According to the Yellow Pages, there are 78 Mexican restaurants in and around Asheville, making tacos and tortas far more prevalent than pizza in Buncombe County.
But with so many restaurants to choose from, a startling number of eaters still end up at the very same places, confining their Mexican dining to proven favorites like Papas & Beer and Taqueria Fast. And while there's nothing wrong with those restaurants — indeed, their reliable excellence has probably inhibited curiosity about competing establishments — it's hard to believe there aren't at least a few more winners lurking in the listings.
Since time, money and cholesterol counts prohibit pretty much anyone from conducting a thorough, single-handed survey of all 78 restaurants (a figure that doesn't even include the carts and tiendas serving some of the most satisfying Mexican cuisine), I turned to experts for help in finding the most undeservedly overlooked Mexican restaurants. I consulted an array of advocacy and social-service agencies with ties to the Latin American community, asking for names of favorite eateries. My sources were terrifically generous with suggestions, directing me to tiny family-owned spots from Asheville to Hendersonville. But the following three restaurants easily received the most acclaim. I'd strongly suggest planning a round of visits to find out why.
1328 Patton Ave., Asheville; 225-3889
I was inordinately fond of the tacos served outside La Copa de Oro, the short-lived Latin nightclub just west of the bowling alley on Patton Avenue. But after the club shut down, forcing me to find another West Asheville outlet for street-style tacos, I turned to nearby Tacos Jalisco. No offense to the patient folks who kept the drunken dancers at La Copa in carnitas, but Jalisco makes a better taco.
But it's not all tacos at Jalisco. In a nod to American eating habits, the no-frills restaurant maintains a full menu of familiar Tex-Mex combination plates, all served with a scoop of Spanish rice and a dollop of refried beans. Some of those plates are quite good: I especially like the green corn enchiladas, which are threaded with appropriately spicy roasted pasilla peppers. But the meat at Jalisco is so moist and flavorful that it's silly to conceal it with heavy, cheesy sauces. Better instead to order a few tacos carnitas, an exceptional rendition of the slow-cooked pork preparation laid upon a warm corn tortilla.
Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant
4 South Tunnel Road, Asheville; 298-0702
Here's something I didn't know until I visited Guadalajara in the company of boosters Chris Franklin and his wife, Lety Onate, who grew up in Mexico: There's a tiny village in central Mexico that isn't so tiny anymore, thanks to Asheville's appetite for Mexican food. San Jose la Paz has blossomed into what looks like a wealthy suburb since a few of its residents moved to Asheville to open a Mexican restaurant.
"Their families served tacos in Mexico in little buggies," Guadalajara's manager Hector Onate explains. "It's a family tradition."
The first arrivals opened El Chapala, which spawned Guadalajara back in 1992. Their success inspired former neighbors — many who had never cooked professionally — to set up their own restaurants in Asheville. Now, nearly every area Mexican restaurant has a San Jose la Paz connection.
But many Mexican-born locals insist Guadalajara remains the best. "Many times, they try to fix it, but our owner says, 'Keep it the same way,'" Hector Onate says with a laugh.
That means the walls are still adorned with posters of soft-focus Mexican scenes that date back to the travel-agent era, and the menu still features Tequila Sunrises in oversized glasses. But a number of rewarding surprises can be found, hidden among the fajitas and chimichangas, including an irresistibly salty fried whole tilapia, spritzed with lime, and a remarkable dish of pork ribs soaked with a smoky chile sauce that packs more heat than most timid kitchens assign to their "extra spicy" preparations.
The spicing of the birria, a traditional goat stew, is equally on target, making the dish a perfect foil for Guadalajara's wonderfully rich homemade horchata.
"I was supposed to be on my diet," Franklin groaned, finishing off a sweet shrimp cocktail soup so there'd be room on the table for sopapillas and flan.
"Maybe Monday," his stepdaughter Alejandra Soto said.
Taqueria Mexicana El Paso Azteca Express
112 Sugarloaf Road, Hendersonville; 697-8630
Heading down Sugarloaf Road, there are El Paso restaurants on either side of the street. As Miriam Arias explains, American-born eaters tend to turn right, while Mexicans hang a left. I can't vouch for what's served at the sit-down restaurant that Anglos apparently favor, but here's how Arias sizes up the difference: "They make homemade tortillas here," she says of the taqueria. "There, they don't have that. Here, it's more spicier."
So I'm sticking with the taqueria, which more closely approximates authentic Mexican eating than any other area restaurant I've yet discovered. The taqueria's menu includes sopes, huaraches, parbozos and tortas, but the tacos are quite rightly the big draw.
The owners of El Paso are so intent on creating a perfect taco experience that they've assembled a traditional condiment bar unrivaled in Western North Carolina — and I feel pretty comfortable asserting that eastern Tennessee and upstate South Carolina have nothing to beat it either. The bar's stocked with a gorgeous array of sliced radishes, pickled onions, fresh onions, lime wedges, salsa fresca, chipotle cream, emerald green cilantro leaves, diced cucumbers, whole roasted peppers and hot sauce. And those are just the garnishes.
"I think the meat is most important," muses Arias, who was living in Mexico City before she immigrated to the U.S.
That's why she's devoted to El Paso, where the meats are uniformly juicy and excellently seasoned. If I'm ever forced to participate in an eating contest, I'm fervently hoping El Paso's al pastor is the featured dish. But the standout at El Paso may be the fantastically good tripitas, partly because it remains a rarity in mid-sized Southern towns.
"It's very hard to prepare," confirms Arias, who spent long hours scrubbing tripe clean when she worked in her family's restaurant back in Mexico.
El Paso's version of the dish tastes rich and tender and mild, and it's very much like something serious eaters really should seek out, no matter how much they adore Papas & Beer.