The Grub Spouse and I have dined in the front seat of the Grubmobile more times in the past six months than we had in our entire relationship prior to the coronavirus. Last week, before we headed out to Porton Mexican Kitchen, just off Middlebrook Pike, we decided to play things by ear. If, upon arrival, it appeared that the restaurant was handling pandemic protocols responsibly, we would dine in. Otherwise, we would place an order to go and once again – sigh – eat in the Grubmobile.
Fortunately, we saw all servers and front-of-house workers wearing masks, and every other booth and table in the dining room was out of commission for seating. Even better, we got to sit in a booth toward the back, essentially isolated. The booths had high seat backs, putting another airflow barrier between us and other customers. We also noticed servers sanitizing tables between use, and silverware/napkin setups were handed out in individual plastic wrappers.
The menu is relatively concise, compared to many Mexican-food lineups I’ve seen. And it covers a lot of familiar south-of-the-border territory (with some exceptions I’ll note later). Starters include nachos and various chip-dip varieties. There are also limited soup-salad options.
House specialties include Pollo Porton, a queso-smothered chicken breast; flautas; Salmon Veracruz; and Pasta Mojo Ajo, angel hair pasta topped with chicken and/or shrimp plus steamed vegetables and sautéed in a Mexican-style garlic sauce. Other menu sections feature several styles of tacos and fajitas.
I ordered a dinner combination. Diners can choose one, two or three of the following: enchilada, mini burrito, tamal, chile relleno, chicken tostada and taco. I picked three items for $8.99 and went with the enchilada (I chose shredded chicken), mini burrito (I chose ground beef) and tamal (it comes with shredded beef). You can have white queso added for a buck, but I passed on that option. Combos include two sides, however, and I picked refried beans and Mexican rice. Other sides include charro beans, black beans, Mexican street corn and mixed vegetables.
Several other entrees jumped out at me. One was the Plato Grande Porton, featuring a cheese relleno, beef enchilada, chicken burrito, tamal and two flautas. I also saw grande burritos and The Spouse’s ultimate choice, the Grande Dilla ($8.49). Both are available with a choice of beans and cheese, ribeye steak, ground beef, grilled shrimp, pulled chicken or carnitas. The Spouse got pulled chicken and chose Mexican street corn as the included side.
Our meals were delivered in short order on massive and massively hot platters. I decided from the get-go that I was only going to eat half on site and save the rest for another meal. I was very pleased with each item I sampled. I had chosen a red mole sauce as the topping for my burrito and enchilada, and both were very good; the finely ground beef and shredded chicken were tasty and satisfying fillings. And if this was the mini burrito, I’d have hated to see the full-size one; my junior version was more than an ample portion. I also really liked the tamal. I didn’t grow up a big fan of tamales, but I’ve grown to love them, and Porton’s take on them is top-notch. Each tamal is plated atop its already-removed wrapper.
The Spouse’s quesadilla was enjoyable enough, although it didn’t stand out from the dozens of other restaurant quesadillas I’ve sampled over the years. However, I will say the sour cream and pico de gallo toppings on the side did kick things up a notch. As for the side items, the rice and refried beans were standard issue, but this may be the first local Mexican-food eatery that I recall serving street corn (I’m sure some of you will point it out if I am mistaken about this). I personally had not tried it before, but serving corn on the cob basted in mayonnaise, queso añejo, chile and lime is definitely a way to liven up a sleepy summer favorite. And by the way, another unique item you’ll find at Porton is chicharrones – pork rinds served with pico de gallo.
We finished up by sharing a big, hunky slice of tres leches cake ($3.49). I forgot to ask, but I’m fairly certain it was “distributor food” (as The Spouse and I often say), not homemade. However, that didn’t stop us from polishing it off in short order with lots of “yums.”
In short, Porton’s serviceable Mexican food, attentive service and conscientious pandemic protocol make it a place you can confidently put on your list in these – sigh – uncertain times.
Porton Mexican Kitchen
Address: 9623 Countryside Center Lane
Beer and margaritas served
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
You can enjoy a tempting lineup of Mexican-food classics at this West Knoxville eatery, where social distancing is taken seriously.