Ambiance: Sparse, utilitarian
Service: Friendly and polite
After an afternoon hiking on the Blue Ridge Parkway, my next meal is always first and foremost in my thoughts. And so it was some that some time ago, after a trip to the mountains, my search for sustenance took me to Los Volcanes, a humble Mexican restaurant tucked into an equally humble strip mall that’s practically in the shadows of the Biltmore Square Mall. I remember very little of that first trip, save the fact that the restaurant used some fresh vegetables, and the prices were low.
My Picky Companion tells a more memorable story of his first encounter with the restaurant – something about a fairly diminutive and wildly gesticulating waiter. Although it was dark outside, the waiter sported “Poncherello” sunglasses throughout the meal; meanwhile, a cover band played ’70s pop covers to the lilting and slightly tinny emissions of a Casio keyboard. It sounds like a scene from a David Lynch movie, but he swears it’s true.
Things are different at Los Volcanes these days, at least in terms of entertainment. The restaurant hosts salsa dancing on weekends, and there’s also karaoke on Thursdays, which doesn’t strike me as the most atmospheric of music options to digest to – but whatever floats your boat. [Correction: These activities were staged at one of the restaurant’s other locations, which is now closed.]
The service is extremely polite (no sunglasses at the table), and one gets the feeling that the restaurant is a bit of a family affair: Often there’s a child running about (in a well-behaved manner, mind you) who seems related to members of the staff.
The menu has also gone through a bit of a metamorphosis, presumably to reflect the myriad tastes and dietary peculiarities in Asheville. Vegetarian options abound, such as spinach quesadillas and vegetarian fajitas. The latter entrée features an ingredient that I’m pretty sure is a rarity in the restaurant niche that Los Volcanes occupies: broccoli. There are plenty of dishes for pescetarians, too, if salmon, shrimp or tilapia is to your liking. For a mere $9.95, you can order a deep-fried whole tilapia with rice, a house salad and tortillas.
As with most Mexican restaurants – at least the complementary-chips-and-salsa variety – there’s a dizzying array of entrées that employ pork or beef. For the impossibly picky eater, there’s even a “Mexican hamburger,” which is adorned with a slice of avocado.
What has decidedly not changed about Los Volcanes are the nearly rock-bottom prices. Beer is fantastically cheap; for the equivalent of around $2.15 a pint, you can enjoy the most comically hefty mug of beer – nearly 40 ounces – outside of Oktoberfest. We’re talking Highland’s Gaelic, too, not the cheap stuff, though they do have Michelob Light on draught if you’re so inclined. Margaritas are only $2 on Mondays and Tuesdays, but purists be warned: Los Volcanes does not serve liquor, and uses agave wine in their Margaritas, not tequila. “At two dollars a pop,” my companion commented, “who cares?” My sentiments exactly.
As far as the food goes, very little on the menu crosses the $10 mark, and the items that do wander into the teens don’t stray far and typically have seafood involved. The most expensive entrée, the shrimp-fajita platter, costs $13. We sampled a surprisingly mild shrimp and Pico de Gallo-stuffed roasted poblano pepper served with a mini squash-and-mushroom quesadilla, black beans and Mexican rice, all to the tune of $12.25.
We ordered the vegetarian tamale to check things out for you veg-heads out there, but we were somewhat unimpressed by the results. The vegetables were quite fresh, but the tamale itself was a tad dry. That’s precisely why, I imagine, the real deal is almost always made with meat – the fat is almost essential to an agreeable “mouth feel.” Vegetarians would be better advised to stick with the vegetarian enchiladas or the veggie poblano.
Our selection from the Antojito Mexicanos portion of the menu was the hands-down best item that we sampled. We originally ordered the Nopales Puerco, a cactus leaf topped with seasoned pork and a chile Colorado sauce, and were disappointed to learn that the restaurant had run out of nopales. This turned out to be no great misfortune, as the dish that we ordered in its stead was delicious. The item in question, tacos al pastor, consists of three corn tortillas filled with steak and pork in a guajillo sauce with pineapple, onion and cilantro. Simple as it was, it was a wonderful example of authentic Mexican done right. And the price – $6.25 – could hardly be beat; that’s just over $2 per taco. “Antojitos Mexicanos,” Picky quipped, “must mean ‘eat this, Mexicans.'” Indeed. For the person who enjoys the flavors of the authentic taqueria, the antojitos selections are the way to go. Other items include homemade sopes, chilaquiles, and a Mexican-style shrimp cocktail.
Aside from the value and the good location for the Parkway adventurer or Bent Creek mountain biker, the variety of menu options is what makes Los Volcanes a good bet. Provided everyone is at least mildly into Mexican food, a fairly diverse group can be easily satisfied (they even do french fries for the kids, which might quell any meal-time tantrums). There are interesting and authentic menu items like nopales con puerco, grilled salmon with mango-avocado salsa, and grilled chicken breast with chipotle-barbeque sauce. And, of course, there are your garden-variety crispy beef tacos, chalupas and chile rellenos. On top of all that, Los Volcanes is a local, independent establishment, which makes it a fantastic alternative to the chains. And besides, there’s no salsa dancing at Chile’s, as far as I know.
(Some late-breaking Los Volcanes news: The restaurant recently closed its second location – the one on Smokey Park Highway – but plans to open a new location on Wall Street in downtown Asheville.)