Weekend!Food: Restaurant of the Week
by: DENISE FARWELL, Encanto gamely tries to channel New Mexican food, but it’s difficult to make the real deal in Oregon.

Before I lived in Santa Fe, I scoffed at former New Mexicans who exalted the chile. Whether it was red, green or 'Christmas' (meaning both), they craved the stuff like alley addicts.

Even pre-Internet, I asked why they couldn't just order it, or make it themselves from Oregon-grown peppers? They all insisted it was different.

I thought it was the height of arrogance.

What a fool I was.

Maybe it's the nearly omnipresent sun; the strangely gentle, velvety quality of the air; or the lithium in the water, chiles are never as good outside of the Land of Enchantment as they are in it.

So I didn't have high hopes for Encanto, despite the owners' New Mexican heritage. The sleek warehouselike space is a nice addition to this part of North Portland.

The discombobulated staff doesn't put diners immediately at ease - an obvious host station would be a big help -but overall they're friendly if a bit vague (ordered items were forgotten on two recent visits).

They wisely push the sopaipillas as a starter but can't be sure how many of the puffy, fried dough rectangles will arrive. 'It depends how they cut them,' one offered, unhelpfully.

Try to snag one in any case.

Another classic, green chile stew, is full of tender hunks of pork and is intensely spiced, but the flavor lies flat beyond the heat. There's none of the nuance that makes members of the green chile team think theirs' is best.

The salad of roasted beets with goat cheese makes a good start, and the house salad with sage-piñon vinaigrette improved dramatically from one visit to the next.

Among the dinners, the enchiladas also got better after a few weeks but still don't hold a candle to the real thing.

The chile blanketing the cheese, vegetable or flank steak isn't nearly thick enough to impart much of anything, the tortillas verged on leather-toughness and the less said about the accompanying rice and beans the better.

The fancier, more complicated dishes are much more successful. Both the braised meat dishes, buffalo short ribs and cordero sofrito - lamb in a spiced tomato sauce - benefit from slow cooking that melts the meat and the myriad flavors bloom into complex and hearty sauces.

Chiles rellenos challenge many cooks -it's hard to keep the coating crisp, the cheese stuffing melted and the chile tender. Here the stuffing suffers, but overall it's an acceptable choice for vegetarians.

There's a full bar with a tequila-heavy cocktail list and margaritas, of course.

For dessert, the menu lists only tres leches, a vanilla version of tiramisu. On one trip there also was a chocolate cake that held a hidden kick of chile.

This is the sort of taste sensation chile fans love best -just when you're sensing one thing (in this case chocolate) you're tickled with a tingle of something else. If only the experience was more universal on this menu, and on this side of Farmington.

The best food that happens in Santa Fe stays in Santa Fe.

- Audrey Van Buskirk

5225 N. Lombard St., 503-286-2929, 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. daily, $8-$17

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