I looked up, and Jimmie Johnson was walking straight at me.
Some context: Johnson, who has won NASCAR’s Cup Series championship a record-tying seven times, is one of a handful of partners at Charlotte’s newest restaurant, Southbound. The taco shop is next to Mac’s Speed Shop on South Boulevard, and it opens to the general public on Tuesday.
But Johnson and his team were kind enough to let me visit the night before the grand opening – to take the menu for a test drive, you could say.
“I’ve been preaching that the Mexican food out there (in Southern California) is so much better,” Johnson said Monday. “When this opportunity came along, I’m like, ‘I can’t help with a lot of stuff, but I think I can help here.’”
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I arrived not sure how Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif., got into the restaurant business. It turns out one of his workout buddies, Wynn Davis, had a stake in Mac’s and the space next to it. The two got to talking, tossed around the idea of opening a Southern California-inspired taco joint, and a year later here we are.
That Southern California element is key. It’s designed to be an East Coast version of some of the “down and dirty” taco shops back in Johnson’s hometown. But since the area around Southbound is oversaturated with Mexican restaurants (Bakersfield, Hot Taco and Ru Ru’s Tacos & Tequila to name a few), so what makes this place different?
“We’re nowhere near Tex-Mex,” chef Kevin Kuruc said. “There’s cheddar cheese on one item, and that’s only because it’s on the California burrito. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any in house.”
Creating the menu largely fell to Kuruc, but Johnson and the rest of the team pitched in, too. Kuruc and others flew from Charlotte to Johnson’s hometown to taste the authentic Mexican flavors they wanted to try to replicate. They took back inspiration and even some whole family recipes. The ingredients are mostly all locally sourced or imported from Mexico, such as the fish used for the ceviche and fish tacos.
Johnson even had some dishes shipped in dry ice from the West Coast to Charlotte so the kitchen could taste them.
That Southern California vibe is obvious outside of the kitchen, too. String lights criss-cross the open ceiling, and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing on the speakers when I walked in. That there’s a huge mural of a beach van and two palm trees in the middle of the tables helps, too.
I sat in a booth in the back corner and figured I’d try a few different options, to accurately assess the place. I settled on ceviche as an appetizer, with a generous helping of homemade chips and a few visits to the unlimited salsa bar (I recommend the salsa verde). It’s fresh, and my waitress explains how the fish is imported and caught off the coast of Mexico.
That’s when Johnson walks in in a navy button-down shirt and jeans. He comes up to my booth, slides in and starts peeking over the final menu with me.
I ask what his favorites are, and he easily points one out.
“The carne asada I’ve been very particular about,” Johnson said. “Something really popular. ... I get it most places.”
And for drinks? I mention I’m surprised to see Pacifico on draft, since the light beer is usually only found on the West Coast and New York areas. Johnson smirks.
“Pacifico is my favorite, and I insisted on it being on the list,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing.”
We chat for a few minutes and he leaves to go speak to his wife. I take him up on his recommendation, ordering the carne asada taco and a fish taco ($3.50 each) – and no Pacifico, but he also says the house margaritas comes with homemade salt. Sold.
The margarita hits the spot, and both tacos are delicious. The fish is just as fresh as the ceviche, but with some salsa verde on it, it’s perfect. The carne asada doesn’t disappoint either. It’s almost too big to bite, but packed with flavor and savory meat.
I get a traditional grapefruit soda and some churros for dessert, and while I’m waiting I notice the rest of the atmosphere. There are no TV’s, meaning this isn’t just another bar that also serves tacos. Next to the salsa bar is a takeout window, where diners can walk up and grab tacos to go. Around back, there’s another outside space in the works with a stage, something the restaurant says will eventually be used for live music.
The churros (only $2.50!) and soda come soon, and they’re the perfect ending for the meal. The soda is light and refreshing, and the churros are warm, dunked in chocolate sauce and slathered in cinnamon sugar.
As I’m walking out, I see Johnson walk over to his wife and take a sip of her margarita, the same house one I had. He sees me leaving and waves goodbye.
“Hope you’ll come back!” he says.
I will – and the next time, I’ll have to get a Pacifico.