The big, inexpensive and delicious Mexican dishes served in this unassuming operation far outweigh its minor miscues
Acting on a tip from a neighbor, I recently checked out four-year-old Zacatecas Restaurant. That heads up, as well as the unassuming but high-performing Mexican eatery it led me to — where portions are large but prices are not — illustrate why Columbus is such a fun and interesting restaurant city.
Zacatecas inhabits a modest-sized but roomy space in an easy-to-overlook spot in the Hilltop area — a mural of Pancho Villa on the side of an otherwise nondescript, low building indicates you’ve reached the correct destination. Although humble inside, the place isn’t grim.
Fake-brick walls trimmed in neon red and green are further brightened by lively decorations, and numerous booths with red-vinyl-covered tables bear colorfully painted bas-relief carvings. Spanish is predominantly spoken, but the servers speak excellent English, too. This didn’t preclude a few minor miscues: enchiladas filled with cheese rather than the requested chicken; a dish with red sauce when the server-recommended red-and-green-sauced version was requested. Fortunately, even the mistakes taste pretty great in Zacatecas.
Immediately after seating yourself, warm-and-crisp tortilla chips and very good salsa presented in a plastic molcajete will be delivered to your table. The freebies are best enjoyed with one of about a dozen Mexican beers offered ($3.50 each).
If you’d prefer a cocktail, try the zesty Michelada ($5). You won’t pay much for a Margarita ($5.95), and it’ll come in a charming clay jar, but — uncharacteristically for this restaurant — it’s only OK, as it lacks fresh lime juice.
The menu is big and so are its flavors. If playing the field, expect splendid renditions of traditional a la carte items: Impressive meat-packed tacos ($1.75) arrive in warm soft corn tortillas; gorditas ($2.75) — inhalable sandwiches constructed with oversize hand-made tortillas (mine was shiny but not overly greasy) enriched with beans, cheese, sour cream and salad ingredients; and hefty sopes ($2.75), garnished like the gorditas, which offer the addictive toasted-corn crunch of thick, fried masa disks. While every meat filling I sampled was juicy, tender and delicious, my favorites were the al pastor, barbacoa and carne asada.
Rustic homemade soups, which are underrepresented in most local Mexican restaurants, are another strong suit. Upon requesting beef soup after being told my first choice, chicken, wasn’t available, I was brought chicken soup anyway (Caldo de Pollo, $8). And the hot, flavorful broth populated with big pieces of skin-and-bone-on poultry, plus hacked potatoes, zucchini, carrot and celery was a soulful and soothing winter warmer. Bonus: DIY embellishments include veggie-sprinkled Mexican rice, chopped chilies, onions, cilantro and lime wedges.
Similar accoutrements — but with lettuce replacing rice — accompany bowls of Pozole ($8.99), a weekend special. Among the best pozoles in town, Zacatecas’ hearty and easy-to-love version of the classic stew delighted my palate with a rich, red broth (it’s spicy but not fiery) that supports loads of tender, slow-cooked pork and comforting hominy.
The killer Chilaquiles Fresnillo ($10.99) — one of many huge, well-made entrees — earns top-tier status as well. On the heaving platter: a mass of tortilla chips cooked in super-tangy ranchero sauce, fried eggs, plus a plate-spanning, thin, seared and flavorful steak. On the downside, and this was unfortunately typical here, the good-tasting plate-partners of Mexican rice and refried beans were barely warm.
Somewhat cool sides aside, the Huachinango Frito al Mojo de Ajo is terrific ($12.99). It’s a whole red snapper — from teeth to tail — that’s skillfully fried until its golden-brown skin is crackly and the clean-tasting meat underneath is succulent. Fragrant with a topping of sauteed onions and garlic, dishes like this standout fish entree have me eagerly awaiting the next Columbus hidden gem my neighbor might recommend.