Cinco de Mayo comes but once a year, but the hunger for great Mexican food—and drink— is a craving that can strike at any time. Fortunately, the Charlotte region has a number of restaurants where the guacamole is fresh, the tacos are stuffed to capacity, and the margaritas just keep coming.
Upscale Mexican cuisine is the latest trend, with Cali-style fish tacos and tasting flights of top shelf tequilas making a splash, but the city still has plenty of traditional Mexican spots, often run by families that hail from south of the border, where you can score authentic enchiladas and a tasty tres leches.
With over 200 restaurants serving Mexican-style food in the region, we can't hope to review every one. We won't be talking about the national chains, such as On the Border and Chili's, although both have locations around the city, and serve some decent and reliable Mexican-style cuisine (as well as great margaritas).
And we won't be talking about the numerous taquerias that line Central Avenue and South Boulevard, where you can find the city's most authentic Mexican cuisine, prepared by and for our huge Latino community. There are bound to be many hidden gems, and we invite readers to comment and share about spots we've missed.
The recently renamed Crazy Taco (just down the hill from Krazy Fish on Central) looks like a good bet for authentic Mexican fast food.
Also, we're skipping the many burrito bars, where fresh, design-your-own burritos are available fast. Spots like Chipotle, Moe's, Johnny's Burritos in Uptown, Salsarita's and the venerable Phat Burrito are great bets for a fast meal—or a catered Cinco de Mayo party. And let's not forget the food trucks.
La Paz tops the list, thanks to its 30-year record of serving superior margaritas and Mexican cuisine, and as winner of numerous Best Margarita and Best Mexican Restaurant awards. Now in its third location, this time in the trendy Metropolitan complex in Midtown, the fun continues, with weekly bar events, happy hour specials, and guac made fresh tableside.
Operating in Dilworth since 2004, and now with a second location in Stonecrest, Cantina 1511 wowed the crowds at the Charlotte Taste of the Nation with duck tacos and an award-winning pork shank. The chef-created menu features an unusually large number of seafood items done Tex-Mex style, and the tres leches cake here is chocolate, a nice twist on the classic. Veteran restaurateur Frank Scibelli designed the Cantina concept, as well as that at Paco's Tacos & Tequila on Morrison Blvd. behind SouthPark Mall, where the menu offers many similar items.
Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina
Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina sits on one of the city's busiest corners, College and Trade, in the EpiCentre. Margaritas, Mexican beers, and the popular Coronaritas, featuring a mini-Corona upended in a frozen margarita, taste extra good on the patio watching the traffic rush by, accompanied by three versions of guacamole. Over 100 premium tequilas are available in cocktails or tasting flights. Weekend brunch is a good bet here, with a kids menu and lots of Mexican-inspired breakfast dishes.
Three Amigos, on Central Avenue opposite Dim Sum, is one of those hidden gems on the Charlotte dining scene, an ordinary storefront in a little strip of shops. It's easily overlooked, but stop in and you'll find some of the freshest, most authentic, and least expensive Mexican food in the city. All rice, beans, and meat are cooked fresh daily, and the margaritas are some of the largest for the money you'll find. Daily specials add to the appeal. There's a new second location at Highland Creek in Huntersville.
Cabo Fish Taco
Cabo Fish Taco was among the first in town to serve upscale California-style Mexican cuisine, and was recently featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Fish tacos are the specialties here available stuffed with a variety of fried or grilled whitefish, shrimp, mahi, wahoo, or salmon. The list of designer margaritas includes the El Cheapo priced at $5 all the time. Or choose shots from over 70 varieties of tequila or a local beer on draft to get the party rolling.
Maverick Rock Taco
Maverick Rock Taco, across Montford Drive from El Camino, is a south-of-the-border entry from the Xenia Group, which also operates Nolen's, Ilios Noche, and Big View Diner. The menu includes a host of different tacos, including unusual selections such as calamari, lamb, and fried avocado, plus Yucatan-style ceviche and clay-pot enchiladas. But at heart, this is a party spot, with classic rock music playing, a wall dedicated to rock n' roll legends, and a dozen different margaritas and top-end tequilas shots heading up the libation menu. A late night menu is served 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., Thursday through Saturday, and a TNT (Tecate and a tequila shot) is priced at $5 all the time.
Baja Soul Taqueria
Baja Soul Taqueria, located in Birkdale Village, brings the tastes of Mexico to North Mecklenburg. Fish tacos are the specialty here, along with customized guacamole made to your specifications table-side, and several salsas made from scratch. Libations include a variety of mojitos as well as margaritas and Mexican beers on draft. Unique to Baja are table-top touchscreens that let you browse videos, play games, take a picture of your party, and access the internet.
Azteca Family Mexican Restaurants
Azteca Family Mexican Restaurants, with locations in Charlotte, Matthews, Huntersville and Gastonia, bring traditional Mexican flavors to North Carolina. Owned and operated by a family that originated in a small village in Mexico, Azteca has a menu featuring many seafood dishes and a selection of vegetarian items. Servings are generous as is the welcome. Mariachi bands play on the weekends.