We’ve just been seated at Gonza Tacos y Tequila and are mulling our cocktail options (the Pepino, a spicy cucumber riff on a margarita? a tequila from the bar’s selection of more than 50? a flight of blanco, reposado and añejo, all from the same distiller?) when my wife interrupts herself.
“I think I’ll – hey, that mannequin just moved!”
I turn and, sure enough, out of the corner of my eye I catch the “mannequin” just as she finishes changing her position. Like many, we’ve been fooled – set up by the two actual mannequins we passed on our way into the restaurant.
Stationed just outside the entrance, the garishly clad and tattooed figures are part of a fantastic tableau that includes trash cans repurposed as flower planters, crime scene victim outlines on the pavement, and a patio surrounded by salvaged window frames suspended from the building’s eaves. Hardly the storefront decorations you expect to see on an upscale North Raleigh strip mall, the motley scene gives fair warning that Gonza is emphatically not your run-of-the-mill Mexican restaurant.
For all its razzle-dazzle, Gonza’s style is not surprising once you learn that the owner is a member of the Salamanca family, whose Mexican restaurants are as famous for their over-the-top decor as they are for their food. Gonza Salamanca managed Dos Taquitos, his brother Carlos’ restaurant, for five years before setting out on his own. But Gonza’s Tacos y Tequila is by no means a clone of Dos Taquitos – or of Centro, his niece Angela Salamanca’s colorful cantina in downtown Raleigh. Gonza’s challenges Mexican restaurant stereotypes even more vigorously – or, as its owner puts it, “I want to show that Mexico is about more than just sombreros and serapes.”
To that end, virtually every element of the dining room decor – from the posters plastered on the walls to the larger-than-life photographs of Latino artists and writers – is a reflection of contemporary Latin American culture. Even the live mannequin is a popular form of performance art in Mexico, where the artist holds a pose until someone tips her. You can coax her to move at Gonza’s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
The menu lives up to the restaurant’s name with a selection of 10 taco variations, with options ranging from classic carne asada to a pastor that would do any taqueria proud. Tinga, succulent shreds of mildly spiced chicken, is first-rate, too, as is pibil, nuggets of achiote-marinated pork steamed in a banana leaf.
The menu doesn’t describe the Mero-Mexican taco but advises, “dare you to try it!!!” Those who dare will discover that it’s lengua (beef tongue) – and that it’s very good indeed.
Generously filled and served three to a plate with your choice of side (beans, rice, tortilla soup or salad) for $10, the tacos are well worth the price of admission. You can’t mix and match tacos in a single order, but you can specify whether you’d prefer them on soft corn or flour tortillas.
The rest of the entree offering is divided into three categories, with a handful of options in each. Under the “De los Cuates” heading you’ll find a couple of authentic Mexican dishes, both featuring homemade sauces: chilaquiles verdes and exceptionally rich, complex mole enchiladas.
“De la Tierrita” is devoted to a brief gastronomic tour of the Salamanca family’s native Colombia and the Caribbean. The section is limited to just three listings for now, but Gonza Salamanca plans to expand the offering in the coming weeks. In the meantime, grilled red snapper with salsa Veracruzana and coconut rice is a worthy destination. So is Colombian-style carne asada with paisa beans, a savory pinto bean stew.
Tex-Mex fans will find what they’re looking for under the “De los Gabachos” heading, where options cover the usual territory from steak burrito to chicken and cheese quesadilla to fajitas. Nachos take a slight detour with a topping of chicken tinga, avocado and crema Mexicana. It’s a detour well worth taking.
If it’s just a chip dip to go with your margarita you’re after, guacamole or queso picoso will serve. Snapper and shrimp ceviche in a tomato sauce with a touch of orange juice comes off more like coctel de camaron than a typical Mexican ceviche, but is nonetheless refreshing. For my money, though, the star of the appetizer list is chiles endiablados: cheese-stuffed, bacon-wrapped jalapeños.
Then there’s what Gonza Salamanca calls “the ghost menu,” a supplemental offering that includes a number of dishes that Dos Taquitos fans will recognize. The Mexican Flag, for instance (a trio of enchiladas, each with a different sauce – one green, one white, one red) is a favorite at Dos Taquitos, where it goes by the alias “enchiladas de la puebla.”
Your server is supposed to – but frequently doesn’t – recite this list. Salamanca is considering printing the list as a menu insert, and that would certainly solve the problem. Then again, there’s a certain iconoclastic charm to the ghost menu concept. Somehow, it seems oh-so Salamanca.
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