Alto Bajo's modern Mexican fare honors traditional roots
Pozole is a soulful Mexican soup, a tradition passed down generations upon
generations. The same for ramen, in Japanese culture.
Both are somewhat sacred, but at Alto Bajo, downtown's newest Mexican-inspired restaurant, it's all fair game.
Executive chef Chip Barnes says the idea with his pozole rojo ramen is to showcase traditional flavors through a modern, distinctive lens, using the bounty of ingredients available in the Pacific Northwest.
The juxtaposition of old and new also is rooted in location: Alto Bajo is a bright, modern space in the historic Oregon Pioneer Building downtown, just down the hall from the uber-hip Hi-Lo Hotel and its party-like vibe.
Before launching the restaurant earlier this year, Barnes collaborated on the menu with famed Mexican-born chef Illiana de la Vega, who's helped start restaurants in Oaxaca and Austin, Texas.
The result: A simple menu with dishes that are playful and modern but also pay homage to their roots.
There's a "fiesta of moles," with three types of mole, earthy, rich and complex with various notes of chocolate, ancho chiles and tamarind. When menu items hail from a particular region, it's noted: The mole amarillo is from the central valley region of Oaxaca.
Standards like ceviche, chile relleno, cochinita pibil and a tres leches cake are flavor knockouts, full of texture and artfully presented.
Barnes relies on local purveyors including Three Sisters Nixtamal (for Portland-made corn tortillas), Nicky USA (meat), Ken's Artisan Bakery, Provista Specialty Foods and Newman's Seafood.
Tequila lovers will appreciate the beverage menu, and several varieties of mezcal — tequila's smokier cousin — also are showcased.
We caught up with Barnes to ask him four questions about his food and inspirations:
Tribune: What inspires your menu this season? Favorite local seafood that is best in the winter?
Barnes: Winter to me means hearty, soulful food, and I've done my best to incorporate that into the menu with dishes like the pozole and the barbacoa. As far as seafood, I'll show my East Coast roots and say dungeness crab (it's the closest we can get to Chesapeake Bay blue crab out here) or those awesome little smelts, which you may see start showing up on the menu around February.
Tribune: What's the most exciting part about your location?
Barnes: I'm excited about helping rejuvenate the neighborhood. Several of the restaurants I've worked in were the first in their neighborhood, and I've gotten to watch each place grow with the local community into something really special that wasn't there before.
Tribune: One of your favorite holiday drinks? (Both personally and what you've got on the cocktail list.)
Barnes: I love a good buttered rum ... just a double Ron Zacapa 23 on a big ice cube. On our cocktail menu we have this awesome hot toddy made with reposado tequila and our custom Alto Bajo tea from Steven Smith Teamaker for the more adventurous diner. It's called The Wanderer.
Tribune: What dish on your menu for the holidays is particularly elaborate to prepare, something most people would never eat at home? Please explain.
Barnes: Let's circle back to the dishes I mentioned earlier: The pozole is basically just a bowl of rich, spicy, emulsified pork and dried chili stew. I cook the broth almost like you would make a tonkotsu ramen to really fortify and embolden the flavor and texture. It takes about 12 hours just to make the broth. Total abuelita food, and most people aren't going spend all day watching soup.
Holiday specials on tap
For the holidays, Alto Bajo is one of many top Portland restaurants serving some of their most inspired, festive fare.
At Alto Bajo on Dec. 24 and 25, you'll find a family-style dinner of Christmas tamales, chochoyotes, puerco adobado, grilled parsnip, green papaya and atole y bunuelos. It's $60 per person, with separate beverage pairings.
In the days before Christmas, Lo Bar (in the adjoining Hi-Lo Hotel), is holding a 25 Days of Mezcal event with $6 drink specials.
On Dec. 31, Alto Bajo will hold four seatings with both traditional and innovative dishes like oyster crudo, pozole rojo ramen, dungeness crab cake, dry-aged strip steak and atole y bunuelos for dessert. The dinner is $95 per person.
Check it out: Alto Bajo, 310 S.W. Stark St., www.altobajopdx.com.