Charlotte has dozens of actual Mexican cuisine emporiums, an abundance of taco trucks, taquerias, and a smattering of places offering Cal-Mex (fish tacos and burritos). Finding a family-friendly Tex-Mex restaurant, however, has been as elusive as finding Okie-styled chicken fried steak here.
Now Charlotte is poised to host a bevy of Tex-Mex eateries. One of the first concepts to open is the 235-seat San Antonio's Modern Mexican, a new concept by CentraArchy Restaurant Management. Their president Greg Greenbaum describes the menu as "an upscale fusion of Mexican, Tex-Mex, Southwestern and Classic American." Indeed, the menu offers a geographically diverse roster. Ironically, this company also owns Frank Manzetti's Tavern, which closed in SouthPark, but is now leased to a locally owned Tex-Mex restaurant slated to open soon.
For whatever reason, most Americans do not differentiate between Tex-Mex and Mexican food (and any Latino cuisines, for that matter). Mexican food expert and writer Diane Kennedy once decried the use of salsa and chips as a prelude to a Mexican meal as not authentic, yet David Pace's Pace Foods, founded in the back of his San Antonio liquor store, had a spectacular rise due to the popularity of Tex-Mex chips and salsa.
The establishment of Tex-Mex as a cuisine, or a cuisine of national stature, has more to do with the in-your-face Texas attitude than with formalized recognition. David Kamp in his The United States of Arugula writes of the 1983 crusade of Texas restaurant consultant Lindsay Greer. Insulted by New York and California domination of food coverage, she organized four local chefs (three from Dallas, one from Houston) into a regional food movement which they called Southwestern Cuisine. This mesquite wood, lime-spritzed cuisine was the darling of the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, Tex-Mex cuisine organically evolved and increased in popularity. When the petroleum market crashed in the 1980s, humble Tex-Mex was there. Now with the current economy, local restaurateurs hope Tex-Mex will be their balance sheet salvation.
Key to Tex-Mex cuisine is freshly made tortillas, beans (refried and pinto), chilies, cheese and meat -- lots of meat. Chili con carne, fajitas and salsa are part of the vocabulary. The dishes of this cuisine cover the plate with the muted earth tones of the Tejano people's land, the mission land -- yellow, orange, brown.
Unfortunately, San Antonio's Modern Mexican does not make their tortillas in-house. Tortillas made in-house and griddled immediately before serving are not replaceable with out-of-the-pack tortillas. We in Charlotte may be used to the packaged taste of these tortillas, but to Tex-Mex cuisine aficionados, this may be a fatal flaw since tortillas are the building block of many dishes.
Aside from this, we scarfed up a ton of comfort in the guacamole, made without flair but with lively chatter tableside, and the Galveston crab claws. The claws were fun especially paired with the one dollar margaritas, part of the restaurant's appeal. This popular margarita special is served all day, all night. A varied margarita list and 60 tequilas are on hand as well.
The marinated chicken on the fajita was nicely done and to complement the protein binge, the plate is sided with a helping of beans and salad. The black beans -- a newly introduced regional aberration in Tex-Mex cuisine -- are densely flavored and thus freakishly better than the traditional bland pinto beans. The fish taco, a blackened tilapia, was another disappointment. Again, better flour tortillas are required; the jicama slaw needs to be more abundant; and the chipotle aïoli requires zip. Lose the refried beans, and add lime. Desserts, on the other hand, prove classic. The cluster of strawberry churros with vanilla ice cream is enough for a table of four.
San Antonio's menu includes burritos, sandwiches, salads, beef dishes including ribs, and a tequila chicken dish with crawfish sauce. Entrée prices range from $6.95 for a shredded chicken taco to $27.75 for a cowboy rib eye. General Manager Don Terry notes they have a gluten-free menu in the works.
While San Antonio's Modern Mexican is a prototype restaurant, I hope time pushes the kitchen nearer the chile rack and to experiment with house-made tortillas. If there was ever a constant in American food, it's the ebb and flow between flashy and friendly. Straightforward nibbles have replaced complicated foam, and foods with instant recognition -- and places with one dollar margaritas -- will appease just about anyone.
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