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Durham’s new Tex-Mex restaurant Mezcalito deserves your appetite’s attention

On Instagram, peruse @mezcaltionc. You notice your eyes opening wide and your stomach growling in excitement. A colony of colorful tacos. Vibrant supersized margaritas. Smiling faces. In an age of digital representation, Mezcalito, the highly anticipated new Durham eatery, is distinguishable. Commanding this profile is Favian Miranda, an owner and general manager of the fifth location in the Mezcalito group. In downtown Durham, on an upcoming Ramseur Street already home to the steadfast Ponysaurus Brewing Co. and the exciting new Krill Restaurant, I sat down with Miranda to chat about authenticity, ambiance, and more.

The idea for the Mezcalito brand was first imagined in 2015, and the doors to the first location, on the coast in Beaufort, NC, near the Duke Marine Lab, opened in March 2019. The originators identified the need for a universally inviting place, as Miranda explained, a restaurant for lunch meetings, family dinners and birthday cocktails alike.

Before even mentioning Mezcalito’s robust menu, the restaurant’s interior and exterior design deserves attention. A repurposed auto mechanic shop, the space required over a year of renovations to realize itself as a model of aesthetic dining – open, chic and dripping with greenery. Dozens of tequila bottles backdrop a peninsula-shaped interior bar, as ivy dangles elegantly from above. A vertical garden hugs the walls of a few larger booths. The outdoor patio is sheltered in pergolas, dense with outdoor heaters and complete with a bar of its own. The best restaurants enhance the aesthetic with the very food and drinks decorating the tables. Mezcalito sports margaritas like bedazzled goblets, teeming with fresh garnishes. Vivid brightness for a plethora of occasions.

Miranda described the food-style as “Mexican Food with a Tex-Mex heart,” a well-engineered line that is displayed proudly on the welcome note of their website. Miranda explained how this phrasing encompasses the authenticity Mezcalito seeks to uphold. “Everyone… in ownership is coming from Mexico… [We seek] to bring nostalgia and bring favorites.” Specifically, Miranda expanded upon Mezcalito’s mission to master both classic, popular Mexican dishes and more adventurous options. “If you’re in the mood for a hard-shell taco… you will have the best hard-shell taco ever.” His personal favorite is a combo — a cheese enchilada and hard shell taco with sour cream and a side of rice.

Mezcalito’s menu is quite robust, and therefore we discussed many dishes when I inquired about recommendations. For the meat lover or a ravenous guest fresh from a grueling gym session, the parrillada is packed with protein – carnitas, chicken, steak, chorizo, shrimp, bacon and sausage. Furthermore, Miranda recommends the platano frito relleno and the quesabirrias.

The Ultimate ACP (Arroz con Pollo) is not only a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, but also a dish Miranda indicates is quite the fan favorite. When I returned that evening with a few buddies, we ordered, among other dishes and beverages, the Ultimate ACP. Steak, chicken and shrimp over a bed of rice — the agave-chipotle sauce was a clear champion, delivering the perfect amount of sweetness and smokiness without commandeering the protein-cheese performance. We also tried a handful of tacos, all lovely and colorful, and once more, the agave-chipotle chicken was the favorite.

Because school is stressful, we each sprung for the notorious 40 oz margaritas in sampler platter form – deciding on mango, pura vida and jolly rancher as flavors. The margaritas were decorated for the Met Gala – the jolly rancher garnished with a monstrous slice of watermelon and the mango with, well, about half a mango. Each margarita rimmed with a thick helping of salt and spice, which developed a complex palate, much preferable to the occasional and unfortunate Torero’s-esque ultra-sweet slushie experience. In agreement, we decided the mango was the best of the crew. A critique: the title jolly rancher implies utmost sweetness. The actual drink was complex – fruity and spicy and delicious – but the naming nearly thwarted our order.

“A restaurant is made by the personalities running it,” explained Miranda. Each Mezcalito restaurant has multiple owners and no outside investors. This, Miranda argued, contributes to a high level of attention to detail. Service was excellent. It was well-staffed – within 20 seconds of sitting, we were brought chips and salsa. Drink orders weren’t far behind.

The Mezcalito brand is finding exponential success. In just three years, most of which during the restaurant-slaying years of COVID, the group opened five locations, and a sixth, in Apex, NC, is set to open shortly. A welcome addition to a foodie downtown and upcoming street, I’m glad Mezcalito found a home in Durham. And they have delicious ice. I’ll be back.

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