Late last summer, a sign appeared above the entrance to the strip mall storefront that had over the years been home to a series of Indian restaurants: “Coming Soon, Esmeralda Grill.”
Anyone familiar with the area on East Chatham Street near the intersection of Maynard Road – a cluster of shops and restaurants so ethnically diverse that you’d be justified in calling it Cary’s Little U.N. – wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Mexican restaurant join the lineup.
And no doubt the name rang a bell for more than a few fans of authentic taqueria fare. The restaurant’s owners, Rutilo Angel and Edith Liborio, have operated the popular Taqueria Esmeralda food truck — which the couple named for their daughter — in Morrisville for a little over a decade.
The mobile vendor’s fans will be delighted to know that the tacos in the restaurant are every bit as good as those served from the truck’s window. Served on sturdy house-made soft corn tortillas, they’re generously filled and topped with the traditional complement of cilantro and onions (unless you prefer your tacos American style with shredded lettuce and cheese, in which case they’ll happily oblige), with a wedge of lime on the side.
The list of traditional meat fillings has grown to 10 at the restaurant, from familiar favorites carne asada and pollo to the more adventurous tripa (tripe) and lengua (tongue). I’m partial to the carnitas, chorizo and cachete (beef cheek; don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). But after sampling nearly every option on the list, I’ve yet to come across a dud.
They’re a taqueria-like bargain at $2.25 each – or spring for the $9.25 taco platter, which gets you three tacos of your choice (mix and match if you like) with refried black beans (something of a signature side here), rice and grilled onions. You won’t leave hungry.
For that matter, you can plan on loosening your belt no matter what you order. That includes the other items that carried over from the truck’s menu. Sopes, for one, which pile the meat of your choice onto thick, soft corn tortillas and bury them under mountains of lettuce, tomato, onion, avocado, jalapeños and crumbled queso. And tortas, Mexican sandwiches that cram a comparable load of fixings into a large bolillo bun. I like the torta Milanesa (think chicken-fried steak on a bun), but I’ve got my eye on a quirky riff on a Cubano (ham, hot dog sausage, roast pork, egg and cheese sauce) for a future visit.
I’ve never ordered a burrito from the truck, but if it’s as massive as the big-as-your-forearm behemoth I was served at Esmeralda Grill, I hope they use strong paper plates on the truck. In the restaurant, the burrito stretches from rim to rim on a full-size stoneware dinner plate. Choose from eight meat filling options (including the succulent chunks of braised beef barbacoa I gorged on), and top it with a pungent salsa verde or a rich, earthy salsa roja.
The restaurant’s larger kitchen allowed the owners to expand considerably on the truck’s streamlined offering. Sopes are now listed under the antojitos heading along with other street food-inspired dishes such as taquitos, empanadas and enchiladas. Separate categories are devoted to fajitas, seafood, (a short but varied list ranging from camarones a la diabla to a first-rate rendition of mojarra frita, aka fried tilapia), and platillos.
It’s in that last category that the owners showcase specialties such as carne enchilada (pork marinated in a blend of dried red chiles and herbs) and mole de pollo – not the mole negro that’s commonly seen hereabouts but a scratch-made red mole that owes its complex flavor to a lengthy ingredient list that includes hand-ground seeds and roasted chiles.
Then there’s the showstopper of a mixed grill called the Molcajete, named for the large lava stone mortar that it’s served in. Esmeralda Grill is hardly the only Mexican restaurant to offer this dish, but its rendition is the most impressive I’ve come across. Strips of grilled skirt steak, chicken, pork, shrimp and cactus (nopales) are artfully draped around the rim of the molcajete, the bowl of which contains a slab of pan-seared queso fresco floating in a small lake of salsa verde. Needless to say, plan on sharing. And even then, you’ll probably be taking home leftovers while congratulating yourself on scoring so much good food for $14.25.
Red and gold brocade chairs (inherited from the previous tenant, if I’m not mistaken), a rainbow of Mexican sodas in a glass cooler, and a couple of small screen TVs playing soccer against a backdrop of walls painted in vivid hues of pomegranate and lime – that’s pretty much the extent of adornments in a dining room that, for now at least, is decorated on a shoestring budget. The setting is as unpretentious as a food truck, you might say, but it’s cheery and comfortable.
An efficient and eager-to-please wait staff reinforces the welcoming vibe. You might even be waited on by Esmeralda herself – who was a little girl when her parents started the food truck and now is a high school student – if she’s caught up on her homework, that is.
748-J E. Chatham St., Cary
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2 stars
Atmosphere: casual, modestly decorated but cheery and welcoming
Noise level: moderate
Service: efficient and eager to please
Recommended: tacos, tortas, sopes, burritos, mojarra frita, mole de pollo, Molcajete
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Reservations: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: modest beer selection; accommodates children; limited 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.