No one is like the other.
That's what I answer when asked, "do all of your restaurants serve the same food?"
For starters, Lilia is like no other restaurant in this city.
We know because we made it this way by design.
It's our way of letting the world know that not everything should follow a format, at the same time showing them that a restaurant, even though new and small in size, can have a chef that goes out there just about every day and can dream up some new dish using whatever components he found that day at the farmers market. In addition, his GM and front of house can accurately share with you how that new dish came about and where every one of its components came from. All of this while treating you like a guest in their dining room… (or comedor) and showing you that Pacific Northwest cuisine can look very different through the eyes, perspective, and skill of a young Mexican-American chef.
On to República. República is the best Mexico-forward restaurant in the country. What does that mean, really? It means that when our young Chef Jose “Lalo” Camarena dreams up a plate he does it understanding the intentionality of the restaurant. There are a number of rules in place to assure that our offerings pay respect to the food from the country that is now Mexico.
The rules for each dish are: Is there a meaningful historical connection between this dish and the culture? Are the components being used currently in season? Can we source them locally? Is it beautiful when plated? Does the taste match the beautiful aesthetics of the plating? That is a lot to ask from a chef. It essentially calls for making original dishes and presenting them with a background story of an etymology that oftentimes has very little to do with what we now call Mexico. It means that, in order for us to hold our culture and our cuisine in high regard, we first have to acknowledge most of it didn’t belong to us in the first place. Everything from the foundational corn dishes – first created by the Olmecs, Toltecs, Mayas, Aztecs – to the mole recipes that feature ingredients originally from Asia and Africa, were somebody else’s to begin with.
We call these acknowledgements and this intentionality “Mexico-Forward” cuisine. Last but not least, our latest concept: De Noche. This one is pretty simple, we just wanted to have a space that allowed us to bring you beautifully executed Mexican cuisine. This was our original intention when we opened República back in 2020: a place that would introduce folks to dishes from all over the Republic of Mexico, from Tetelas Mixtecas, Memelas Veracruzanas, Quesadillas Oaxaqueñas, to Tacos Yucatecos.
We serve many traditional dishes that play homage to their place of origin, but use modern cooking techniques, giving you a different interpretation that reflects the skill of our kitchen. Yes, we know that this is a big undertaking, but again this is what sets this little operation apart from the others.
On a personal note, there is always so much to unpack whenever I think of “Mexican” Cuisine. Immediately, my thoughts are filled with nostalgia. I think about eating my grandmother's food as a child, watching this tiny woman make so much with what seemed like so little. I think of her chilaquiles and the way she always told me to let the tortillas rest so when you add the sauce they don't become soggy. Right before serving, she always topped them off with tiny 2-3mm cuts of onion, tomato, and mint… it was magical. I also think of my mother’s cooking, so different from my grandmother’s. For the longest time I couldn’t understand how my mother would make things like “espagueti con queso”, a cream cheese and tomato sauce-drenched spaghetti. Even now she makes an “arroz verde”, a rice with cream cheese and peppers that sounds like it will kill you, but I promise it tastes incredible! Her chiles rellenos usually contained a little bit of Philadelphia cream cheese, which sounds a bit sacrilegious, yet somehow the whole thing just sort of works. And there you have it, this is where all my confusion about what Mexican cuisine “is” and what it “should be”, begins. My mother could cook all of her mother’s food, but not the other way around. My mother came to this country in the eighties and learned to adapt to the components at her disposal. Little by little her food began to take the form of whatever was on sale at the local market. Growing up I always wondered why my mom used so much cream cheese in her cooking… and then one day it just hit me.
Coming back to this country at the age of thirteen and helping my mother make tamales on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, and cheesecakes on Saturday night to be sold on Sunday morning. That was my first hustle: selling tamales and cheesecakes door to door to help my parents make ends meet. I still vividly remember taking the stickers off of the “ready crust” graham cracker pie tins and wiping them clean so people didn’t think we just bought this stuff at the store (we did). I remember all the ingredients that went into that thing; eggs, sugar, sour cream, vanilla & salt, a little bit of key lime, and, of course, Philadelphia cream cheese. As a kid, our refrigerator had boxes and boxes of the stuff (cream cheese), year round. That’s how it happened, that’s how most of the food my mother made all began to have some sort of element of cream cheese in it. It wasn’t just the Mexican cuisine, it was the cream cheese pancakes and anything else she could possibly make using the darn thing. This was her version of Mexican cuisine, the version I came to love, loath, and once again love as an adult.
There isn’t one version of Mexican cuisine that tells the whole story. This is why I quickly come to the defense of Tex-Mex cuisine whenever I hear others slam it. At the same time, this is why I am so “opinionated” whenever I hear someone who just moved to Oregon from California talk about how much greater the Mexican food from Californa is than what exists here. I have to remind them that the food from back home they love so much is simply another form of bastardized Mexican cuisine.
There is no getting this right. There’s no such thing as “authentic” Mexican cuisine, either. Why? Because the moment you call it authentic you are also saying that anything that doesn’t look or taste like this, isn’t.
Our restaurants are very intentional; no one is like the other.
Everything about them is fully thought out. In other words, we may lack resources and capital, but we sure do not lack identity.
At their very best these restaurants are poetry, jazz, and provocative art.
At their worst, they are simply culturally appropriated hipster knock-offs of food from a number of civilizations that would never sign off on tweezers and “brunoise” avocados.