Quick Bites: Guasaca (Raleigh, NC)

guasaca

image courtesy of flickr

Everybody’s been going here and writing about it, and I’d say it lived up to the hype.  The comparisons to Chipotle are apt, if inevitable, but the food here is fresher and more vibrant.  My wife liked the pork with beans arepa, while my favorite, surprisingly, was the steak with caramelized onions (not always a fan of the steak in these kinds of dishes).  The fish/plantains special was my least favorite.  Next time I’ll create my own arepa.  I loved the arepas themselves – think thick, moist corn tortillas.  The sauce for each is served on the side, which is nice but a little confusing: do you pour it on?  dip it?.  The house “guasaca” sauce (somewhat like a chunky guacamole/pico de gallo hybrid) is delicious.  The place is super clean and the staff is friendly.  I’m eager to go back for more.

Taqueria Del Sol (Cary, NC)

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Cary’s Taqueria Del Sol is a bit of an odd bird.  It’s part of a “chain” with just a handful of locations – in GA, TN, NC, and PA.  Despite its Mexican name, the restaurant does not serve strictly Mexican food.  The menu runs the gamut from tacos (duh – but with unusual fillings) to chef’s specials like shrimp and grits.  And the atmosphere, it must be said, is kind of strange.  The food we tried was hit or miss, but the hits were sufficient enough to bring me back for another try one day.

The restaurant opened a few months ago in a cavernous lofty space in Cary Crossroads.  We were there the other night, and it was virtually empty.  Of people, yes, but also of decor.  Granted, two of the walls are mostly windows, but the rest of the space was a bit white-washed and rather sterile, mixed with a few oddities here and there.  Witness the 2 or 3 rustic “Corona” tables nestled among the many plain tables and chairs, or a red dresser with a bowl of tangerines sitting incongruously near the front door.  Other than that, the ambiance is strikingly spare.  The pendant lighting is hung up near the ceiling (which is probably 20 ft high); bringing the lighting down several feet would probably make a nice impact, although I’m not sure the pendant style really fits.  Anyway, the overall effect is, despite the spotlessness and abundance of natural light, decidedly un-cozy.  There is a small bar, and they do have a lot of plastic tables with umbrellas outside.  It seems best suited for a quick lunch or dinner.

But enough about that.  As I mentioned, the menu has some quirks.  These are not your classic Mexican tacos.  Their individual price ($2.39) is a bit high considering you can usually score some authentic Mexican ones for under $2, sometimes even as low as $1.50.  There’s a small card of kid’s menu items, for which the prices are inexplicably missing.  You order at the counter and they’ll bring your food to you.  I opted for two tacos, the “Memphis BBQ” and the “fried chicken”.  My wife went with two others, the “carnitas” (one of the few straightforwardly Mexican items on the menu) and “veggie”.  We ordered a cheese enchilada ($3.39) for our daughter.  You can choose your sauce for the enchilada, and I asked for the least spicy one.  This happened to be “lemon cream”, which I probably should have guessed would be a poor choice.  We also ordered chips and guacamole ($3.79).  The food came out alarmingly quickly, within a few minutes for sure.  First was the chips and guac.  These were actually outstanding.  The chips were fresh made and still quite warm, and nicely salted, and the guacamole was fresh, chunky, and just right.  Our main orders followed shortly.  Our taco orders came in little plastic baskets, while the enchilada came served on a real plate.  The tacos (served in flour tortillas) were a fine size, so two with some chips would probably be enough for most diners.  The chips and guac were enough for all three of us to share, so, if you’re by yourself, this place may get little pricey for a quick meal.  Anyway, the bbq taco was good.  It tasted just like you might expect, with a nice tangy, spicy sauce and a bit of coleslaw.  My chicken taco was not so great – a couple of lackluster chicken tenders, some mayo, and not much iceberg lettuce or tomato.  It really had an unappealing fast-food flavor.  My wife reported both of her tacos to be good.  The veggie one was spicy.  As for the cheese enchilada, this looked and tasted fairly bad.  It was smothered in a really thick sauce, and the cheese inside was not really even melted.  Everything was the exact same color – the cheese, the flour tortilla, and the sauce.  It amounted to a cheesy salt bomb with some lemon flavor; even my daughter, who normally would be fine with something of that description, didn’t care too much for it.

With a few tweaks to the dining experience and perhaps to the pricing, Taqueria Del Sol could probably be a consistent winner.  I’ll most likely go elsewhere for my regular taco fix, but, for something different, I might give it another shot.

Fonda Y Birreria Jalisco

I have little idea what the name of this restaurant means, but I can confidently call this one of the best Mexican restaurants in Raleigh.  And the value is unreal.  I recently had four tacos for dinner – for $6!  Along with plenty of chips and delicious salsa, it made for a huge cheap meal.  The standouts for me were al pastor tacos, with the carnitas close behind, and carne asada a not too distant third place.  These were easily some of the best al pastor tacos I’ve had.  My wife had the mole con pollo ($8), which was delectable shredded chicken bathed in a subtle, delicious orange-red sauce.  Less thrilling was the virtually saltless guacamole and a mole poblano that, being too chocolate-y, lacked some complexity.  Unlike many Mexican-American restaurants, where your food can arrive alarmingly quickly, here most everything seemed to be cooked to order.  The little bit longer wait for the food is well worth it.  I look forward to going back!