Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
Ethnic holiday feasts benefit from a side of history. Cinco de Mayo marks the victory of the Mexican army over French troops (who had come to collect a legal debt) in 1862. Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, doesn’t elicit the same hoopla from gringos primed for music, dancing and dynamite food.
Hot, mild, canned, fresh, authentic or Taco Belled — Moore County obliges.
In 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, six percent of 85,000 Moore County residents were Hispanic. The other 94 percent flocks to restaurants which arrange and rearrange a dozen basic ingredients. Some are cavernous chain operations; a few are mom-and-pop cafes. Most prove you can get a filling hot lunch for under $6 or a copious dinner for about $10 if you’re not expecting miracles.
The tour commences at …
Casa Mexicana, 1212 Morganton Rd., Southern Pines and 105 Montgomery Crossing, Biscoe. A full parking lot is a good sign for the casa that opened recently in Southern Pines. This place is a carved, colored theme park; no morsel of the previous tenant, a pizzeria, remains. The lunch menu makes sandwiches and burgers obsolete. Most interesting — Alahambres: steak cooked with poblanos and onions, cheese, rice, beans and flour tortillas. Also, Chuleta (pork chop) Mexicana with accompaniments that will definitely hold you until dinner. In addition to the lunch menu are combos plus impressive seafood and vegetarian options.
San Felipe Reataurante Mexicano, 1840 N. Sandhills Blvd., Aberdeen. You like your chalupas in a supermarket-sized sports bar setting, with European soccer matches playing on multiple wall-mounted TVs? Huge, dim, cool, perfect on a broiling-hot day, San Felipe is one of nine in the state. Proliferation allows for a monster menu, including make-your-own combos. Notice Huevos Revueltos (scrambled eggs with jalapenos, rice, refried beans and tortillas) and pollo loco, which means crazy chicken. New and tangential: grilled shrimp, scallops and squash over rice, topped with nacho cheese.
Casa Garcia, 4505 U.S. 15-501, Carthage and 4345 Seven Lakes Plaza (N.C. 211), West End. The Carthage establishment is a really pretty place (for a roadhouse) with carved furniture, cave-like booths, sunburst wall decorations, tile floor, a bar and proper music. Besides 25 lunch dishes, nine vegetarian “delights” and 30 combination dinners the specialties include spinach quesadillas, “devil” shrimp, tostaguac (avocado tostada), fried chicken burritos and a steak smothered in grilled jalapenos, which definitely demands one or two non-alcoholic daiquiris or ice-cold Negro Modelos. Seniors who survive the diablo dishes get a 10 percent discount.
Los Dos Potrillos (Two Colts), 1363 Town and Country Shopping Center, Aberdeen. Horsy décor beckons horse people with a traditional menu, many margaritas, a few Mexican beers. A bow to the Lone Star State with Quesadilla Texana, a jumbo flour tortilla filled with steak, chicken and shrimp, grilled vegetables, guacamole salad — enough to split. The house carnitas sound special, too: chunks of pork cooked with garlic, orange, salt and pepper served with tomato, avocado, radishes, lettuce, rice, beans and, of course, flour tortillas to mop up the juices. Finish off with deep-fried ice cream or a strawberry burrito. Terrace seating’s nice on cool evenings.
El Vaquero (Cowboy), 210 W. Pennsylvania Ave., Southern Pines and 115 N.C. 5, Pinehurst Plaza, Aberdeen. Lime is a common ingredient in the Mexican kitchen but Vaquero created a stir when the neon hue appeared on the exterior, within sight of the Southern Pines Historic District. Now, it’s a beacon with unique features, including a buffet which provides all the fixin’s for tacos and burritos. The menu advises that all dishes are prepared mild but can be bumped up. Kiddie holdouts get a cheeseburger with fries. Vegetarians like sincronisada — a grilled tortilla “sandwich” stuffed with veggies and cheese, also fish tacos. Desserts include flan. Real guys order 12 oz. Macho Margaritas.
Taquitos’s Place, 181 E. Salisbury St., Robbins. Finding and eating at this family-operated Mexican grocery/general store is an adventure. The building has no numbers and the torn sign bears another name. Shelves hold everything from votive candles to cowboy boots, pudding mix to pots and fresh poblanos. Between the meat counter and restrooms are four tables with attached benches. The menu board hangs over a window into the kitchen. Background music may be fiesta but very little English is spoken. Regulars swear by the tacos. Once deciphered, the half dozen other offerings pique interest, particularly blackened tilapia with a Cajun burn assuaged by a sparkling Jarritos grapefruit or mandarin soda. Smart strategy: Wait for Mexican customers and order ditto. To end with a sweet, pick up a Mexican pastry at the bakery counter near the door.
La Poblanita Mexican Cafe, 106 W. South St., Aberdeen. Now we’re talking. Since 1996 this is where local movers and shakers come for Mexicana prepared by welcoming owners Christina and Victor Bello. Camaraderie trumps decor when you’re eating Shrimp Cocktail de Camaron, their famous chiles rellenos, tres leches cake and chicken cooked in chipotle cream. The rest of the menu veers far from chain operations. The proof is on Facebook, where the word is “authentic.”
Mexican menus don’t rate dishes with one, two or three chili peppers like their Chinese counterparts. To be safe, request milder versions and add hot sauce.
For a quick homemade Mexican meal: Pour a can of seasoned chili/red/pinto beans with liquid into a shallow bowl and mash with a fork. Stir in two tablespoons of instant mashed potato flakes and a finely chopped small onion. Heat in microwave until thick. Lay 8-inch flour tortillas on serving plates; spread beans on one half and top with chopped leftover chicken or cooked ground beef, shredded jack or sharp cheddar and a few cilantro leaves. Fold tortillas over filling and microwave until hot. Top with iceberg lettuce ribbons, a fruity salsa and reduced-fat sour cream.
Tastes like Cinco de Mayo. Tastes like a celebration.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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