Javier Hurtado’s parents have one of those classic love stories: She owned a restaurant, he was a butcher. As he was growing up in Mexico, he was surrounded by good food — pots of mole verde simmering for weddings, ceviche eaten on the beach. As an adult, living in the United States, he followed in his parents’ footsteps: He opened the first Cha Cha Cha Taqueria in 2001, expanding across the city over the next two decades. The restaurants are known for their veggie-laden, fast-casual fare: Carnitas burritos wrapped with whole-wheat tortillas, bowls layered with black beans and rice, tempeh tacos with kale and onions.
But in June, Hurtado opened a new restaurant — one very different from the other Cha Cha Chas in town. Dinners start with bowls of chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers dressed with lime and salsa. Couples share prawn and bay scallop ceviche and enmoladas drenched in mole negro. Roasted poblano peppers arrive at tables stuffed with prawns, scallops, and mushrooms. Cintli, Hurtado’s latest cantina in the heart of University Park, is his pet project, a personal, “modern Mexican cocina,” in his words.
Before Cintli was Cintli, it was a Cha Cha Cha. Hurtado had opened the location in 2011, but when the pandemic started and University of Portland students left campus, it never really regained its footing. Instead, Hurtado shut down the restaurant and started working on something new. “I wanted to do things that were a little different from what we’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” he says. “A lot of the recipes are what I grew up eating.”
One dish, in particular, is a very close relative to a favorite dish of his: The quesadilla layered with huitlacoche, an earthy fungus that grows on corn. When he was a kid, he’d order huitlacoche quesadillas from vendors at the market in his hometown, Cuernavaca; if he wasn’t ordering huitlacoche, it was rajas, or strips of tender poblanos. Both make an appearance on the restaurant’s menu, smashed between blue corn tortillas.
Another family staple that holds significant weight on the menu: mole. An agave-roasted lamb shank arrives with a swipe of mole negro, while medallions of lengua, or cow tongue, complement mole verde and greens. Enchiladas stuffed with queso panela come smothered in mole amarillo and surrounded by vegetables. “We tried to strike a balance where there’s some originality,” Hurtado says. “Like the lamb shank — I had this guy who said, ‘I would never put mole on a lamb shank, and it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever had.’ We want to be creative.”
That creative inspiration is also evident in the cocktail menu, which leans culinary in its approach: Cintli’s bar team infuses gin with nopales for a highball, and bolsters its margarita with basil and serrano peppers. The bar’s take on a Jungle Bird uses a hibiscus-infused Campari; hibiscus also appears in a mezcal sour, made with Banhez mezcal. Hurtado also wants to grow the bar’s mezcal selection, including more mezcal ancestral.
Although the restaurant has a significant bar program, Hurtado wants the restaurant to be a family-centric spot first. The menu includes a kid’s menu, complete with shredded chicken tacos and quesadillas. “I have a four year old and an eight year old,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of families coming in, having cocktails like a date night with their kids — being a parent, there aren’t a lot of options.”
Part of Hurtado’s goal in creating Cintli was to create a restaurant that worked well in the neighborhood — very residential with lots of families, but also a college nearby. For him, that meant walking a line between approachable and original, lively but relaxed, all while serving food that excites him. “I’m there every day,” he says. “I’m working with two cooks that have been with me for 12 years, we’re working together at Cintli... This is a menu that will be evolving constantly.”
Cintil is now open at 5225 N Lombard Street.