El Tapatio – ¡Me Gusta! (Grade: B+)

The margaritas, in and of themselves, are worth the trip.

Let’s be honest:  Hampton Roads has some issues when it comes to Mexican food.  So El Tapatio’s interesting menu and high-quality preparation comes as a welcome surprise, even if the place insists on serving the dreaded white sauce.

Now, to be fair, Hampton Roads isn’t the absolute worst place in the world to get Mexican fare.  But, it isn’t going to break into the upper 50th percentile any time soon, either.  For the most part, what you’ll find are mediocre Tex-Mex joints like Plaza Azteca, El Azteca and Salsas.  You know, the kind of places where the menu is primarily a litany of “combo” deals which are really the same six or so items rearranged in every way statistically possible, where margaritas are assembled with day-glo green mixes, and tortillas are made somewhere not-on-premises.  Every now and then, you’ll find actual no-kidding Mexican restaurants, like Tortilleria La Morena and Miriam’s Mexican Café, but these places scare gringos, because they sell things like menudo and tortas, and have enough pride not to offer up any sort of white sauce.  In between those polar opposites, we have Abuelo’s, a Fort Worth-based chain which simultaneously has enough sense to not serve white sauce, but not enough sense to stop serving mashed potatoes as a standard side.

Enter El Tapatio (the translation of the name is something/someone from Guadalajara).

Fortunately, more effort seems to be going towards the cooking.

Occupying yet another cratered Oyster Point/Town Center/Newport-News-Ghost-Town business’ shell, El Tapatio opened up in the fall of 2010, and is one of three, maybe four, restaurants in this local mini-chain.  The place is good enough to (almost) make you forget you’re in some hokey development plainly designed by a bunch of fifth graders.  I’ll spare you my standard Oyster Point rant and let you draw your own conclusions about the “development,” should you decide to drive out there.

El Tapatio’s staff hits the right note the second you walk in the door, with at least a couple amigos tossed your way before you even get to the hostess’ stand.  The efficient friendliness is almost enough to distract you from the chalkboard specials which virtually always merit a double-take.

Um, does that thing say margaritas are $1.99 at lunch?  Yep.  It sure does.

And the service just goes up from there.  How are you doing, mi amigo?  Would you like more chips and salsa, amigo?  How’s the food, amigo?  Are you ready for the check, amigo?

During a short lunch, the water in my bucket-sized glass never sank more than an inch below the rim due to the waiter refilling it no less than six times.  On the rare occasion they get a little behind, the waitstaff literally runs to catch up.  I kid you not when I say I saw one waiter sprinting across the room to refill a bowl of chips while the bartender worked up a sweat slinging fishbowl-sized margaritas.  It’s refreshing to eat at a restaurant and have the staff act like they’re happy you’re there.  The fact El Tapatio is relatively inexpensive makes the great service an even greater treat.

And those margaritas?  They’re pretty damn good.  There’s none of the glow-stick toxic mix going on at El Tapatio – these folks are pulling together handcrafted drinks.  Which is not the same as saying they’re doing traditional margaritas, which I tend to view as a 1-1-1-1/2 proposition (that is, one part silver tequila, one part Cointreau, one part fresh lime juice and half a part of simple syrup).  Instead, El Tapatio’s margaritas veer off into fruity territory with splashes of juice and perhaps a hint of soda, but they really, really work, especially on a hot day.  Their margaritas are citrus-filled, super refreshing, just tart enough and plenty strong enough.  Every time I’ve been there, the margaritas show up with a half a shot of tequila on the side, just for good measure.  And a very good measure it is.

The margaritas are comically (cosmically?) sized – you can get a “small” 17 oz. for eight bucks, a 28 oz. jumbo for ten or a monster 48 oz., which is four beer cans’ worth of strong margarita right there.  Plus the complimentary shot.  This is the sort of thing frat boy dreams and nights of karaoke are made from based solely on the alcohol-volume-to-price ratio.  But beyond that, these are fantastic drinks – as in:  These are, hands down, some of the best margaritas I’ve ordered in Hampton Roads.  In fact, they handily beat out many margaritas I’ve been served in Texas, California and Arizona.

El Tapatio's vegetable fajitas in their sizzling glory.

El Tapatio’s food is a force to be similarly reckoned with.  True enough, they have the typico Tex-Mex fare (ten lunch combo plates, nine dinner combos, taco salad, nachos, fajitas, etc.), but they also up the ante in some pretty significant ways.  Take, for example, the lobster tacos, the cabo burrito (shrimp, crab, onions and tomatoes), chile verde and the chori pollo (chicken and chorizo covered in cheese).  And then consider the nod to real-deal interior Mexican cuisine:  camarones a la diabla (shrimp cooked in a spicy tomato-based sauce), carne asada (a succulent grilled rib-eye preparation), and carnitas tacos.  And if that wasn’t enough, they’re serving regional niche specialties like cochinita pibil (Yucutan pork typically slow roasted in a banana leaf, although the leaf is conspicuously absent at El Tapatio), carnitas Michoacan (more on this later) and mole ranchero.

