If you’re a fan of taquerias, you may be familiar with the checklist of telltale signs that indicate you’ve come across a new one. It goes something like this:
• Spotting El Coyote, which opened in February on the outskirts of Durham, you observe that it’s located in an old strip mall whose storefronts now bear exclusively Spanish names, including a carneceria (butcher shop) and tortilleria. Check.
• You know that the location is convenient to the Latino population of nearby East Durham. Check.
• A little research reveals that El Coyote’s owner, Marcello Ocampo, also owns the tortilleria a couple of doors down: prime source for the fresh corn tortillas essential to a good taqueria. Check.
So, El Coyote is a taqueria, right?
Wrong. Step inside, and you’ll quickly notice that there’s no order counter. Instead, you’ll be warmly greeted at the host stand and taken to a table or booth in a dining room whose decor – from the sleek cylindrical saltwater aquarium at the front of the room to the elaborate parquetry medallion of an Aztec calendar on one wall – is a decided notch above the taqueria norm.
Open the menu (which provides clear descriptions in English of every dish), and you’ll discover that it includes only two taco offerings. One is the obligatory carne asada, and the other you’re not likely to find in a taqueria. Tacos de tinga are, as the menu informs you, “three soft corn tortillas filled with a savory blend of shredded pork, tomato and chorizo, topped with avocado and pico de gallo and served with rice.”
You’ll search in vain for combo plates and other Tex-Mex favorites. Nor will gratis chips and salsa be brought to your table, though you can order them à la carte for $2.50. Given that the blue and yellow corn chips are fried to order using tortillas from the restaurant’s sister shop and served with a trio of salsas, they’re worth it. Might as well splurge on an order of the excellent coarse guacamole, too.
As you nibble and sip on one of the playfully named house cocktails (Boriqua con Acento Britanico, say, an elixir of Bacardi Limon rum and Bombay Sapphire gin whose name means “Puerto Rican with a British accent”), you peruse the menu and realize you’ve stumbled on a local rarity. Neither taqueria nor Tex-Mex joint, El Coyote is aimed squarely at filling an underserved niche in the Triangle: reasonably priced authentic Mexican fare in a setting where speakers of English and Spanish feel equally at home.
Calamares Jarochos, featuring tender squid rings fried in a beer batter that wouldn’t be out of place in a fish-and-chips shop, goes out of its way to please all comers. So does queso fundido, a savory magma of molten Oaxacan cheese and Mexican chorizo, served with flour tortillas and a cascabel chile salsa.
Ceviche de mariscos, a citrus-marinated cocktail of shellfish (including a surprise oyster or two if they’re in plentiful supply) and calamari, is also easy to like. Oysters on the half shell, a staple in authentic Mexican eateries, are plump and irreproachably fresh at El Coyote, each garnished with a dab of hot sauce and a sprig of cilantro.
If you prefer your seafood cooked, the meal-in-a-bowl sopa de mariscos satisfies with a bounty of fish and shellfish in a fragrant, steaming broth. Grilled fish of the day is another tempting option, though the marlin that’s been featured recently is an environmentally iffy proposition.
You need have no such qualms about chicken, whether it’s shredded and rolled into enchiladas de mole poblano or a boneless breast grilled and simmered in a rich poblano-laced cream sauce.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, that is, in which case your options are limited. Happily, one of the two vegetarian entrees (the other is cheese enchiladas) is oyster mushroom fajitas, a dish that could tempt a dedicated meat-eater.
If the fajitas stray a bit from the restaurant’s stated aim of authenticity, menudo’s pedigree is unassailable. El Coyote’s rendition of this traditional tripe and hominy stew lives up to its reputation for rich, earthy flavor, though the hominy was oddly missing from a bowl I ordered for lunch recently. There was a lot of tripe, though. A lot.
Those hankering for a less challenging stew will find ample rewards in chile verde, which serves up succulent threads of pork in a vibrant brew of tomatillos and green chiles.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of trenza, a dish that lives up to its name (which means “braid”) with strips of lean beef, intertwined with bacon on a skewer and grilled. I can say, however, that trenza was the surprise hit at our table. When our waiter explained that the dish was originally offered as part of a special Valentine’s Day dinner and proved so popular that it earned a permanent place on the menu, no one was surprised.
Kitchen miscues are gratifyingly few (though I’d resist the temptation of the flan, which was grainy on two separate occasions). Service is eager-to-please and relatively smooth for a new restaurant.
True to authentic Mexican restaurant tradition, El Coyote serves breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 8 a.m. If you wake up with a craving for chilaquiles verdes or huevos rancheros, but could do without the blaring Tejana music you know will greet you at your favorite taqueria, El Coyote is just what you’re looking for.
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