Those who bemoaned the closing of El Rayo Taqueria on York Street should celebrate its opening on Free Street. The new El Rayo in downtown Portland is nicer than the original in every way, and the food is just as good.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved the original El Rayo, and I found its funky location in a former service station on the side of busy road appealing in an industrial sort of way. The new one may lack some of the quirky charm, but it makes up for it in a much more comfortable experience.
The new El Rayo is a take-out place with a sharp focus on fast and efficient counter service. Order at the counter, take a seat and your food will be ready moments later. The dining room feels a little cramped, but there’s a nice deck — albeit, overlooking a parking lot — and, on a recent warm November afternoon, it was pretty well packed with the lunch crowd.
The two times I’ve been, I have taken a seat at the bar, which has an open-window view of the kitchen.
It’s a full-service bar with high-end tequila choices and nearly a dozen draft beers.
The food remains excellent with fresh, locally sourced ingredients and a menu that offers tradition and adventure. I’m a traditionalist. My first visit I ordered the chicken, rice and bean bowl ($8.95). The chicken was lightly grilled with a smoky chipotle sauce and served among a generous portion of rice and beans topped with cilantro, avocado slices and cheese. I was a little surprised that it came in a cardboard bowl and with plastic utensils, but then I realized that this really is a take-out place, and much if not most of the food is prepared to go. The cardboard service items are consistent with the on-the-go vibe of El Rayo.
The chicken bowl was excellent. I was hoping for a heaping pile of rice and beans, and I got it. The chicken was fresh and moist and seasoned with just enough heat to make me aware of it, but no more.
On my second trip, I opted for the pork burrito ($8.95) during the height of the lunch rush. It arrived a minute or two later in a plastic basket, wrapped in foil with a bag of chips and a small, sealed plastic cup of salsa. The foil was adorned with a sticker: pork.
What my meal lacked in presentation, it made up for in quality. The burrito was densely packed with braised pork, caramelized onions and a sauce that added just enough variety. It held together nicely, which was good because I did not receive, or need, any utensils.
I haven’t been yet for breakfast but intend to go soon. Breakfast burritos cost $5.95 and seem like a great alternative to the typical breakfast sandwich. And you can be confident that you won’t spend a lot of time standing around waiting.
WHERE: 26 Free St., Portland; 207-780-8226; elrayotaqueria.com
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily
WAIT: Five minutes
PARKING: On the street
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE: Yes