For as long as most folks in these parts can remember, the local Tex-Mex restaurant landscape has been dominated by a handful of regional chains. With reassuringly familiar names like El Dorado, El Rodeo and Las Margaritas, these chains have thrived by serving food that – while more or less interchangeable from one place to the next – was reliably cheap and fast.
Then a stranger rode into town – the town of Wake Forest, to be precise, where Tlaquepaque opened last September in a former O’Charley’s building. The first Triangle location of a small family-owned chain with locations scattered across four states, Tlaquepaque stands out like a saguaro cactus in a field of corn.
The name, for starters, challenges the comfort zone of Tex-Mex cliches by paying tribute to an obscure historic city in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The tongue-twister pronunciation (TLAH-kay-PAH-kay, as near as I can render it) doubles down on that challenge.
Then there’s the decor, which eschews the usual sombreros-and-serapes motif for a more upscale casual look with abstract paintings and earth tones. Large earthenware urns glazed with colorful folk art, prominently displayed atop stone columns, are a nod to the restaurant’s namesake city, famous for its pottery. (Bonus fact: Tlaquepaque is the Spanish rendition of the ancient Aztecs’ term for “place above clay land.”)
Does Tlaquepaque have the goods to back up the bravado?
The answer, starting with the warm chips and freshly made salsa that land on your table soon after you’re seated, is a resounding yes. Don’t fill up on the salsa, though, because you’ll surely succumb to the temptation of that tableside guacamole cart that’s making the rounds of the dining room. You’ll find that option listed on the menu as “Fresh Large Guacamole,” and they’re not kidding. It will easily serve four.
The guacamole sets a standard that is repeated pretty much across the board: generous portions and execution that’s a decided notch above the norm. Even the rice and beans, workhorse plate-fillers that too often come off as a drab, clumpy afterthought elsewhere, are fork-worthy here.
Pollo Jalisco raises the ante on Tex-Mex accompaniment tradition further still with a sizzling mound of peppers, onions, mushrooms, broccoli, tomatoes and yellow squash on a hot cast iron skillet. Resting atop this garden bounty, a butterflied chicken breast proves to be gratifyingly moist despite being skinless.
Chicken takes a different – albeit equally succulent – form in enchiladas Suizas, where it’s shredded and wrapped in soft corn tortillas before being smothered in a creamy tomatillo sauce and molten cheese.
Pollo asada is a winning option in soft corn tacos, though I confess I’m partial to the carnitas filling. Regardless of your choice of protein (other options include carne asada, chorizo and al pastor), it’s served so generously that it threatens to spill over the edges of the double corn tortilla wrapper.
Of all the dishes I sampled at Tlaquepaque (and I sampled widely across the menu), tamales with an uncharacteristically stingy filling were the only disappointment. Everything else – from meaty, bone-gnawingly satisfying pork ribs to an exceptionally fresh-tasting coctel de camaron, served in an oversize goblet whose rim was garnished with alternating cucumber slices and plump shrimp – was well worth the rush-hour trek to Wake Forest.
Service is unfailingly friendly and efficient. You don’t have to worry about your order being delayed because your server got tied up making a tableside guacamole, either, because a dedicated staffer is assigned to that task on busy nights.
The fact that Tlaquepaque’s prices are comparable to those at the other Tex-Mex chains is, you might say, icing on the tres leches cake (which you’ll find on the dessert menu, along with cinnamon- and sugar-dusted churros and a respectable flan).
Granted, you’re not likely to find margaritas offered as a $1.99 special here, but you can actually taste the tequila in these. Like the kitchen, Tlaquepaque’s bar aims higher than the competition with an offering that includes specialty tipples like the cucumber margarita as well as a solid assortment of top-shelf liquors.
And we’re not just talking tequila, either. If there’s another Tex-Mex joint in these parts where you can get a 12-ounce T-bone topped with jumbo shrimp for $14.25 and wash it down with The Macallan 18-year-old Scotch, I don’t know about it.