Let’s talk Los Portales.
This ever-bustling restaurant is a locally loved haven of handmade tortillas where the Micheladas are mighty strong and the salsa bar is sensationally fresh. When owners (brothers Miguel and Ramón Villaseñor) decided it was time to take their taco game to the next level, Tequila Comida & Cantina (TCC) was born.
Cavernous compared to the more-quaint Los Portales (however, word on the street has them moving to the old Coach’s location near the Market Street Walmart), TCC is a mecca for contemporary Mexican flavors. Housed in Monkey Junction, the colorful, exposed-brick dining room (decorated with multi-colored flags and ornate, drop-down lights) screams, “Hola! Large or extra-large cerveza?”
Seriously, the oversized XL mugs are something to behold. And the margaritas are equally as marvelous.
I’ve been a loyal Los Portales fan for several years and couldn’t wait to experience chef Ramón’s culinary talents on a larger scale. Armed with his mother’s seasonings and refined versions of his father’s secret sauces, the talented chef designed TCC’s menu as a thoughtful medley of traditional Mexican flavors (inspired by his ancestor’s pre-Hispanic ingredients) with a contemporary feel.
See: Pan-seared duck breast with tamarind and apple-celery sauce.
Seconds after my husband and I were seated, we were greeted with a friendly face and generous basket of warm housemade chips and salsas. The green variety was a pungent union of tomatillos and citrus, while the red was a more traditional tomato-based salsa dotted with onions and cilantro. The booth was cozy and our bellies were empty. Did we nearly polish off this complimentary course before even putting in an order?
Queso is my kryptonite, and I knew chef Ramón’s would be anything but plain. I wasn’t wrong. The portion size seemed liberal, but it fit the price tag of $8. Though this was likely an appetizer meant to be split between four or so folks, my husband and I scraped every last drop out of the bowl. The smooth white dip was velvety, mellow and lusciously drippy. It clung to every salty yellow triangle. Even when our entrées arrived, we couldn’t pull ourselves away while the queso was still warm. It was crack.
Order the crack. Trust me: order the crack.
I had seen several photos of the empanadas online and knew it would be a shame to skip over them. Our super-attentive waitress recommended the steak option—and as I happily load the leftovers into my mouth while typing this, I wish she was nearby for a high-five. The plate was composed of two halved golden pastries (which made four harmoniously handheld portions) overflowing with savory steak and stringy Oaxaca cheese.
Props to chef Ramón for the following visual component: a mountain of steak in the center of the plate (as if it had just spilled right out of the empanadas). The well-seasoned meat was thinly sliced and tender with a caramelized crust (likely from being cooked on a flat-top). Additional props for being extra attentive with proteins. Alongside the empanadas was a dip trio of tangy tomato-chipotle sauce, creamy guacamole spread and sour cream. Each carried their weight and added enhanced layers of flavor to the puffy pockets. Also present was a rich, earthy pool of refried black beans swimming with speckles of salty queso fresco.
TCC’s creative menu is peppered with alluring items like pan-seared tuna with ancho chili glaze and bright, fresh ceviches. If there’s anything I’m going to steer you toward, it’s the tacos al pastor. The traditional marinade is a mixture of aromatics (onion, garlic and the like), spicy elements (like jalapeños or guajillo chilies) and sweet citrus like orange or pineapple juice. I don’t know what magic Chef Ramón uses to put his al pastor over the top—and I’m OK with that. Let’s start with the base: a double layer of handmade corn tortillas (I’ll never look at bagged, grocery-store tortillas the same way) topped with melt-in-your-mouth morsels of marinated pork, sweet, smoky grilled pineapple puree, grassy cilantro, crunchy onions and smoky tomato-chipotle salsa.
I knew Ramón was a wizard with moles, so the chicken mole poblano was a must-have for me. If you’re a fan of rich, complex sauces, any of his slow-simmered concoctions will hit the spot. The plate featured fall-apart, shredded chicken thighs smothered in Pueblo-inspired mole (an exceptionally bold blend of dried spices, chilies and seeds). Each bite was nutty, fragrant and a brilliant balance of bitter and sweet. We opted for the whole beans as the chicken’s companion, and received a substantial ramekin of delicate, expertly cooked black beans topped with lime-scented pico and queso fresco.
For a true belly-buster (equally as fearless in flavor as all above-mentioned meals), the brisket burrito was a handheld made for a king. Texturally enhanced by being stuffed inside a large griddled tortilla, the burrito boasted succulent shreds of brisket, rice, beans, lettuce, pico, guacamole and a cool swipe of sour cream. The portion easily was enough for two—and the lunchtime price was a steal.
I left in a queso coma of content. Honestly, I’m still craving more.
So full disclosure: This is my final review as Rosa Bianca before departing Wilmington (but don’t worry, the new Rosa will slay, I promise).
Tequila Comida, you made all of my mouthwatering Mexican food dreams come true.
To all, a buenas noches.
Tequila Comida & Cantina
5607 Carolina Beach Rd., Ste. 130
Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sun., noon-3 p.m.
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