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More Than Mariachis 

Informal, inexpensive spots serve authentic cuisine

The improvement in Mexican cuisine in Charlotte during the last 10 years is striking. Fortunately, the restaurants that have opened during this period offer more than the pools of oozing food we had come to expect at those fancier, pricier, tailored-for-Americans restaurants featuring displays of sombreros and the sounds of mariachi bands. Along with the new Latino grocery stores and Mexican bakeries, these small, informal, inexpensive spots serve a largely Latino clientele.

One of these is Restaurant y Taqueria La Unica on Central Avenue. Five years ago partners Miquel Corral and Arturo Shabez opened their first restaurant Taqueria La Unica in Monroe. Two years ago they opened this Charlotte location with a third partner, Maria Barron. Then last year, the three opened a third location on Eastway near North Tryon. Business has been good, and in fact, their latest venture has been to open La Unica Corporation, which bakes tortillas locally and sells them, as well as other supplies, to restaurants.

Mexican cuisine is as diverse as that country's terrain, a blend of the Indian and Latino cultures and regional agriculture: corn, rice, limes, avocados, tomatoes, chocolate, beans, chilies and herbs. Corral is from Durango, a city in north central Mexico, located 1.8 miles above sea level. He reports that although some of the dishes at La Unica are from Durango, most items feature the flavors of Mexico City.

Just inside the entrance to the bright and festive 60-seat La Unica is a busy jukebox playing a mix of popular tunes, some in Spanish, some English. Behind the front cash register is an opening to the kitchen where you can watch large quantities of spring onions and meat being grilled. The interior is crowded with diners drinking Tecate, Modelo, and other Mexican beers or pitchers of in-house-made horchata, a nutritionally rich, sweet rice drink served over ice.

Communication is not a problem. The menu is bilingual, although the "special" board in the front is in Spanish. All the servers I encountered were bilingual, friendly, and helpful. Immediately upon seating, a brimming bowl of quartered limes is produced. Service is expedient and dishes are quickly brought out from the kitchen.

If you order only one taco (only $1.35), expect a quizzical look from your server. Look around to see other servers delivering large platters, five or six tacos to a plate, to a neighboring table. These tacos are the authentic two soft corn tortillas augmented with grilled onions and flavorful cilantro. La Unica is known for the Al Pastor Taco, a taco filled with seasoned pork. The meat is vertically grilled by the machine normally used to grill lamb for gyros. "I got the idea from Chicago," Corral says. "First we cook the meat on the spinner, and then slice some off and grill it." The results are sensational.

Next up try a northern-styled two tortilla quesadilla (for a mere $3) with its side of chopped iceberg lettuce, slice of tomato, and some seriously tasty guacamole. The chorizo quesadilla was a mixture of crumbed sausage, the only dish I encountered with a grease run off. But there are a myriad of fillings from which to chose including grilled steak, beef tongue, soft shredded beef, pork, chicken, or ham. Even better was the plate-length burrito filled with shredded chicken, onions, cilantro, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream. All for four bucks.

Many of the items come with grilled spring onions and jalapenas, popular in Mexico City. La Unica is a hybrid offering both fast food and entrees. Some of the latter are daily specials, while others -- fried fish, grilled chicken with beans, and breaded shrimp -- are on the menu. The large, entree portioned Mexican skirt steak ($7.75) was somewhat chewy and salty but served with a soulful bean and ham soup, and a side of beans and rice. To finish, the only housemade dessert is a flan ($2), which is decked out Sundae style with whipped cream, chocolate syrup and a cherry.

It would be challenging not to like La Unica where good values abound and the food is simple, but good.

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