Here are your first clues that Tequila's Town serves up authentic Mexican food de verdad:
No mariachi music squeaking through the speakers. No manufactured-in-China sombreros hanging from the ceiling. No velvet paintings of sad-eyed burros, Elvis or said mariachis.
The food at Tequila's Town is so genuine, it doesn't need any of the attendant decorations we americanos have come to associate with Mexican restaurants. It might also tickle the comfort zone of certain unadventurous palates — and that's a good thing for the rest of us.
A month has passed since Tequila's Town opened on the busy block of Whitaker just south of Broughton, and word on the foodie grapevine has spread fast that this isn't your run-of-the-mill cantina.
"We're getting away from the stigma of Mexican food being just rice and beans," says owner Cuauhtemoco "Temo" Ortiz.
This isn't Ortiz's first time around a restaurant: He opened perennial Cuban favorite Rancho Allegre several years ago as well as Hidalgo's in Pooler, but wanted to return to the homecooked cuisine of his youth.
"I've had this kind of place on my mind for a long time," he says.
Branching out beyond the typical burritos and enchiladas smothered in shredded cheese, Tequila's Town presents a rich culinary picture of the south and central regions of Mexico:
Marinated fajitas like they make in Oaxaca. Seafood soup from Veracruz rumored to have invigorating properties. Tacos that taste like they came from the street vendors of Morelia, the central Mexican city from which the Ortiz family hails.
And this is definitely the place for mole poblano — chicken bathed in a rich smoky sauce made of chocolate, chilis and sesame seeds. Matriarch Señora Ortiz makes the sauce fresh every day, though her son has to source a specific pepper out of Jacksonville to complete the recipe.
"If she doesn't have the right ingredients, she doesn't want to cook it," shrugs her son. "Otherwise it won't be the same."
While the menu is large enough to accommodate all tastes, curious appetites will find unusual ingredients to try: Highly recommended are the quesadillas de huitlacoche — tortillas stuffed with a truffle-like delicacy known as "corn smut" imported from central Mexico.
Other aspects that elevate Tequila's Town several notches are tableside guacamole service (nothing like watching a pair of avocados transformed into the freshest dip possible and served in a bowl carved from lava rock) and Mexican Coke in a bottle (jefe of all soft drinks.)
And of course, there are at least 30 types of tequila available at all times, from silver to añejo to the rare Maestro Dobel to mezcal with a worm at the bottom. Try the tuna margarita, which has nothing to do with fish and boasts a deep beet color from juice squeezed from prickly pear cactus fruit.
Don't do tequila? Check out the robust list of Argentinean and Chilean wines.
Tequila's Town does brisk lunch business, with healthy-sized $6 combos until 3 p.m., and dinner entrees from $8-$21. Desserts include the expected tres leches layer cake and creamy flan as well as churros con chocolate, fried confections dusted with cinnamon sugar and served with a dipping bowl of hot chocolate, with or without a shot of liquor.
Temo says it's all about traditions, not clichés. Plans are in the works for an upcoming Mexican Independence Day celebration September 16 (no, gringo, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day) and a colorful Day of the Dead procession Nov. 1.
"We're keeping it simple, keeping it authentic," he says.
No need for piñatas here — especially when you have a real abuelita making tamales in the kitchen.