There are certain alliterations I never turn down: Happy Hour, spicy salsa and Taco Tuesday name only a few. Well, today, luck is on my side, because I’m dishing on all three.
In my research of Taqueria La Tapatia I discovered they’re not exactly the new kid on the block. This hidden gem has been surreptitiously serving up killer Mexican cuisine for eight years; however, they just moved into the Harris Teeter shopping center at 820 College Road a few months back. While the restaurant’s off-the-beaten path location hasn’t decreased its popularity among regulars, without stellar positioning, it’s been easy to overlook.
Well, start looking.
Let me begin by saying: Taqueria La Tapatia isn’t some trendy, hip, modern Mexican menu. Owner Jorge Villa delivers simple, straightforward dishes from his native land. There is no avocado-smeared, California-style burritos or duck à l’orange quesadillas drizzled with aioli. However, there are spicy huevos con chorizo and crispy beef-cheek huaraches.
I anticipated a cozy, sit-down restaurant, so when I walked into a brightly lit, counter service-style café, I was caught a bit off-guard. It wasn’t exactly happy hour—1:30 p.m. to be exact—but several nearby posters suggested a margarita. And when the walls talk, I listen.
From the vibe of the menu, the staff and the patrons, I was certain there was fresh lime juice and tequila flowing in the back. When I questioned the cashier on Tapatia’s margarita making methods, I was disappointed to hear the words “pre-made mix.” The salt-rimmed, citrusy cocktail I craved did not come from a plastic bottle. But don’t worry, boozy beverages prevail with plenty of Pacifico and Modelo to go around.
In an attempt to spread out my sampling, I chose four different styles with four different meats. At a standard Mexi-American joint, it’s all the same ingredients put together in a hundred different ways (that’s right, Taco Bell, I’m on to you!). But in a kitchen where the food is a true depiction of cultural cuisine, the dishes come filled with more flavor and most importantly more heart.
First on deck: chips and house salsa. The yellow corn tortilla chips weren’t nearly as greasy as what we’re all used to. They had a bit more crunch and a warm, toasty flavor. The traditional and rustic house salsa didn’t try to pass as pico de gallo. It was a smooth mixture of sweet tomatoes, rough-chopped cilantro and tangy white onions. Though the house variety isn’t hot, Tapatia’s salsa bar offers both ends of the spectrum, from a smoky tomatillo blend to a fiery mix of peppers and spices.
I moved along to the al pastor tostada—a round, crunchy tortilla base topped with crispy bits of garlicky pork shoulder, shredded lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, and sour cream. While the meat did bear al pastor’s signature red hue—a result of chiles and achiote paste—it needed a hint of salt. The cold iceberg shreds and tangy sour cream lightened its chewy texture and fatty flavor. Unfortunately, the finely minced meat had a hard time keeping its balance on the tortilla landing pad. So, I ended up with more pork on my plate than in my mouth. If Tapatia’s style is to cut their al pastor pork really fine, then customers may want to consider ordering it as a taco or quesadilla, so it stays inside its vehicle. But if the reason the meat was so minced is because it was the last scoop, maybe next time it will have bigger chunks and would work as a tostada.
Knowing it was wrapped snug in a comfy corn tortilla, I opted for the carnitas taco next. No frills here. It was simply topped with fresh cilantro and chopped onions. One squeeze of lime later, and I was in my happy place.
And forget flour tortillas! At Tapatia it’s all about masa. These delicate, earthy corn tortillas—most definitely made from scratch and most likely made by someone’s grandmother in the back—rocked. One bite of juicy, shredded pork was offset by the sharp tang of an onion. The cilantro offered a citrusy, floral note but I needed a bit more acidity and freshness to complement the pork. A dab of salsa did the trick.
I eyed my beef sopes and pulled the plate closer. A sope typically has a thin, crisp, shallow exterior, but this masa was thick with a chewy shell. It was fried, tender and flaky, and piled high with ground beef, shredded lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes. While those seasoning packets that come in bright yellow taco kits may be tasty, they’re certainly not traditional. Most store-bought ground beef spice mixes are heavily salted and over seasoned. This meat was enhanced with a few aromatics, allowing the cow to speak for itself. A velvety layer of refried beans on the sope’s center and a sprinkle of creamy cheese—most likely Chihuahua or Oaxaca—added a touch of salt and softened the flavors.
Enchiladas can do no wrong, in my opinion. They’re stuffed with things, smothered with things and topped with more things (yeah, you can quote me on that). Since Tapatia is doing Mexican right, and I’m used to having it wrong, I was looking forward to the enchiladas verdes. They didn’t disappoint. The tender, shredded chicken swam in a rich mix of sweet onions, roasted tomatoes and paprika. Heaped into two tortillas, rolled and doused with a verdant salsa, the mild mix of sweet tomatillos and garlic tasted perfect against the smooth, melted cheese. It weaved together sour cream and came topped to near perfection with a grassy pile of cilantro. Let me put it this way: I ordered three different entrees, and this was the cleanest plate of all.
For freshly shaken booze and fancified fiesta food, Wilmington has plenty of options for gourmet grub. But an unfussy, authentic Mexican meal can be found at Taqueria La Tapatia without disappointment.