New appreciation for tequilas (about time!) and the fare that goes with them continues to pop up around town. Though Matthews' Pure Taqueria has been delayed (again!), here are two other recent additions:
Paco's Tacos & Tequila. This comes from Frank Scibelli ("Paco" is the closest Latino thing to "Frank," he tells us) and Dennis Thompson of Big Daddy's Burger Bar, Cantina 1511 and Mama Ricotta's, and goes where Manzetti's once was, across from SouthPark. It's Tex-Mex, based on travels in Houston and San Antonio (and more) and consultation with Robb Walsh, food writer and author of "The Tex-Mex Cookbook," an astonishingly complete evocation of the cuisine and its history.
Don't miss the gorgeous Paco's Taco, made with slow-roasted beef brisket, caramelized onions, queso fresco (the crumbly white cheese) and a chipotle barbecue sauce that has more depth than heat. Tacos go one for $7 (with rice and beans), two for $10, three for $12, and you can mix and match with other options, such as grilled chicken or skirt steak, shrimp or ground beef. The fish taco's mango habanero sauce contained absolutely no heat, so was disappointing, but the veggie fared well, primarily because of the roasted poblanos.
Chili con carne is a major Tex-Mex thing, but you wouldn't know it from the menu - it's listed under soup, then mentioned as a topping for cheese enchiladas and the chili cheeseburger. Chicken tortilla soup was bland, and chicken fajitas dull, but I look forward to trying beef fajitas (the meat's being shipped in from a Houston supplier) and fresh tortillas are a delight.
Scibelli says menu-tinkering, with Walsh, is ongoing. (One early casualty: salsa served warm, as it is in Houston and San Antonio. Charlotteans weren't going for it, no matter how authentic, he says.)
The tequila list essentially offers the three essential forms - blanco (or silver), reposado (aged) and anejo (aged more) - from quality brands such as Sauza, Cabo Wabo, Don Julio and my favorite, Herradura. You can sip your choice (my recommendation) or create your own margarita - just don't blame anyone else if you don't like what you concoct.
Everything about the place signals you to relax; it's casual, noisy and informal, from servers who smile and check on you extremely often, to the bright colors and multi-leveled, circular space.
Lunch and dinner daily, entrees about $7-$18; 6401 Morrison Blvd.; 704-716-8226.
Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina at the EpiCentre uptown takes an upscale approach, with a menu that offers both traditional and contemporary takes on Mexican food, and elegant decor: walls of wood, brick and glass with elongated pendant lighting, and servers clad in black doing Vanna White-like menu presentations.
Which is not to say it's not fun: It is, even without its much-publicized Skinny margarita. (Not for me, thanks: I'll go with 1 1/2 ounces of straight tequila for the 100 calories. But you're welcome to this very tart-sweet effort; it saves you 200 or more cals from the regular form.)
You can do flights of tequila, too, which is a great way to figure out which you truly love (share a flight with someone unless you're going to be hanging out awhile), and Vida offers a couple dozen of each of the three forms, along with sangrita, a fabulous side drink of tomato and orange juices with onion, salt and hot chile.
You can't mix and match tacos here, but you get three for $12-$13 with two sides, and there's a surf-and-turf option, for the showy, of filet and lobster for $24. Carnitas proved terrific, the pork rich and side of guacamole lush, balanced with pickled red onions and cilantro. Sides range from grilled corn with queso fresco to fried ripe plantains and several bean choices.
A chicken tamal was quite nice (especially its salsa verde); and I look forward to trying the ceviche. An adobo-rubbed pork chop, bone-in, with apple/green chile sauce was juicy and robust. And though our server got every single side we ordered wrong, he was the first I've had in some time who could talk knowledgeably about tequilas. So: a win.
Vida comes from chef Chris Swinyard (with time at D.C.'s Red Sage) and general manager Sean O'Brien (with more than a decade at Charlotte's Capital Grille).
210 E. Trade St.; 704-971-8432; vidacantina.com.