By Greg Cox
Review originally published 3/23/2017
RALEIGH Before you’ve had your first sip of margarita, it’s already abundantly clear that San Marcos is not your typical Tex-Mex joint.
There’s the location, for starters – not in a strip mall but in a large building on a sprawling property overlooking Crabtree Valley Mall. The owners spared no expense in transforming the building (most recently home to Crabtree Tavern) into a palatial hacienda with faux adobe walls and ornate sculpted stone trim, tropical plants spilling out of massive urns, and colorful Spanish-tiled steps leading up to a columned portico.
The mood is reinforced inside, where more columns and urns wend their way through a maze of dining rooms furnished in festive folk art and tropical hues, past a bar stocked with dozens of tequilas (and a trendy nod to mezcal), then back out onto a tiled patio with a view of a verdant hillside.
Then there’s the glossy menu, whose color photos of dishes and slick layout make you wonder whether San Marcos is the latest concept of some national restaurant chain conglomerate, and the menu the product of its marketing department.
It isn’t. Okay, technically San Marcos is a chain. Its owners are Jose, Ruben and Marcos Mendez, three brothers from Michoacan (just up Mexico’s Pacific coast from San Marcos), who opened a small taco shop in Danville, Va., a little over a decade ago. Their company has since grown to a chain of six San Marcos restaurants in Virginia and North Carolina. The Raleigh location, which opened in August, is the most ambitious to date.
Delving into the menu, it doesn’t take long to discover the two main reasons for the restaurants’ success.
The food, in terms of both execution and presentation, is as elevated above the strip mall Tex-Mex norm as the decor. And distinctive dishes sprinkled throughout the menu, drawn from the Mendez family repertoire, personalize the offering in a way that no corporate chain’s marketing department ever could.
Exhibit A: carne en su jugo, a family favorite that the menu informs you translates to “steak in its own juices.” The description – “grilled steak strips, bacon, banana pepper in a mild tomatillo sauce, topped with pinto beans, spring onions, cilantro and served with corn tortillas” – is accurate, as far as it goes. What it doesn’t tell you is that the steak is a tender and juicy rib-eye, or that those warm soft corn tortillas are homemade. Or that the painterly presentation is a striking canvas of russet beans and vibrant green sauce framed in a square white ceramic bowl.
PicaGuaca, a delightful mashup (both figuratively and literally) of pico de gallo and guacamole fetchingly presented in a shell of romaine hearts and garnished with a slice of lime, is another feast for the eyes as well as the palate. So is chicken tortilla soup, a bewitching brew chockablock with chunks of light and dark meat, spangled with diced tomato and chopped cilantro, and garnished with slices of ripe avocado and artfully cut “wings” of freshly fried tortilla.
Ceviche de pescado, a bright patchwork of diced tilapia, tomato, avocado, onion and jalapeño in a marinade of lemon and lime, is attractively presented as a molded cylinder. Served with crispy corn tostadas, it works equally well as a shareable starter or light entree.
Order the burrito Mexicano, on the other hand, and be prepared to take home leftovers. Wrapped inside the 12-inch behemoth of flour tortilla is an omnivore’s dream: grilled steak, chicken, shrimp, nopales, grilled onions, rice and pico de gallo. Oh, and bacon. Evidently, the Mendez brothers have also caught on to the fact that the way to customers’ hearts is through the pig belly.
Just as memorable as what’s inside the burrito Mexicano is what’s outside: a presentation that raises the ante on the usual “Mexican flag” burrito with a grilled pineapple ring in the center (right where the national coat of arms would be on the flag), atop tricolor bands of red mole, white queso and green tomatillo salsa.
Traditionalists will be happy to know that, in its efforts to separate itself from the crowd, San Marcos doesn’t shortchange the familiar favorites.
Fajitas – available in half a dozen variations, including all the usual suspects as well as an over-the-top seafood combo called the Del Mar – are justifiably popular. And, while you won’t find the ubiquitous Speedy Gonzales combo here, you can assemble an improved version of it from the menu’s create-your-own combination plate section. (While you’re assembling, don’t let your experience with the mediocre tamales served elsewhere keep you from including San Marcos’ first-rate rendition in your combo.)
The menu attempts to straddle the taqueria/Tex-Mex divide, with somewhat confusing results.
If ground beef or chicken with shredded lettuce and cheese is your thing, you’ll find it in the Tacos a la Carta section. But if it’s taqueria classics you’re after, you’ll have to scout around the menu, where you’ll find them listed in their respective meat entree categories, where they’re served three to an order with rice and beans (they’re also available à a carte, though the menu doesn’t say so). Carnitas (listed under the pork heading) is respectable, though not as crispy as “fried” leads you to hope; carne asada (beef) is better, and pollo (chicken) is better still.
You’ll also want to choose your path carefully when navigating the dessert list. I’d steer around commercial products such as the Xanga (cheesecake wrapped in a flour tortilla and deep-fried) and instead head for a solid rendition of a traditional flan.
On the other hand, you could always just order another margarita. I’d skip the house margarita and splurge on the San Marcos, which is made with fresh lime juice and your choice of any of those dozens of tequilas. After all, you can get cheap margaritas by the pitcher at any of those other Tex-Mex joints.
5300 Homewood Banks Drive, Raleigh
sanmarcosrestaurant.com (The website was undergoing maintenance at presstime.) The Facebook page is at nando.com/4nf.
Atmosphere: vibrant upscale take on a Mexican restaurant
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: friendly and attentive
Recommended: chicken tortilla soup, PicaGuaca, ceviche de pescado, carne en su jugo, burrito Mexicano
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
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.