“What are your favorite things on the menu?” my wife asked. The waitress quickly glanced at her, then me, as if gauging what might appeal to us. “I would recommend the ceviché de camaron, shrimp mixed with mango and strawberry, chile and chopped cilantro. There are also lemon and lime juices in it. You will love it. Can I start you off with one?”
The statement was confidently made, my retelling not quite verbatim but accurate in style and delivery. She then went on in detail how each of the menu items we asked about (and some we didn’t) was prepared, down to the spices, herbs and seasonings. We were hooked by her explanations, given patiently and willingly. Was it possible that we had never had any better wait person who knew everything about the menu?
By herself, she was taking care of the entire dining area, at least when we arrived close to 6pm, of the Black Cat Cantina which a friend of ours (who knew we were in Portland) alerted us to by email just yesterday. We told him we would check it out. Located in east Portland (Gresham), the restaurant features food from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, mostly Argentina. Several of the menu items listed “Latin America” as the place of origin, not knowing if this meant that they were prepared beyond any single national border or the chef, who was trained in Mexico and Spain, was simply being creative with indigenous ingredients. It didn’t matter to us.
We started things off with cocktails. My Caipirinha del Norte (☆☆½) is a riff on the popular Brazilian drink, using limes, vodka instead of cachaça and muddled grapes instead of refined sugar. My wife’s El Paseo (☆☆½) margarita combined Gran Centenario tequila, lime juice, agave nectar and Grand Marnier, quite a tart and relatively weak version. To their credit, these drinks were not cloyingly sweet.
So, what about the ceviché mentioned at the beginning of the post? The waitress was right; we loved it (☆☆☆½). A little spicy from serrano chilés, the Mexican white shrimp were nicely “cooked” by the citrus juices, which themselves were wonderfully contrasted by the diced fruits. This was a very refreshing appetizer/salad.
I was swayed by the waitress’ description of the Argentine churrasco, a steak served with chimichurri sauce. According to her, the cut is an Argentine one called bife de chorizo, which she described as being just as flavorful as ribeye but not as marbled with fat. Similar to a New York steak, it is cut and trimmed differently, enough that Black Cat Cantina has to special-order them. It arrived as a 12-oz portion, about ¾-inch thick, with nice grill marks, some untrimmed (and tasty) exterior fat, and bursting with intense beef flavor. The tangy and assertive chimichurri, though flavorful, masked the steak’s flavor, so I wound up dipping cut meat pieces just slightly so as to engage in an authentic Argentine experience. As if sliced from polyhedrons of potatoes, papas bravas were flawless, crispy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and wonderfully seasoned. Like the chimichurri, the accompanying catsup seemed superfluous. I loved this entire dish (☆☆☆☆), with or without the sauces.
Remembering the superb version she had at Señor Moose in Seattle, my wife picked the Pescado a la Veracruzana. Though the waitress called out the fish as petrale sole, it was actually tilapia, mingled in a robust sauce of tomatoes, black (instead of green) olives and plenty of capers (which made the dish salty), all served on a bed of perfectly cooked, flavorful Mexican rice. With a slight deduction for tilapia’s mildly muddy taste, my wife really enjoyed this otherwise perfect dish (☆☆☆½).
When the waitress asked if we enjoyed our meals, we were quick to answer in the affirmative.
“Is your name Liz?” I asked.
“Yes! How did you know?”
“I read about you on Yelp.” Yes, Liz (which she pronounces with a long “i”, like Leez) has impressed more customers than just us and the diners in the next booth.
“I love my job,” she beamed. Indeed she does, and her customers are just as glad.
Black Cat Bistro (** CLOSED **)
18901 E Burnside
Portland, OR 97233