PORTLAND — It’s a time of change at El Rayo, but the Mexican restaurant’s co-owners are confident that their taqueria is not going anywhere; in fact, it’s only getting bigger.
On Cinco de Mayo, El Rayo Taqueria said goodbye to its nearly 3-year-old sister Cantina next door on York Street. El Rayo co-owners Tod Dana and Alex Fisher also confirmed longtime plans to move their cornerstone restaurant at 101 York St., where they have been since 2009, by the end of 2015.
The reports shook the taqueria’s dedicated local following, but did not surprise staff, who said the cantina’s closing and taqueria move were always part of the restaurant’s lease.
“To be honest with you, I’m somewhat excited about (the cantina closing),” Dana said Monday, adding that no jobs were lost in the process. “Although I loved the cantina and I enjoyed the menu and the energy, from a business perspective, I’m excited to focus on one brand.”
Meanwhile, Dana and Fisher have been hard at work finishing El Rayo’s first expansion, to Route 1 in Scarborough near Oak Hill, which they expect will be open by July.
Dana said El Rayo’s lease agreement with landlord J.B. Brown & Sons was always short term, because the company plans to eventually build parking and retail space on the lot at York and High streets.
In the next year and a half, the El Rayo team will be scouting new locations, but Dana said the option is still open for El Rayo to remain on the corner if the J.B. Brown development makes that possible.
One thing Dana said he will be looking for is a larger establishment, because storage and kitchen prep space have always been lacking.
That should not be a problem at their new, 4,500-square-foot structure in Scarborough, which is being transformed from a mixed-use retail space that previously housed a convenience store, printer cartridge shop and tax-preparation office.
Dana said the previously unremarkable space is the reason they selected Scarborough for their first expansion. They similarly converted their restaurant on York Street from a gas station.
“We wouldn’t be attracted to a modern structure or strip mall; this gave us the opportunity to clean (the building) up and re-purpose it to make it pretty,” he said. “It suits the taqueria theme and vibe well.”
The “vibe” he hopes to achieve in Scarborough will reflect their Portland location: “unpretentious, fun, colorful, affordable and very fresh,” Dana said.
The Scarborough establishment will seat 100, and have a designated take-out and retail area for the sale of El Rayo merchandise, tortillas, salsa, chips and guacamole. Dana also plans to bring over many of the brand’s popular staples, like a patio for music and seasonal outdoor dining on the building’s south side.
Indoors, the kitchen will have a few counter seats, where customers can watch El Rayo’s chefs at work. The full bar will be elevated one step with its own roof structure to separate it from the dining area, in an attempt to mesh elements from the classic El Rayo and the former Cantina.
“If it were a cocktail, it’s 70 percent taqueria and 30 percent cantina,” he said.
Dana said plans for rooftop dining fell through when architects deemed the work too expensive.
Scarborough is not a town known for its culinary diversity, but Dana said he hopes to change that with this new location, and is open to expanding to other communities in greater Portland.
“The fact that there aren’t a lot of restaurants out there, we see that as a wonderful opportunity, and we hope people enjoy what we have to offer,” he said.