Hot Trash: Munch is a weekly meditation on specific dishes served and consumed within the Greater Portland area. These are not “restaurant reviews,” but merely amalgamations of thoughts and musings highlighting the talent, drive and creativity characteristic of Portland’s vibrant food/drink communities. Use them to do only good, and see for yourself by supporting these people.
I acquired my first taste of the professional world when I was 23 years old. Desperate to find a steady, decent-paying job after a handful of unglamorous kitchen stints and random dead ends, I somehow landed an interview at an ad agency for an "operations management" position, which I knew exactly zero things about before walking in and also after walking out.
Even more surprising was the fact that they hired me on the spot. I got home, unpacked my knife roll for the last time and settled into my final weekend before "business casual Erik" became a thing. It lasted two years.
Though I ultimately attribute my professional successes to this first foray into office culture, I hated my life the entire time I was there. Every day, I'd wake up knowing that I was about to spend nearly 10 hours in a toxic environment filled with poisonous energy and an overwhelming sense of dread. It sucked, and it almost took me out.
The only thing that provided M-F respite for those two years of my life was Tu Casa being across the street from the office.
Seven years later, I still catch myself breathing a sigh of relief every time I walk into Tu Casa. This time, though, I can actually enjoy the food instead of ruminating on how I have to go spend the rest of my day surrounded mostly by assholes. And though my headspace may have changed since then, the restaurant hasn't at all. Case in point:
- It still feels like you're eating in someone's living room, with Christmas lights on year-round.
- Soccer is still playing on repeat at all times, the small TV in the corner providing a constant roar of a distant crowd.
- Louis still greets me every time I walk in with a sarcastic and drawn-out, "Hellooo siiiiiir."
- It's still BYOB (though it wasn't, for a short spell).
- This framed towel is still on the wall —
Atmosphere aside, the real reason to come to Tu Casa is the food, which also hasn't changed in as many years as I've been eating there. It's Salvadoran, and one of the only options in Portland if you're craving tamales, plantains or pupusas, which—for the uninitiated—are essentially thick corn tortillas griddled and stuffed with any combination of meat, beans and cheese.
Plenty has already been written about the pupusas at Tu Casa, and they're not the focus of this post. I will mention as an aside that the vinegary quick-pickled cabbage and carrot slaw they're served with is my favorite table condiment in the city and should be consumed with everything, including breakfast.
So should this stuff —
Never sit down to a meal at Tu Casa without first wrangling up one pourer each of the unlabeled green and red sauces that can be found scattered around the restaurant. The cilantro and pepper-based green sauce is fiery enough to do damage in large doses, while the mellow tomato-based red sauce can be dumped all over your order without abandon should you choose to take such a route. I use both on everything I eat there, including the...
Where to start in discussing the plato montañero at Tu Casa? For one, it's my order 90% of the time and one of the only plates of food in Portland that I find myself actually craving specifically on the regular. A heaping portion of beans, rice, fried plantain, grilled ribeye and a hard-fried egg flanked by two slices of avocado, it's the food equivalent of a bottle of NyQuil and WILL put you down.
Remember, though—you're a mountaineer. You've got this.
The plato montañero is a variation on bandeja paisa, a staple of Columbian cuisine that has spawned countless similar regional dishes over the years. What makes the iteration served at Tu Casa so deeply satisfying is the overall sum of its parts. The impossibly rich rice (which I'm convinced is prepared in some capacity with lard) eventually coats every item of food on the plate, absorbing the creaminess of the beans and the char of the steak. Though almost always overcooked, the ribeye is aggressively seasoned and explosive with flavor, perfectly contrasting the sweetness of the plantain and melting the avocado as if it were butter.
Even the hard-cooked egg, which I generally despise, lends a nice textural element to the dish. I hit it with a ton of the red sauce.
What I love most about the plato montañero—and Tu Casa in general, come to think of it—is the instant feeling of comfort I've come to associate with the dish. I've eaten it on days when my 23-year-old self was teeming with "office stress" and anger stemming from my work environment, and it was probably the only thing that kept me from getting myself fired. I've proudly ordered it in celebration of new writing gigs and album releases. I even remember a specific order of plato montañero that instantly quelled an anxiety attack so severe, I thought it might send me to the hospital.
The plato montañero at Tu Casa has my back.
Plenty of things make this dish special, but nothing compares to the smiling ladies in hairnets and braces who prepare and bring it to the table. Seven years and counting, they haven't changed, either.