Six must-try taco stops near Salem, Oregon
Oregon’s Mid-Willamette Valley is rich with many things, including tacos. The area has a long mutual relationship with a thriving Latin American culture. Oregon shared a border with Mexico until 1848 when Mexico ceded California to the United States after the Mexican-American War. For well over a century, Mexicans and their descendants have played an essential role in all aspects of producing the singular bounty of the valley.
Planting, tending and harvesting grapes, hops, fruits, vegetables, berries and flowers demands fuel. Agriculture flourishes in the valley and so do tacos. Today Mexican restaurants, markets and food trucks are scattered throughout the area, including in towns like Woodburn, Oregon, long celebrated as a Mexican cultural center, or Salem, Oregon, where the Hispanic/Latino population is about 20 percent, according to the 2010 census.
Potential taco perfection lies around every bend. Highways and back roads alike lead hungry explorers through fields bright with vineyards, lush with produce and fragrant with flowers. A well-paced trip down the taco trail, punctuated with thirst-quenching pauses at wineries or breweries, delivers a delicious slow-drip of nourishment ensuring a tour that satisfies all the senses. These six stops make a counterclockwise loop through the Mid-Willamette Valley, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg: Put on that “I brake for tacos” sticker and find some more favorites en route.
2379-2401 Pacific Hwy W, Newberg, Oregon 97132
An unassuming gem of taco artistry serves a Spartan commercial stretch of highway 99W in Newberg. Dos Mundos Food Cart, a tidy cart with covered seating, is where Jesus Hernandez works his culinary magic. The Oaxacan native honed his formidable skills at The Allison Inn & Spa and The Painted Lady, a couple of high-end gastronomic temples in Pinot Noir country. Nine tacos vie for attention, supplemented with occasional specials. The Baja-style fish taco features tender, freshly batter-fried rockfish, lavishly garnished with Pico de Gallo, chipotle aioli and feather-light micro cilantro greens. Succulent pork belly tacos are loaded with a glistening marbled slab and lush avocado-tomatillo salsa. A handful of house-made chips and salsa are tucked on every plate. They may be cheap, served on paper and handed out through a window, but these tacos are decidedly upscale.
313 NE 3rd St, McMinnville, Oregon 97128
This buzzy sit-down restaurant in the heart of historic McMinnville loads rectangular plates with three handmade tortillas overflowing with a choice of seven different fillings and dressed with shaved cabbage, dime-thin radish slices, a drizzle of chipotle aioli and a shower of cotija cheese. Pickled red onions glisten like rubies alongside. House favorites include barbacoa, a tender stew of beef slowly braised in fragrant spices. Crispy pork belly and sautéed shrimp are other favorites, and a vegetarian taco satisfies meatless appetites. Fresh-squeezed juices enliven mojitos and margaritas—try the tart and gorgeous blood orange margarita. Local Latin cider (Tamarindo! Jamaica!) from La Familia Cider and beer from Xicha Brewing round out the bar menu.
834 N Main St, Independence, Oregon 97351
This small Mexican butcher and grocery store has a busy flat-top grill where they really master the meat. Authentic taqueria tacos on doubled small tortillas are served on trays and consumed in a spare and spacious Formica-and-fluorescent dining room. Low prices and lavish toppings make these substantial tacos an excellent value. Char-kissed tortillas provide a comfy bed for seared meats scattered with whole pinto beans, grilled onions, chopped cabbage, diced white onions and cilantro. The succulent pastor pork tacos win this menu. Browse the butcher counter, where whole cow tongues and Mexican cheeses vie for attention.
576 Patterson St NW Suite 140, Salem, Oregon 97304
Oregon’s only Latinx brewery offers fare inspired by the entire hemisphere and house-crafted cerveza formulated to complement their Latin American dishes. Tacos run the gamut from grilled pescado (true cod) to chicken in a creamy aji amarillo sauce. Served three to a plate with a pile of Spanish rice, they may spoil your appetite for a dessert of flan or churros, but don’t let them keep you from the beer. A variety of lagers and ales are on rotation, accompanied by suggested food pairings. Latin flavor abounds in selected brews, such as the Guava Golden; the Chela (which incorporates corn); and the 505 Pale, with smoked Hatch chiles. Watch the Xicha Instagram feed for special events like Yoga and Beer, where guests are invited to detox and retox.
3728 Silverton Rd NE, Salem, Oregon 97305
Need a set of used tires with your tacos? La Carreta de Mi Tierra is your place. This al fresco restaurant-under-a-carport-in-a-tire-lot would be easy to miss. Don’t. They’ve got the salsa bar to end all salsa bars, neatly displayed in a chilled, lidded salad-bar style case. Green and red salsas, sliced radish and cucumber, wedges of lime, pickled red onions, pickled carrots and jalapenos, Pico de Gallo and more enable eaters to turn a modest plate of tacos into a festival of garnishes, vibrant in both flavor and appearance. The carne asada has a fresh and toothsome char, or explore your adventurous side and sample tripe, tongue, pork stomach or cabeza—meat (mostly) from the head of a steer. Dine at tables clad with brightly-flowered plastic tablecloths alongside groups of students and families.
1335 N Pacific Hwy Suite 130, Woodburn, Oregon 97071
Guacamole’s market fills tacos with house-made guisados, the flavorful stewed meats of Mexico. View the selection in the hot case, where about eight guisados are on display. Birria de chivo (goat) and beef with nopales (cooked cactus) are highlights, along with chicken legs stewed in midnight-black mole. Browse the produce section for abundant fresh, beautiful fruits and vegetables, including some obscure herbs and vegetables unique to Latin cuisine. Cruise the dry goods for a variety of hard-to-find Latin American ingredients.
About the Author
Constantly alert to the delicious, the unusual, the quirky and the culturally significant, Annelise Kelly finds camel trekking in Rajasthan and exploring Oregon back roads equally compelling and exotic. Farmers' markets, outsider art and old growth feed her soul.