Restaurant News & Reviews

Dining review: Captain Poncho puts down roots in Chapel Hill

You might say that Carolina Escobar has been on the move ever since coming to America. After emigrating from Mexico to southern California in 1986, her first job as a 16-year-old was on a taco truck. Starting out with no experience, she had to learn how to cook while the truck was rolling, always on the way to the next destination.

Escobar has since put nearly three decades of experience on the odometer, including a relocation to North Carolina and the purchase of a truck of her own. Captain Poncho’s Tacos, the truck that she operates with her husband, Hector, has been on the road since 2009. Last September, the couple embarked on the next phase of their adventure, taking the step that has become increasingly popular with successful mobile vendors: They opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

If the location, in Chapel Hill’s tony Southern Village, seems an odd choice for a taqueria on wheels to put it in park, be advised that that’s just one of many pleasant surprises that Captain Poncho’s has in store.

Of course, the Escobars know better than to mess with the tacos that won their food truck a loyal following in the first place.

OK, they made one change. But it’s a change that even their most loyal fan would welcome: A few months after opening, they began making the soft corn tortillas in-house.

The fillings are as generous – and as toothsome – as ever, from succulent shreds of pork carnitas to unctuous, uber-beefy lengua. If your taqueria experience has taught you to think of pollo tacos as a dry, flavorless bone tossed to the red meat-averse, then Captain Poncho’s moist, guajillo-dusted cubes of chicken breast will change your thinking.

You’ll want to keep your mind open to new possibilities, too. Freed from the cramped confines of a food truck, Carolina Escobar has expanded her menu considerably. The list of filling options now includes lamb and seafood (tilapia, salmon or shrimp, all with mango salsa), and the number of ways you can get them has grown to more than half a dozen, from torta to gordita (the taco’s thick-masa-tortilla cousin).

And that’s just for starters. The menu now devotes entire categories to burritos, antojitos (light bites) and a modest but varied selection of entree platters. With options ranging from chiles rellenos to pork chops, the platters are served with your choice of two sides. Guacamole, pupusas and well-filled tamales (pork or chicken) are all winning options; fried sweet plantains are a must.

An order of carne asada (“grilled steak” on the English menu over the order counter) produces two classically thin slices of grill-charred, chewy-tender rib-eye, each as big as your hand. Served with warm tortillas, a grilled jalapeño and a small salad of lettuce, tomato and ripe avocado – that’s in addition to the two sides – it’s a feast for $12.99.

Order the enchiladas verdes and you may at first think they got your order wrong. In this unusual presentation, the green sauce-soaked tortillas aren’t rolled around the filling (your choice from the list of taco meats) but laid flat on the plate, with the filling on top. Carolina Escobar explains that she developed this technique to accommodate the fast-paced delivery needed on the food truck. She’ll roll the enchiladas in the traditional style on request, or if you order a combination of different fillings. All the components are there either way, though in my experience you get more sauce if the enchiladas are rolled.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the selection expands further to include a couple of Mexican meal-in-a-bowl soups. I haven’t tried the mole de olla (“a hearty beef soup with vegetables” that looks tantalizing on the restaurant’s Facebook page), but I can vouch for the posole: hefty hunks of pork on the bone in a chile-reddened broth that’s thick with hominy. Garnish it to taste with the supplied lime wedges and avocado slices. If Carolina Escobar is the one who brings the food to your table (she flits from kitchen to cash register to dining room as needed; you’ll find Hector behind the counter when he’s not out on the truck), she’ll tell you she likes to crumble a few tortilla chips over the posole. Take her advice.

A modest mom-and-pop shop decorated on a shoestring budget, Captain Poncho’s is as unassuming as its street food roots – but there are signs that it wants to be more. Carolina Escobar continues to add to the menu, and occasionally raises the ante with specials such as enchiladas Potosinas, a rarity outside their native central Mexico that are made with red chile ground into the masa. Food is served on ceramic plates, a decided step up from food truck paper plates.

Look closely, and you’ll spy a handful of liquor bottles on the bottom shelf of the glass-fronted beverage cooler. Sure enough, Captain Poncho’s beverage selection includes margaritas and piña coladas in addition to the expected aguas frescas and bottled Mexican beers. There’s even a bottle of Patron silver – yet another of Captain Poncho’s many pleasant surprises.

706 Market St., Chapel Hill; 919-548-5778

Cuisine: Mexican

Rating: 1/2

Prices: $-$$

Atmosphere: counter service eatery

Noise level: moderate

Service: friendly and fast

Recommended: tacos, pupusas, tamales, posole (weekends only)

Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

Reservations: not accepted

Other: beer and wine, limited liquor offerings; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; small sidewalk patio; parking in lot and on street

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.