considering this area is not only famous for them, but is one of the areas where this particular cuisine was given birth, you’d expect that fare of this sort would, well, be astounding. I haven’t found astounding yet. Nay, I’ve barely found good. As I’ve oft said to my dear wife, if this is authentic Mexican, then I don’t like Mexican food.

At this point I’d like to retract that last sentence because, strangely enough, I’ve found the Mexican food of my dreams here in Portland. Yes, Cha Taqueria may be the saving grace for all Mexican food that San Diego somehow doomed for me. Cha, though, from the minute you walk in is a definite Portland establishment. You might catch some banda over the overhead speakers but then you may get some indie rock or some techno. The ingredients tend to remain local with most of the meats sourced within Oregon or Washington. The make-up of the restaurant leans modern, arty, yet is comfortable. The service both times was impeccable and when service seems to be an ever-present issue amongst Portland eateries, it’s well appreciated to be paid attention to so closely without being constricting.

The food…ah, yes…the food. Have I mentioned that I am gleeful beyond all smiling to have found such delicious Mexican food? Over the two visits, we tried five separate happy hour offerings and all five were delectable. Notably, the dos marias (Draper Valley chicken quesadillas with salsa verde) and the picaditas de morelos (from-scratch corn cakes topped with black beans, veggies, and cheese) both caught our attention with their textures and strong flavors. Delphina had a burrito de vegetariano which was beautifully dressed with two sauces, making the plate look like a canvased painting. Two other plates held their own, a plate of carnitas enchiladas served covered in a mole sauce and a plate of chicken and potato taquitos served with pico de gallo. Kim took a few minutes to warm up to the carnitas enchiladas, but came around to enjoying them quite a bit. The key here was that nothing felt like, looked like, or, especially, tasted like it was frozen or prepared days ahead of time. Everything was fresh, crisp, and genuinely prepared with care and dedication.

So, you may wonder, “OK. So, everything sounds good, but how much did it set you back?” Okay, here’s the tally:

1st visit (just me and Kim): $15 for two plates (which is plenty to make us happily full) and a sangria, including tip.

2nd visit (the four of us): $30 for four plates, a sangria, and two horchatas, including tip.

That’s it.

Period.

I would’ve spent that much at any Mexcian fast food hole, you take your pick. And I wouldn’t have even gotten the free chips and salsa that I forgot to mention!