This review originally appeared in The Portland Sentinel.
Oaxaca (pronounced wa-ha-ca), located in the southernmost coast of Mexico, is one of Mexico’s 31 states. Its capital city (bearing the same name) is where Kenny Hill, former sous chef at Higgins, found inspiration for his new restaurant, Trebol. Hill’s interest in Mexican cuisine sprouts from his roots — he regularly visited his grandparents in Mexico and traveled throughout Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido.
Hill has opened his new venture on Albina Avenue and stocked the kitchen with local, seasonal and organic ingredients, putting a Northwest twist on traditional Oaxacan cuisine. Hill, a tequila aficionado, has lined the shelves of his beautiful wooden bar with over 50 sunny kinds of tequila (even offering tequila flights) to help educate a soggy community on the subtle complexities of this agave-derived spirit.
Trebol’s décor is warm and rich with bright yellow walls and wagon wheel chandeliers. A flat screen TV hangs over the bar and only plays Spanish language cowboy and surfer films with the sound down. The spacious dining room and bar are inviting and chic without being pretentious, and never feel chichi. With the focus on seasonal far, Trebol’s menu will be changing regularly.
On the night my guests and I went, selections included a zesty guacamole con chiles y ajo (a heaping helping of guacamole with serrano chiles served with warm homemade corn tortillas, $8), almejas con chorizo y chiles (manilla clams with housemade chorizo and yummy serrano chiles, $11.50) and we were just getting started. Sipping on delectable cocktails, the Margarita Azul (Silver tequila, Parfai Amore, lavender, and fresh lime with a sugared rim, $7), the Daquiri de Banano (banana-infused dark rum, Patron Café, and coconut milk, $8 worth of sinful rich banana flavor) and slurping up the spicy juice from the clams with warm tortillas, we found ourselves lost in blissful conversation about our past travels, even roping the manager, Jorge, into the mix.
Then came our entrees: Trebol’s tamales del dia con tostadas (the housemade tamales of the day, $12) are a soft creamy corn pudding consistency filled with tender flavorful chicken. The enjitomatadas de espinaca, hongos de queso anejocon huevo frito (a layered rather than rolled enchilada filled with grilled greens, wild mushrooms and queso fresco in a mild red chili sauce and topped with an over-easy egg, $13) is a vegetarian’s delight that will satisfy anyone. Lastly, the halibut con pepitas y arroz pilaf (cumin crusted halibut with pumpkin seeds and brown rice pilaf, $17.50) was a coup. The halibut, cooked to perfection, was meaty and moist with the pumpkin seeds toasted and ground atop the lightly cumin-flavored fish. The halibut sat on a bed of sautéed greens and brown rice pilaf, which seemed much more like a nutty amd tomatoey Mexican risotto shaped into a patty and flash fried, creating both a crispy and creamy side dish.
Hill’s new place has a lot going for it, but the best thing about Trebol is not the commitment to organics or seasonal fare, it’s not the gorgeously warm atmosphere, delightful libations or even the sensually tasty fare — it’s the comfortable feeling that Hill and his friends have created. From the manager to the bar and wait staff, everyone seemed personally invested in our good time. There was an almost overwhelming sense of pride and hospitality that made for a very welcoming vibe and made dining at Trebol truly something special.
Trebol Mexican Restaurant, 4835 N Albina, (503) 517-9347 www.trebolpdx.com