Yeah, these guys are selling mole.  In Virginia.

Every time I go to El Tapatio, my reaction goes something like this:

Really?  Wow.  Really?

Outsized hunks of pork in the Carnitas Michoacan.

How about that carnitas MichoacanCarnitas are generally made from slow-cooked pork that’s been shredded and deep-fried (no batter involved).  What you get are moist yet slightly crispy strands of pork.  El Tapatio’s method takes huge chunks of pork and submerges those in the deep fryer.  The result is succulent and tender cuts of meat awash in deeply rich confit-like flavors.

And you get a lot of it.

Tex-Mex joints are notorious for loading diners up with obscene amounts of food, as if having patrons waddling out to their cars groaning is some sort of long-running restaurateur gag.  Virginia restaurants are similarly addled in the “reasonable portion size” category.  So, a Tex-Mex place in Virginia?

Plan on leftovers.

The Parrillada Mexico Lindo "plate o' really tasty char-broiled meat."

Even on that front, El Tapatio raises the bar with their parrillada Mexico Lindo, which I’m sure loosely translates into “pile of meat.”  This dish involves char-broiled skirt steak, chicken breasts (as in more than one), shrimp and sausage, topped with three stuffed and fried jalapenos, all swimming in their own glorious juices on a sizzling platter.  Naturally, the dish comes with an entire dinner plate full of rice and beans and guacamole, plus tortillas and sour cream.  When it hit the table, I must have had a full pound of Atkins-friendly protein sitting in front of me.

And, oh, was it good.  As in an I-am-so-stuffed-I-might-die-but-I-can’t-stop-eating-this kind of good.  This is one of those dishes that really reminds you of how good simply grilled meat can be when it’s cooked right.  El Tapatio’s skirt steak is tender and juicy with a steakhouse-worthy sear on it.

I just wish they offered it in a half-size.

El Tapatio admirably features a vegetarian section on their menu, although the canned spinach they used for the spinach burrito gave the dish an off-putting funk.  The vegetarian fajitas are more impressive.

The “guacamole” that comes as a standard side dish is probably the most pronounced misstep at El Tapatio – it’s of the slimy mass-produced variety and is simply not worth eating.

El Tapatio's riff on Cochinita Pibil (sans banana leaf).

The restaurant’s chips don’t appear to be made in-house, but the (red) salsa is usually a fresh and tasty cilantro-infused concoction (although on one occasion the kitchen skimped on the herbs, resulting in something more akin to tomato sauce than anything else).

Sadly, the red salsa is accompanied by the culinary tragedy known as “white sauce.”  It tastes just like the “white sauce” served at every other Tex-Mex joint in Hampton Roads.  “White sauce” is so tragically pathetic that when you eat it, you get that leaden feeling like when you drive by the guy on the corner with the “Please help” cardboard sign while you pretend to fiddle with your radio.  I think I die a little every time I think about “white sauce.”  It’s that bad.

Note to Hampton Roads:  No one in the entire rest of the Mexican-food eating world serves white sauce.  You won’t get it in Texas, California, Arizona, or even Indiana.  You won’t get it in Washington, D.C. – one of the largest Mexican-food wastelands in the universe.  You won’t get it in Germany or on Guam, and you sure won’t get it in Mexico.  White sauce is a scam, people.  It’s an inside joke that’s been told so many times that no one remembers why it’s funny anymore.  Let me just throw it out on the table:  You folks have been had.

So, forget the “white sauce” they contrived to pacify some clueless gringo and sign yourself up for the Mexico City tacos, which will get you three interior (i.e., real) Mexican tacos.  Served simply and traditionally with some onions and cilantro leaves on the side, these tacos – chicken, steak and carnitas – deliver, even if the standard lime slices are M.I.A.

El Tapatio may not deliver a 100%-pure rendition of Guadalajara in the middle of Newport News, but the restaurant easily outpaces all the other contenders.  It’s definitely an excellent way to spend a long, late afternoon lunch.

Lest you think I’ve had too many of those little shots of tequila, here’s what the Urbanspoon critics have to say:
El Tapatio on Urbanspoon

Grade:  B+
Address:  615 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Newport News
Other locations:
2029 Lynnhaven Parkway, Virginia Beach
2129 General Booth Blvd, Virginia Beach

Phone:  (757) 310-6853
Website:  Nada

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