Sitting at the bar at Totopos, where the selection of blanco, reposado and añejo tequilas runs to 50-plus and counting, you’ve got one of the best seats in the house for watching the action. From your stool, you can see the entrance, where first-time patrons inevitably do a double take when they notice the lifelike mannequin, dressed in lucha libre Mexican wrestling regalia, sitting on a bench just inside the door as if he’s waiting for his party’s name to be called.
The bar isn’t the only place where you can catch the entertainment. To the left of the entrance, a small dining room offers a ringside view, complete with actual ringside ropes and a colorful display of lucha libre masks. In another room to the right, you can peek through a curtain of brightly painted wooden children’s toys – row upon row of tops and the ball-and-cup toys known in Mexico as baleros – hanging on strings. On the opposite wall is a large photograph of the shop in Mexico where owner/general manager Miguel Araiza bought those very toys. The two children eagerly eying the toys in the photo are his.
Araiza previously worked in a number of restaurants owned by the Ibarra family, whose mini-empire began in 1993 with the original El Rodeo on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh, and now includes several Tex-Mex eateries as well as the Mexican-Southern fusion concept Jose and Sons. He’s a longtime friend of the Ibarra family and has been discussing the idea of opening a restaurant that would feature the street foods of Mexico City for more than 15 years with Joel Ibarra. Last September’s opening of Totopos in a former Chili’s building in Cary represents the fruition of their plans.
The partners brought Ibarra’s cousin, Salvador Alvarez, onto the team to help run the front of the house, and chef Miguel Cuevas, formerly of Gonza Tacos y Tequila, to put the concept on the plate.
The chef responded by delivering a menu that will put a satisfied smile on the face of any homesick transplant from central Mexico – and pretty much anyone else.
Regardless of where you’re from, there’s a made-to-order guacamole for you: authentically chunky traditional, or fusion-style bacon-mango-chile, or Mexico City-inspired chicharron with pickled jalapeño and cheese, garnished with a pork crackling chip. All three are good enough to make the sampler a no-brainer if you’re sharing. While you’re at it, ask for a side of those chicharrones for dipping. They’re not on the menu, but Miguel Araiza says they’re a favorite guacamole companion in his native Mexico City. No wonder.
Araiza also speaks enthusiastically of chef Cuevas’ version of another childhood favorite: chilaquiles, a humble dish here rendered with grilled chicken and totopos (tortilla chips) cooked just until soft in a creamy tomatillo sauce. And of the chef’s take on al pastor-style pork, which approximates the traditional spit-roasted version by marinating the pork in an authentic blend of pineapple, onion and guajillo chiles before grilling over an open flame. On both counts, the enthusiasm is justified.
Chicken tinga, another central Mexico favorite made by simmering chicken with tomatoes, onions and chipotle chiles into tender, shreddable submission, is featured in a number of dishes from taquitos to enchiladas verdes to tacos, where it’s stuffed into soft organic blue corn tortillas.
Tinga also makes a cameo appearance as one of the fillings (the other two being chicharron and poblano pepper) in a trio sampling of quesadillas – Mexico City-style quesadillas, that is, starring house-made corn masa tortillas that will spoil you for ordinary flour tortilla quesadillas.
Not that they’re sticklers about the Mexico City thing. If you insist on flour tortilla quesadillas, you’ll find them on the menu, along with a handful of other Tex-Mex staples including nachos, chimichanga and iron skillet fajitas. The Totopos kitchen does them a sight better than your typical Tex-Mex joint, too.
South of the border, Cuevas occasionally ventures outside central Mexico – to cattle country for well-filled, crisp-crusted ropa vieja empanadas, or to the chef’s native Pacific coast for chile-rubbed mahi mahi. Wherever he chooses to lead, it’s a good bet the adventure will be a rewarding one. The fact that the adventure comes with a scenic view is, you might say, the burnt sugar glaze on the guava flan – which, as it happens, is a fine way to conclude a meal at Totopos.
“My first goal was to make people forget that this place was once a Chili’s,” Araiza says when asked about the wall-to-wall exuberant decor. I’m pretty sure he can check that one off his to-do list.