In this age of smartphones and social media, it’s increasingly rare that you stumble across a restaurant you’ve never heard of. Especially on your home turf. And especially if you’re a restaurant critic.
But that’s just what happened the first time I ate at Las Marias, a hidden gem tucked into a modest strip of mostly Latino shops on an access road bordering a Walmart parking lot in North Raleigh. It wasn’t until I was handed a menu, in fact, that I learned the name of the place.
I had thought I was at Los Tres Vaqueros, where I would sometimes go for birria, the Mexican goat stew that I crave from time to time. The sign out front still said Los Tres Vaqueros, and the decor – a pastiche of folk art, colorful cut-paper banners, and wooden booths and chairs carved and painted with donkey carts, cactuses, sombreros and other whimsical Mexican cliches – hadn’t changed as far as I could tell.
Turns out I had arrived just days after Las Marias opened in April. I decided to stay and check it out.
Am I ever glad I did. It wasn’t long before I’d forgotten all about what I’d come for in the first place. By the time I’d left, my belly stuffed with too many chips (the guacamole is addictive) plus a couple of generously filled taqueria-style tacos on house-made corn tortillas (including a lengua as good as any I’ve had this side of El Paso) and a tostada piled high with a ceviche of mixed seafood and pico de gallo – I knew I’d be back.
I’ve been back several times, in fact, and still have sampled only a fraction of the extensive selection of authentic Mexican fare on offer at Las Marias. The seafood choices alone run to some two dozen, from mojarra frita (fried whole tilapia) to bacon-wrapped camarones Costa Azul.
Meat eaters will find rich rewards, too, among the entrees listed under the heading of “Platillos Fuertes” (not to worry, menu descriptions are in English). Carne asada is first-rate, as is a surf-and-turf variation that pairs the skirt steak with jumbo shrimp under a patchwork of sautéed bell peppers, onions and tomatoes.
Adventurous palates will find ample rewards in carne de puerco con nopales: nuggets of lean, tender pork simmered with cactus and onions in red or green sauce. Or in picaditas Jarochas con cecina, a regional specialty pairing Veracruz-style picaditas (thick corn tortillas with a distinctive pinched rim, topped with cheese and salsa) with lean, house-cured beef. There’s even a beef version of birria, though I haven’t gotten around to trying that one yet.
But I did get my lips around some fine cochinita pibil – succulent shreds of spice-marinated, slow-cooked pork that could give Carolina barbecue a run for its money. And like barbecue, you can get cochinita pibil as an entree or on a sandwich (aka torta, served on a crusty football-shaped Mexican bun called a bolillo) with a side of fries and a mixed pickle of carrot, onion and jalapeño.
In addition to tacos and tortas (try the torta ahogada, a sandwich “drowned” in a spicy red sauce and best eaten with a knife and fork), lighter fare of the sort traditionally found in a taqueria includes sopes and huaraches, variations on a thick corn tortilla theme available with your choice of nearly a dozen meat fillings.
The menu even ventures across the border for Salvadoran pupusas. Available with your choice of four fillings (cheese, pork and cheese, chicken and a vegetarian pupusa made with the flower of a plant called loroco) and served with the traditional accompaniment of a lightly fermented cabbage relish called curtido.
Las Marias is owned by Gabriela Maria Gomez, who sold her stake in the Mexican seafood restaurant Vallarta to strike out on her own. A native of Jalisco who worked in restaurants in California for 17 years before coming to the Triangle, Gomez quickly saw our region’s need for what she calls “a restaurant that serves the real Mexican food.”
Her zeal for sharing that food – not to mention her ebullient personality – is contagious, judging by the cheerfully hospitable wait staff. Don’t be surprised to see a server singing along with the upbeat Mexican pop music playing in the background as she’s making her way from kitchen to table. Or, if she overhears you mentioning goat birria to your wife, stopping by to inform you that it’s usually available, even if it’s not on the menu.
Needless to say, I’ll be back. Birria or no birria.
1600 Ronald Drive, Raleigh; 919-977-8149
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: colorful and cheery
Noise level: moderate
Service: cheerfully hospitable and efficient
Recommended: tacos, pupusas, tortas, tostada de ceviche, cochinita pibil
Open: lunch and dinner daily.
Other: beer and liquor (no wine); accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.