When I first heard that a Mexican restaurant called Guapo’s had opened in Cary, I couldn’t help but wonder about the name. Who is this Guapo, I thought, who has a nickname that’s Spanish for “handsome”? Is he really that good-looking, or is it like calling a very large man Tiny?
Neither, as it happens. Richard Camos is best-known locally as the owner of Camos Brothers Pizza, which is currently in Fuquay-Varina but has had locations in Cary and North Raleigh. Knowing that those earlier locations had originally been called Fuhgeddaboudit Pizza, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the name of Camos’ latest venture was another witty cultural allusion. Turns out Guapo’s name is a tip of the sombrero to the El Guapo character in the movie “Three Amigos,” a 1986 comedy starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short.
“I loved that movie when I was a kid,” Camos says. “Me and my brother used to constantly quote lines from it.”
Sounds like fun. Here’s my review of Guapo’s, taking its cues from quotes in the movie.
Dusty Bottoms (the Chevy Chase character, in a Mexican village cantina): “Do you have anything here besides Mexican food?”
Why, yes, they do. South American fare accounts for a substantial minority of the offering at Guapo’s. (Camos will proudly tell you that he grew up in Queens in New York City, the son of Argentinean and Italian immigrant parents.) An entire section of the menu is devoted to arepas, a street food popular across much of the continent. Guapo’s rendition does the tradition proud with a thick, delicately crisp corn masa tortilla split and generously stuffed with creamy Chihuahua cheese and your choice of five fillings, from juicy shreds of pork carnitas to vegetarian.
Abuelita Mirta’s empanadas are addictive crescent-shaped hand pies with a savory ground beef filling in a light, Argentinean-style baked wheat flour crust. “That’s my mother’s recipe,” Camos offers when asked about the name of the dish, “and my kids are crazy about her empanadas.” No wonder.
Dessert empanadas, filled with cream cheese and a thin smear of guava paste, then deep-fried to a blistery turn, are an altogether different riff on the empanada theme, but also rewarding. They come in a shareable three per order.
You won’t find Speedy Gonzales – or any of the other usual Tex-Mex combo plate suspects, for that matter – in the cast of characters here. But if some of the Mexican dishes seem familiar, it could well be because chef Jesus “Chuy” Colunga is a veteran of more than a decade in the kitchens of Dos Taquitos and Gonza Tacos y Tequila.
Guapo’s enchiladas Potosinos – a Mexican flag trio of red, white and green sauces blanketing enchiladas filled with beef, cheese and chicken respectively – is a near clone of Dos Taquitos’ enchiladas de Puebla, right down to the choice of two sides served in fried corn tortilla cups. Go for black beans or pintos over refried; cilantro rice over yellow; and don’t miss the fried plantains if you’ve got a sweet tooth.
The entree list is short but varied, ranging from fajitas to chile relleno (stuffed with cheese and your choice of chicken, steak or veggies) in the space of just seven entries. Chilaquiles rojos, loaded with diced grilled chicken and tortilla chips softened in a Oaxacan red sauce, is a winning option. Spring for the optional fried egg.
Guapo’s tacos shouldn’t disappoint Gonza fans, who will recognize the contemporary style, loosely inspired by taqueria tacos. Carne asada, which piles exceptionally tender and juicy morsels of grilled steak into a warm flour tortilla and dresses it with cheese, pico de gallo and avocado, is a winner. So are chicken tinga, carnitas in tomatillo salsa, and an al pastor that is mercifully not over-sweetened with pineapple juice, all served on soft corn tortillas. Other fillings that I haven’t yet tried include shrimp, mahi, grilled chicken and vegetarian. You don’t have to get all three tacos with the same filling, but you can’t combine meat and seafood tacos in a single order.
Bartender: “We don’t have beer. Just tequila.”
Ned Nederlander (Martin Short): “What’s tequila?”
Bartender: “Uh, it’s like beer.”
You’ll have a good time disproving that theory at Guapo’s, where the choices number more than 50 tequilas and some three dozen beers in bottles and on tap – usually including one or two from Lincoln Brewing, Camos’ brewery in Fuquay-Varina.
Jefe (El Guapo’s loyal sidekick): “I have put many beautiful piñatas in the storeroom, each of them filled with little surprises.”
Richard Camos has put a few beautiful piñatas in Guapo’s dining room, too. Also sombreros, and prayer candles on the tables, and Day of the Dead figures galore in an ebulliently decorated space, whose walls are covered in murals depicting colorful tropical flora and fauna, and Latino cultural icons from Frida Kahlo to the star of the popular Mexican sitcom, El Chavo del Ocho. If you don’t break into a smile when you walk into the place, then I’m guessing you didn’t see the humor in “Three Amigos.”
Lucky Day (Steve Martin, chained to a prison cell wall): “So I just wait here then?”
Early visitors to Guapo’s may have wondered if their server had suffered a fate similar to that of the unfortunate Lucky Day, and had gotten chained to a wall somewhere. I know I did, as I waited – and waited – for drink refills the first two times I ate there. The second of those visits was in late January, long after you’d expect a restaurant that opened in September to have ironed out most of the wrinkles.
Service was much improved during my most recent visit in February, though, and is an encouraging sign that things are finally looking up. Let’s hope so. As delightful as the food and the setting are at Guapo’s, it’s hard to enjoy them when what’s going through your mind is another Tres Amigos quote:
Bandito #3: “If I don’t get some tequila, somebody’s gonna die!”
3470-160 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary; 919-372-5070
Cuisine: Mexican, Latin American
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2
Atmosphere: casual and colorful
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: Abuelita Mirta’s empanadas, arepas, tacos
Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday.
Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; 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.