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Feel the heat at Loco Lime 

In a town where Mexican restaurants -- authentic Mexican, the kind where servers look at you askance if you do not order the prerequisite five tacos per sitting -- are literally a dime a dozen, is there room are a quasi Mexican eatery? You bet.

The Loco Lime: Mexican Inspired Grill is the clever idea of a group of veteran Charlotte restaurateurs. The ownership group includes managing partner Jeff Smith; brothers John and Michael Adams, who also co-own Adams 7th Street Market & Deli as well as Hawthorne Pizza; Jenee Collette, a co-owner of Hawthorne; and Chef Carlo Martinez, who owns Don Juan Restaurant in Mint Hill and co-owns and is executive chef of Hawthorne and Loco. This group opened their first Loco in Huntersville last November and then turned around to open their second store on Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood (near the Belmont neighborhood) and adjacent to The Common House in January.

These entrepreneurs seem to have the mood of Charlotte residents spot on. Loco is fun; the food is good; and the margaritas can get it done faster than an Olympic bobsledder. No, this is not the type of Mexican restaurant where you'll have a gastronomic epiphany. Besides, who can afford an epiphany?

The flavor profiles at Loco are Tex Mex and Cal Mex, American hybridizations that co-opted Mexicana in the same way we took Chinese cuisine and created chop suey and General Tso chicken. Americanization has an advantage, though: Anyone who has eaten in Mexico knows that some inexpensive foods there can be dicey.

In reality, Loco is a NoCa-Mex place with dishes North Carolinians have come to associate with Mexican food, which, of course, includes the entire Central American isthmus. You will find a Honduran flauta on the menu since Chef Martinez hails from Olancho, Honduras. These crispy, cigar-shaped, deep-fried corn tortillas are stuffed with shredded chicken and sided with a honey slaw.

The lengthy menu at Loco includes the usual suspects: chile relleno, carne asada, enchiladas, chicken mole, huevos rancheros, nachos, fried jalapenos, fajitas, and fish tacos. The vegetarian section offers a veggiechanga with sweet plantains, corn relish, portabellas, and grilled zucchini.

Guacamole could easily be one of my favorite summer foods, but a good guac can take off a winter chill as well. At Loco, guacamole is made tableside with the heat added, and the ingredients mashed to your preference. The warm chips come from a local Latino bakery. In fact, many of the ingredients are from local suppliers. Desserts, including the tres leche cake, are made at area bakeries.

The heart of the menu is the litany of protein to be enveloped by tortillas: barbacoa, al pastor, Mexican Chorizo, ground beef, carnitas, steak, and chicken. The quality of the meat is far superior to the typical meats found at the more authentic Mexican eateries. The beef actually tastes like beef and the pork is distinctly pork.

Plates arrive with ever so humble refried beans sliding into the Spanish rice, resembling a painter's palette of mixed oils. Portions are huge. I didn't see anyone leaving without a container of food. One of the best dishes is among the solid entrées: a thickly cut pork chop showered with ancho chilies and a piquant chipotle sauce. Plump soft tacos arrived with sweet-tasting roasted pulled pork tumbling out into a fiery sauce on the plate. The quesadillas, bursting with velvety cheese and shrimp, are also worthy of a face stuffing.

What would a Mexican-inspired place be without the big icy green margarita? Mine was laced with thin slices of jalapenos, in a glass rimmed with sugar: the perfect balance of cold, sweet and heat.

Loco on Central does not sport the primary colors typical Tex Mex places don. A few sombreros do punctuate a wall in the bar, but the dining room consists of rows of dark wood booths. Prices, however, are more than reasonable. Entrées range from $7.50 to $12.50. The "Rapido" lunch menu offers a taco and enchilada with rice and beans for five bucks. Nothing on this lunch menu is more than $6.50.

This affordability is part of the reason Loco is fun, but it's even more fun on Mondays when margaritas are half off.

Know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To be included in our online blog, Eat My Charlotte, send information to Tricia via e-mail (no attachments, please): tricia.childress@creativeloafing.com.

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