Zapotec was a pre-Columbian culture more than 2,500 years ago. Portland’s Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria is a lot more modern, but retains the strong connection to that region of Mexico — from its decorations to its flavorful and creative Mexican cuisine.


We’d been around the block a couple of times, looking for a parking place, when we noticed that Zapoteca offers a valet service. We parked right on the street in front of the restaurant and our car was whisked away by a friendly valet — for free. What a great idea!

Before we got seated, Steve, who was keeping everything flowing smoothly that night while owner/manager Tom Bard and his Chef/wife/co-owner Shannon were in New Hampshire opening a new restaurant, grabbed our coats.

This is real service — and it continued throughout the nearly three hours we dined there. While patrons jammed into the front room and bar, waiting for a table, no one rushed us to leave. And honestly, it took three hours to work through this feast.

Because the menu is so lengthy and unusual, we’d asked for an experienced server who could help us through the meal. Kelsey, a 6-year veteran here who is finishing her education at USM this spring, was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic, with a great personality that made our experience very special.


We were nonplussed by the lengthy bar menu, until Kelsey helped us select a couple of outstanding Magaritas. I had the popular Harbonero Watermelon Margarita, nicely spicy with fresh fruit and juices and silver tequila. All of the Margaritas are shaken at your table.

Ours went extremely well with our appetizers. All I can say about the Guacamole is holy mole! I would have bought a gallon to go. The chefs sent out two delicious tacos that are not on the dinner menu. And our Tres Sopes, a “tasting of three golden masa bites” for just $9, could easily be a meal.

While I am embarrassed to tell you this, I also ordered another appetizer, Ceviche Veracuzano, fresh Halibut marinated in tangy limejuice with tomato, jalapeno, manzanilla olives and avocado. It came with fresh tortilla chips and was just divine. Three Ceviche appetizers offer choices of white fish, shrimp and calamari, and lobster. In my defense, I ordered a small portion. It usually comes in a much larger glass.

Famous for its tequila, Steve insisted at this point that I try a flight of three tequilas, served with homemade sangria. Each was a half-shot but they were powerful and I sipped all three, then settled on my favorite, Gran Centenario Reposado, distilled from 10-year-old blue agave plants and aged in new oak barrels. Very smooth. The Bard’s partner, Sergio Ramos from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, is an international tequila expert, and the restaurant features more than 75 of Sergio’s picks.

We’d probably been there for an hour and a half by then, have tons of fun, with Kelsey and Steve constantly checking to see that we were doing well, when it came time to order an entrée. Once again Kelsey came through. We knew we wanted an enchilada and we ordered the one with Maine shrimp.

We didn’t know that we wanted the Carnitas De Puerco, an amazing dish featuring braised pork slow cooked all night. Trust me — we will be ordering this every time we dine here. I was especially pleased to hear that the pork is even served as a breakfast entrée!


While we decided long ago that we did not like most Mexican beers, Kelsey changed our minds with Pacifica (Lin) and Bohemia (me), enjoyed with our entrees. When Sous Chef Matt Burns came out to visit, we had a great conversation including the wonders of a wood-fired oven — something that was already in the building when the Bards purchased it. Lin and I are big fans of wood-fired ovens.

Our leftovers were boxed and ready to go, but the chefs had one more surprise for us — a dessert to-die-for. When Sous Chef Scott delivered it, my mouth fell open. Ready and waiting!

The dessert is not on the menu, so I don’t even dare tell you about it. But I will disclose that the sweet corn ice cream, made by Joy, the restaurant’s pastry chef who commutes by boat from her home on Peaks Island, was the key ingredient, and absolutely phenomenal.


Zapoteca’s popularity is obvious as soon as you enter the door. Tables are full in the bar area and it’s standing room only. Many tables in the dining room are full as we arrive at 6 p.m. and it continues to be a full room while we dine. As we leave we notice people are still standing in the bar area waiting for tables.

I can see why Zapoteca is so popular … amazing food is being served. Their menu offers dishes that are creative and unique. It is Mexican fare, but not at all like your normal Mexican restaurant.


They make their own tortillas here, ditto for the tortilla chips. They make their own sauces, guacamole and slow braise their pork.

I had perused the dinner menu online and mentioned to George that I wished tacos were served at dinner so I could try them. (Tacos are usually a lunch item.) We had no sooner sat down than the chef sent out two creative vegetable tacos for us to try. He read my mind!

The tacos held brussels sprouts and eggplant sautéed in chipotle butter and topped with arugula. Whoa! They were full of flavor and pleasantly spicy (not for the faint of heart). Kelsey told us they’d served them during restaurant week and were very popular.

I ordered the trio of Sopes — which were corn dough shells filled with three different fillings. It gave us a good idea of the flavors on their menu with a sampling of chicken mole (27+ ingredients in that sauce!), chipotle pork and a black bean and fried jalapeno. The soft, slightly thick masa shell was so good and very different. It was a great appetizer to split, and actually would make a great meal.

George insisted on trying a little of their guacamole, and I’m pretty glad he did. It was perfect — super chunky, with jalapenos and topped with tomato and cilantro. Where do they get such perfect avocados?

One entrée we tried was the crab and Maine shrimp enchilada. There’s nothing bland about the food here. They roasted poblanos in the wood oven and mixed them with crema for the enchilada topping. It was absolutely delicious. I noticed that they didn’t serve salsa on the side of their dishes. There is no need because their flavors are so true. No need to embellish (or drown) perfection!


Steve, the manager that evening, told us his favorite dish on the menu was the Pork Carnitas. The chef starts by roasting the pork overnight in a slow oven. Then it is shredded and pressed together, cut into serving portions and fired in the wood oven to obtain a crispy crust. (It’s slightly spicy due to a chipotle rub on top.)

The entrée was topped with a tomato chile sauce and served with pickled red onions and black beans along with grilled house-made corn tortillas on the side. I don’t know when I’ve tasted something so differently delicious. It was smoky from the wood oven, crispy on the outside yet moist and tender at the same time. I will dream of this dish. It was beyond amazing.

The theme of corn in every dish continued when the chef sent out a sweet corn ice cream topped with smoked pineapple, spicy caramel and topped with whipped cream. Joy, the pastry chef, has a flair with desserts for sure. And though this dish is not on their menu, I’ll make a plea right now for corn ice cream to be a regular item in the future!

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