Round about 2010, Captain Poncho's taco truck became a fixture on Carrboro's Merritt Mill Road.
Lured by hand-pressed tortillas and fat-swimming meats burbling in heirloom sauces, hardhats working on the Greenbridge condominium ambled over for thousand-calorie lunches. UNC bound, I spent many a guilty quarter-hour wolfing chilaquiles from Styrofoam boxes and listening to financial adviser and talk-show host Dave Ramsey scold credit card maniacs. To this day, I associate sound financial advice with warm thighs and superb pastor.
Following the lead of many other food truck enterprises, Captain Poncho's has now gone brick and mortar, opening a storefront in Chapel Hill's Southern Village. Orange County Latinophiles should bow to the culinary gods. As a resident of deep Chatham County—wolf sighting only last week—I'm on my knees. The 45-minute drive to Durham's taqueria-lined Roxboro Street is now a moot marital issue.
New Urbanism is about curb appeal, making the Captain an odd fit in Southern Village, an upscale development just south of Chapel Hill. The Captain's street food jars with the earthy morality of neighboring Weaver Street Market and the literal white picket fences just around the corner. Has the Captain abandoned its nimble runs up and down the Scoville scale? Not that you'd notice. Captain Poncho's remains a spunky purveyor of Latin street food.
Carolina Escobar and her husband, Hector, run the restaurant. Shifting between kitchen, register and dining room in a bustle of broken English, pausing only to wrap an arm around familiar customers, Carolina emits waves of good cheer. The burnt-orange walls, concrete floor and exposed ceiling are drab, but her rollicking maternal presence provides all the feng shui the place needs.
The Captain's menu is a master class in masa-centered comfort food. In rough order of merit, there are pupusas, tacos, sopes, burritos, empanadas, gorditas, guaraches and tamales. All make for quick, bracing meals. The Captain's green and red salsas, to which customers help themselves, add both heat and complexity; their subtle weave of flavors will ruin your taste for the jarred murk sold at supermarkets.
My favorite South Chapel Hill lunch has long been Weaver Street's demi-baguette, torn open and lined with a few slices of soppressata from the deli counter. (When reckless, I follow it with a chocolate eclair.) A lunch of two pupusas with a side of fried plantain at Poncho's lacks Parisian fantasy but otherwise holds its own. The crispy, cheese-filled masa rounds and soft, sweet plantain pair as logically as pancakes and maple syrup. I could eat this lunch until the crack of doom.
The chilaquiles remain outstanding. Deep-fried tortilla wedges are stewed in seed-flecked tomatillo salsa until soft, then topped with a choice of meat. Ask to have this delectable mess pinnacled with an off-menu fried egg; the yolk emulsifies the salsa into a spicy green Hollandaise. Once a bargain around $6, the dish is now $12. Having dropped untold sums on pizzas whose only virtue is their delivery to your door, can you really quibble?
Nor can you go wrong with the classic tacos al pastor. The cubes of grilled pork are tender but still textural, while the restrained guajillo-based marinade allows the pork and pineapple to flirt in a play of muscle and burnt sugar. The beef tongue taco might dismay Southern Villagers, but the taste rewards courage. The meltingly tender tongue has a clean, pure beef note not found in a hamburger or most steaks. I similarly recommend the chicharrón, a taco of fried pork rind stewed in a pungent chili sauce. Chicharrón can degenerate into greasy fat slabs of the sort that a cardiologist wouldn't wish on an enemy, but this version is light and springy. Leerier diners will find the steak tacos simpatico. The chicken tacos are kiddie fare, the white breast more reassuring than succulent.
The sope is a shallow basin of fried masa, filled with a mound of your choice of meat. The gordita and guarache slightly vary the masa approach—the former a thick, dense disk and the latter an elongated oval. These are hearty dishes and relative bargains at $5–$9. A deep-fried pouch filled with stewed beef and drizzled with chili sauce, Poncho's empanada doesn't rival the thousand-layered puff pastry of nearby Calavera. Still, meat wrapped in fried dough is an intrinsically winning formula.
The seafood tacos—tilapia, salmon, shrimp—are pricy at $4.99–$5.99. If you're feeling flush, I recommend the delicately flaked tilapia. The salmon and shrimp seem to strain against the taco context, like a guest who declines to remove his coat. The taco is proletarian by nature; such esteemed company seems to make it nervous.
In the old days, I marveled at the Captain's hand-pressed, eyelid-delicate tortillas—the best I'd ever had. Soon after opening in Southern Village, the restaurant awaited a new tortilla machine and seemed to be making do with the store-bought variety. Before long, the Captain will presumably reassert its tortilla supremacy.
Until then, my question during each visit remains the same: "When are the tortillas coming?" The answer is always "Soon."
The response sits well. I have an excuse to return.