March 1, 2021

Portland’s Favorite Tex-Mex Barbecue is Back and Better Than Ever at Terlingua

Originally published in Maine magazine, March 2021.

It is still dark, save for the orange glow from a neon sign in the window, the morning I meet Pliny Reynolds in front of his restaurant, Terlingua. It’s just after 6 a.m., and I’m helping prepare the barbecued meats that will be served to diners tonight. Down an alley off Washington Avenue in Portland, Reynolds slides open the smokehouse door to reveal a hulking, custom-made barrel smoker along one wall. Painted a jaunty orange, the 10-foot-long smoker is made from a repurposed air tank with a smokestack and a woodstove welded to one end.

We start a small fire of split white oak logs in the woodstove and then head down half a flight of stairs to the prep kitchen. There, Reynolds hauls two hefty briskets from the refrigerator and we get to work. I learn to use a sharp boning knife to trim away the excess fat and thin bits that would char unpleasantly in the smoker (my first lesson: cut away from your hands).

Once we trim and season the meat, we lift the 12-pound roasts onto the racks of the smoker and repeat the process with another brisket and several pork shoulders. The meat will cook in the smoky chamber at 250 degrees for the rest of the day, tenderizing and basting in its own fat, before being served in tacos, chili, and on the restaurant’s signature barbecue board with pickles, sauces, and dinner rolls.

The barrel smoker, the cozy smokehouse, and the spacious prep kitchen are all new to Reynolds. For the first five years of Terlingua’s operation, he prepared all of the restaurant’s barbecue in two ceramic smokers crowded on a small back deck. The chance to expand came in September 2019, when longtime Portland favorite Silly’s closed and vacated the space down the block from Terlingua.

The closure of Terlingua’s first location came abruptly in March 2020 as a result of the state’s coronavirus restrictions, a few months before Reynolds and his wife, Melanie, had planned. That November, after an extensive renovation of its new location, Terlingua opened for outdoor dining and takeout. The ample outdoor seating has been a hit during the pandemic. Tables on the multilevel patio are cozied up to wall-mounted and tower heaters, a bright orange canvas blocks the wind, and Adirondack chairs around a firepit attract friends sipping margaritas.

The new menu is streamlined but still showcases Pliny’s barbecue techniques and chef Wilson Rothschild’s take on Mexican cuisine. Rothschild, who has been Terlingua’s chef since the restaurant opened in 2015, studied traditional cuisine in Mexico and cooked in the Southwest United States and the Bahamas. Caribbean flair makes an appearance on his menu with hibiscus-infused ceviche and grilled fish tacos, while more elaborate Mexican dishes like chicken mole and lamb birria tacos are featured as regular weekly specials.

Longtime diners might mourn the loss of the tortilla soup and the deviled eggs topped with smoked seafood. But with the new space comes the capacity to seat up to 134 people, and Pliny and Melanie, who manages the front of house, anticipate busy days ahead. A new grab-and-go market and an increase of items made in-house have led the kitchen staff to take a hard look at the preparation time each menu item requires. “Have you ever tried peeling eggs for a hundred?” Pliny laughs. Instead, the kitchen now makes its own tortilla chips, dinner rolls, and flour tortillas (the corn tortillas are produced by Portland-based Tortilleria Pachanga).

Many of these items are for sale in Terlingua’s new market, located next to the restaurant. Prepared dishes like a Puerto Rican chicken stew called guisado, poblano cauliflower mac and cheese, and swordfish queso dip fill one refrigerated case, while another holds vacuum-sealed packages of smoked brisket, chicken, ribs, and carnitas. Grab a container of Winter Hill Farm’s cotija, a bottle of zippy green taco sauce, a package of Pachanga tortillas, and brisket or carnitas, and you have the makings for Terlingua tacos at home. And many are choosing to do just that—the owners report that steady sales from the market have helped to balance out the uncertainties of on-premises dining during the pandemic.

The new iteration of Terlingua also offers an expanded selection of drinks, particularly agavebased spirits. Intrepid imbibers can sample 30 tequilas, mezcals, and sotols (tequila’s wild cousin). Flights come with a spicy grapefruit sangrita and sal de gusano, a salt blend made with ground dried agave worms. House-made cocktails like chile-rimmed margaritas, palomas, and sangria are still available, now also to-go in miniature growlers.

The Reynoldses took a leap of faith when they moved their restaurant to a space nearly four times bigger than the previous one. But after a few months of operation, they feel confident they’ve found a manageable balance between the restaurant and the market. Reflecting on the move, Pliny says, “We’re stoked. This thing is going to work.” And through the most difficult winter the restaurant industry has ever seen, Terlingua’s happy customers seem to agree. 

Terlingua | 40 Washington Ave., Portland | (207) 956-7573