There's little excuse for eating at Taco Bell anymore. Our borders are porous, and as more immigrants and workers from Latin America enter the United States, the country's population demographic and cultural profile are changing at the speed of light.
Locally, one of the fringe benefits of the migration wave is chowing down at Carrboro's El Chilango. It is doubtful Carrboro could have supported such a place to eat, dance and have a good time just 10 years ago.
The Jones Ferry Road restaurant, tucked unobtrusively beside a convenience store and Laundromat, isn't a typical taqueria or cantina, though it plays Latin tunes, plants "Our Lady of Guadalupe" candles on every table and the melodious hum of Spanish undercuts the music with a second beat. The rustic walls are stained in shades of wine and pumpkin, and they are decorated with art exhibits, including rainbow textiles and photographs from Guatemala.
El Chilango (a term for a resident of Mexico City, particularly one who migrated there) was the brainchild of Jacques Menache, who came to Carrboro in 1969, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a master's in fine arts and later founded the ArtsCenter. When he resigned in 1988, he became an electrician, but he always had a dream of starting a Latin American cultural center.
But on the way, he decided to take a little detour: starting a restaurant that could function as a community center of sorts.
Menache, who moved from France to Mexico City when he was 8 years old, had never been a restaurateur, though he had a reputation for thinking outside the box. Now, after two years in business, El Chilango employs 13 people, has a loyal following, sponsors Spanish and English classes free for anyone who wants them, and has gone a long way to dispelling notions about what Mexican food really is.
Leave your notions of Mexican cuisine, or rather Tex-Mex cooking, at the door. Forget the idea that every dish must come accompanied by sour cream and the ubiquitous pico de gallo sauce. Indeed, abandon the preconception that all sauces are roja, or red, and that burritos are the end-all and be-all of cooking south of the Rio Grande.
What you'll see, says Menache, is simply what he likes to eat and what he remembers of the warm home cooking of his French family and Mexican compatriots.
"Coming from a French family, I like to cook. A lot of these recipes are mine, my mother's, my grandmother's."
El Chilango presents a whole new culinary world with a familiar restaurant mainstay: the buffet. The buffet bar is often associated with Chinese eateries and pizza joints, but not Mexican food. It was a novel concept for El Chilango's earliest patrons, almost all of them Mexican.
"When we first opened, the clientele was 90 percent Mexican, and the hardest thing for them was adjusting to buying food by the pound. But we did that because we didn't want to waste. And if we had a menu, there would be some things that nobody would ask for." Today, he estimates that his clients are about 50-50 Latino and American, and all signs are in both English and Spanish. The broadening of his base is directly a result of the savory seven-day-a-week buffet. While the popular Olive Garden chain offers a dish called the Tour of Italy, El Chilango gives eager diners a tour of Mexico. Most of the dishes come from the sprawling Mexico City area, but its other specialties, like its complex mole sauce, come from the city of Puebla or Yucatan.
Prepare to be surprised by how little you may know about the buffet's choices. There's more to El Chilango than you might expect; in fact, employee shirts boast on the back "tacos, tortas, tamales, tortillas and toda la enchilada."
Three bars--a taco, vegetarian and meat bar--form three sides of an incomplete square. And while some eaters might relish the familiarity of a taco bar, it features an unusually wide array of sauces and salsas, some made with tomatillos and the mouth-burning habañero. While the standard sour cream and pico de gallo do appear on the bar's offerings, the guacamole has a spicy kick that sets it apart from the bland grocery-store variety.
On the vegetarian bar, there may be arroz verde, rice mixed with spinach, mixed grilled vegetables, and black bean salad as well as ensalada de nopales, a cactus salad. And there's the old standby: chiles rellenos.
Move on to the carnes, or meats, and the absence of ground beef is as noticeable.
"A lot of people come in and say, 'Where's the ground beef?' We like to use good meat, beef, chicken or pork, if it's lean. I never ate hamburger or ground beef in Mexico City," says Menache.
The alternatives to ground beef are many: shredded chicken, barbecued beef, varieties of grilled or smoked puerco (known as pork to our nonbilingual readers).
Menudo (a soup made from cow tripe, or sections of bovine stomach) and longazina, a homemade sausage, are just two examples of fare for the more adventurous patron.
The menudo, Menache notes, often replaces the traditional posole soup on weekends because it is "the secret recipe for fixing the hangover, so we must have it on weekends. If we don't, we hear about it."
Among its signature dishes, El Chilango offers up a picante chipotle sauce and its torta, a humongous sandwich on bread specially baked by Weaver Street Market.
"The torta is typically Mexico City. ... On one side, we put refried beans. On the other, avocado, jalapeños, some sour cream and other things. Then it is stuffed with smoked pork or meat."
Diners load their plates and proceed to the cash register, where their plates are weighed at $5.49 a pound. That per-pound price doesn't include desserts like flan or Mexican gelatin, or drinks, where you have a choice of beverages brewed or made in Mexico, such as Jarritos flavored sodas. If bottled drinks aren't your fancy, beers (yes, they have Corona) and tequilas are on tap.
There's a freshness that practically zings from El Chilango's food. Locally made corn tortillas can round off any meal, and the sauces burst with so much flavor they almost deserve to be more than accents to a meat or vegetable.
Menache says, "It's home Mexican. We don't have any frozen foods, we don't open cans." The restaurant even smokes it own meats, thanks to a huge smoker that it inherited from the barbecue place previously in the space.
The smoker wasn't the building's only attraction.
"We're a little off the beaten path, but now we're right in the path of the Latino community."