Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Bienvenido to a local dining spot


Black Cat Cantina brings classic Mexican/Latin American cuisine to Gresham

A “cantina,” according to Webster, is a saloon or a bar room.

But Mr. Webster most certainly hadn’t visited — or eaten at — Black Cat Cantina in Rockwood when he wrote his definition.

“We have very traditional authentic dishes that are different from what was here before,” said Letty Nunez, co-owner of the Mexican/Latin American restaurant. “Everything is freshly made. We use a lot of organic fruits and vegetables, and we buy everything locally. Our menu is also 95 percent gluten-free. We didn’t engineer it that way, but when you cook with fresh ingredients, it just happens.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Todd Bouchard and Letty Nunez opened Black Cat Cantina in the Rockwood neighborhood in June. Once the home of Tachos on East Burnside Road, Black Cat Cantina is a shell of its former self. In fact, the only things remaining from the earlier eatery are the dining tables, with their inlaid ceramic tiles. A nearly floor-to-ceiling fountain dominates the dining room and is accented with tropical plants and South-of the-Border artwork. Walls in the large bar area are awash in vibrant red paint and framed by the building’s signature arched windows.

But the new owners hope the restaurant alters the way locals view Mexican/Latin American cuisine and hospitality.

Portland residents Nunez and Todd Bouchard opened Black Cat Cantina quietly in June. The couple are self-confessed foodies, who embarked on this venture without a lick of experience in the restaurant industry.

“I can’t even cook, so why would I open a restaurant?” Bouchard said, laughing. “We’ve been to a lot of restaurants, so we had a list of what was important to us as a guest at a restaurant and how we would want to be treated. First and foremost was fresh food at a good value. And then, hospitality — we want our guests to be greeted warmly. We want them to feel like they’ve walked into a family home.”

But if you’re looking for a place to munch on a big plate of nachos or chimichangas, keep looking. Black Cat Cantina came equipped with a professionally trained chef who once served the queen of Spain. by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Professionally trained chef Montserrat Vazquez uses fresh ingredients and her own creativity to present authentic Mexican and Latin American dishes.

Bouchard and Nunez spent two years searching for a chef to run the kitchen in the restaurant they were planning to open. While visiting family in Mexico, they ate at several upscale places before stopping for lunch one afternoon, in a nice establishment in San Miguel de Allende, outside Mexico City. Their meals were amazing, they said.

A couple days later, Nunez and Bouchard had dinner at the same place, simply to see if the quality of the food was what they had enjoyed earlier.

It was.

“We asked to see the chef, and after we talked for a while, I asked her if she would like to come to Portland,” Nunez said.

Thirty-year-old Montserrat Vazquez is the mastermind in Black Cat Cantina’s kitchen. She learned to cook with fresh, homegrown ingredients from her mother and grandfather, on the family’s hacienda. Vazquez graduated from the University of the State of Mexico and received her master’s degree in “kitchen management” in Valencia, Spain. While working in Valencia, she had the opportunity to serve the queen.

Vazquez uses recipes for dishes with familiar names — ceviche, enchiladas and gorditas, to name a few — but employs her own creativity to present a menu worthy of tables in Portland’s Pearl District.

Her Fruit Ceviche with Shrimp is a colorful and tangy combination of bite-size fresh fruits, mint and shrimp.

The mole sauce Vazquez uses in several entrees calls for more than 20 ingredients, including chocolate, cinnamon and poblano peppers, and takes her all day to prepare.

But don’t pass on dessert. Among the offerings of rich chocolate with homemade dulce de leche (caramelized milk) is something uncommon in a Mexican restaurant — Key Lime Pie. There’s no question to the “wow factor” of Vazquez’ version when a newspaper reporter and photographer go to battle over the last bite.

Nunez and Bouchard may be aiming to feed customers, but they’re also feeding the community. Since opening Black Cat Cantina, they have hired five students from Reynolds Learning Academy in Troutdale, providing employment to local kids and introducing them to potential career paths.

“We want to make a difference in the community,” Bouchard said. “We’ve improved the building, we have great food and we want to help bring people along.”

Reviewers on the Internet site Yelp have given Black Cat Cantina a five-star rating, calling it a “hidden gem” and in a category of, “Oh my God, I can’t believe it opened here...”

That is music to Bouchard’s and Nunez’ ears.

“Most people go to Portland to have dinner in a place that isn’t part of a chain,” Bouchard said. “We wanted to bring a good experience to this area and provide a good value where our customers feel they’re getting their money’s worth.”

If you go

Who: Black Cat Cantina

Where: 18901 E. Burnside Road, Gresham.

What: Authentic Mexican/Latin American cuisine, prepared fresh with local ingredients; full bar, with homemade juices and simple syrup; dessert menu.

Hours: Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. with dinner service from 4-10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; bar service is available until midnight Wednesday through Sunday; live music Fridays and Saturdays until the bar closes at 2 a.m.; free salsa lessons Friday nights. Black Cat Cantina is closed Monday and Tuesday.

For more information: Call 503-912-3228.