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Bread & Brew: Brisket bridges border at La Taq

by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - The best dishes at La Taq on Northeast Killingsworth Street are the brisket tamale and the tortilla soup. La Taqs tasty brisket is cook next door at Podnahs Pit. La Taq is a taqueria now, but it has the potential to be a full-fledged restaurant.Brisket tacos. They’re at the top of the menu at La Taq, and they’re the lure — especially if you know that the brisket is smoked next door at Podnah’s Pit.

Barbecue hero Rodney Muirhead owns both places. He cooks his meat Texas-style, so it’s a fairly natural progression for him to move into Tex-Mex or Mexican flavors.

Technically, La Taq is a bar. It’s open until midnight, no minors allowed. The food menu is minus an entree section, although some dishes, like pork ribs in chili verde or a salad of pineapple and jicama, are more than just drinking snacks.

The head bartender is former Beaker & Flask cocktail whiz Kevin Ludwig. Here he’s focusing on tequila and continuing his exploration of the cocktail cannon. His El Diablo — silver tequila, crème de cassis, lime and ginger beer — emerges from the mists of tiki bar history as a fruity quencher, perfect for spicy food. His New Vieux is a modernized version of a New Orleans classic called the Vieux Carré. Even streamlined it’s a bit of a mouthful: rye, apricot liqueur, Benedictine, and lots of Angostura bitters. At first it tasted too assertive and brassy, but as the ice melted, it grew on me.

The rest of the meal went the same way. Individual dishes were fine, but it wasn’t until all the plates were on the table, and the flavors started intermingling, that it came together as a really good meal.

Of course, the brisket is good. It’s smoky and tender and beefy, and you can get it four or five different ways. In tacos, the meat seemed to have just accidentally found its way onto a tortilla. Something else was needed to tie it together. The shrimp tacos were unremarkable, and lamb barbacoa, which sounded like a good idea, had too much of a heavy lamb flavor to make sense in a taco.

A brisket tamale with a very tender casing arrived in a giant pool of excellent enchilada sauce, which got its heat from three kinds of chilis and its depth from charred tomatoes and onions. I could definitely see it doing well, bottled and sold along with Podnah’s barbecue sauces.

The enchilada sauce also serves as a base for spicy, dense chicken tortilla soup. Emphasis on the chicken, a reminder of why we’re all here — heaping servings of lovingly cooked meat. The soup is thickened with Oaxacan cheese, and topped with crisp thin strips of tortilla chips and slices of avocado. The best bites were those that included all of the above, and the best way to achieve that was not with a spoon, but with one of the fresh tortilla chips that we had ordered as an appetizer.

Meanwhile, some of the enchilada sauce ended up in the tacos, and improved them greatly.

We were settled in. The light was yellow and festive, shining from behind perforated tin shades. Natural wood and bright tiles give the boxy room a warm, happy look. We would have ordered dessert, if there was any. The menu remains a bar menu for now, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see La Taq evolve away from taqueria status and grow into a full-fledged restaurant.

5 p.m.-midnight daily, 1625 N.E. Killingsworth St., 503-281-3700, small plates $2.50-$9

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