Walking into Tapatio’s is like embarking on a mini-vacation. From the threshold, you are totally immersed in classic Mexico, from the Mariachi music to the charming tromp l’oeil paintings of Mexican landscapes to the terra cotta tiles on the floor and the faux stone arches that transform the well-stocked bar into a cantina from south of the border. And that is exactly the stage owner Jesus Vargas is trying to set—the perfect ambiance for the authentic Mexican recipes in which his restaurant specializes.
Jesus does a brisk business for lunch and dinner, his highly trained staff quick to serve customers and his manager, Elvia, a charming ambassador, often greeting guests at the door. The most popular dishes are the tried and true Tex-Mex staples of enchiladas, fajitas, and chimichangas. People, being creatures of habit, tend to go for what they know, and they certainly won’t be disappointed with Tapatio’s versions of those beloved dishes. Their familiar aroma wafts through the restaurant, making your mouth water in anticipation. However, Jesus urges people also to explore the plethora of authentic dishes which showcase the varied flavors from every region of our southern neighbor.
Jesus is not only the owner but the head chef, having taught his other chefs how to cook to his exacting requirements. He is on site almost every day, checking to ensure consistency so that guests who brag to friends can be confident their friends will have the same dining experience.
All of this comes naturally to Jesus. His parents had the first restaurant in his hometown of Sandiego in the province of Jalisco, Mexico, the capital of which is Guadalajara. In fact, the name of the restaurant exactly describes Jesus himself since “Tapatio” means “a man from Jalisco.” By age six, he was selling popsicles and ice cream from his bike, his parents also owning an ice cream factory. After coming to the states 36 years ago and opening restaurants for others, Jesus opened the original Tapatio’s location on Memorial Blvd., now managed by his brother & co-owner René Vargas, on April 11, 1996. It is a date he will never forget because his father, back home in Mexico, died literally during the grand opening celebration. His father may not have been present physically with his son, but he surely was proud to know that his own recipes were on the menu of his son’s new restaurant.
Many of those family recipes remain on Tapatio’s menu, but the menu is continuously expanding, too. “We are always focused on new things, making things better. Every day,” says Jesus. Jesus adds successful new dishes to proven meals. “Mexico is a big culture and our menu reflects that.”
On this particular day, I took Jesus up on his challenge to explore dishes that are essentially Mexican. The first one brought to me was the Pescado Jalisco. You can choose from tilapia, grouper, or snapper. Mine was made with tilapia. The dish is aesthetically pleasing—a splash of exotic colors as if the brightly colored pennants draped across the ceiling had descended and transformed themselves into a dish. The breading on the filet has a slightly sweet crunchy mildness. The fish itself literally melts in your mouth. I mean you can feel it disintegrate into nothingness before you can swallow it. The light orange cream sauce is made of sour cream, diced onion and tomato, with a gentle kick of cilantro that warms the mouth like a hot towel on your back during a massage. But I learned that the secret to this sauce is the juice of an orange. Honestly, I had to stop myself from wolfing it all down, knowing there were more dishes I needed to taste. It is perhaps one of the best dishes—of any kind of cuisine—I have ever, and I mean ever, eaten.
Next up was the Parrillada Tapatia. In this piping hot skillet, protein abounds in the form of grilled beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, and Mexican sausage. The mixed meats complement each other with subtle distinctions of taste. Of particular interest was the thinly sliced beef lightly seasoned with a peppery rub imported from Mexico and available in the adjoining store. The grilling makes all the meat extremely soft, including the shrimp, which some people may not prefer, but I liked the consistency. All meats pair well with the abundance of sweet caramelized onions and charro beans that accompany the dish. One bite of the beans and you know these are not your typical charro beans. Flavored with bacon and bell peppers, you can taste the lack of additives. I felt like I was eating them while sitting in a hacienda’s kitchen, the ground from which they came mere yards away. The Parrillada is served with your choice of handmade corn or wheat tortillas and an abundant dish of accoutrements including a rich guacamole that had benefitted well from Jesus’ tendency to use liberal portions of cilantro. Jesus admits you will taste a lot of cilantro in his cooking—not only in the guacamole but also in his pico de gallo and salsas.
The last entrée I tried, the Chapala Plate, takes its name from the largest lake in Mexico. Five jumbo shrimp grilled in garlic-butter and grilled tilapia are matched with beef steak. Although the Chapala Plate shares some of the same ingredients at the Parrillada, they are differently seasoned and are a testament to the dramatic power of spices to change the entire character of both meat and seafood. Because the fish is not breaded, it has a fresh, non-fussy taste that would appeal to anyone looking for a dish that is simple, healthy food.
For the more adventurous, you can sample two of Mexico’s most popular dishes. One is the Menudo, a beef tripe stew, an extremely healthy staple eaten by the professional classes of Mexico at least once a week. The other is Lengua de Res, beef tongue, whose popularity in Mexico has transcended borders to become a prize delicacy in the states.
For those who want to recreate authentic Mexican cooking at home, check out the well-stocked store next to the S. Fla. Ave. location. It features fresh meat, bread, and tortillas and spices and seasonings needed for all kinds of Mexican, Central and South American cooking. I sampled chicharrones, similar to pork rinds, of which there are two types: fluffy, crisp oval shaped balls consisting mostly of skin and the three-layer, heavily meated version that looks like miniature baby back ribs. People from all kinds of backgrounds flood to the store to purchase these alternatives to run-of-the-mill pork rinds.
There can be a sweet ending to any meal with Tapatio’s variety of Mexican-inspired desserts. The most popular are the 3 milk/tres leche cake, the fried ice cream, and churros.
The only bad thing about this mini-vacation is that it is over within the course of a meal. The good thing is that one or the other of Tapatio’s Lakeland locations are probably near you so this vacation can be repeated… often! No fussing with Expedia or Travelocity or worrying about missed planes or lost luggage. Now that’s a vacation I can recommend!
6646 S. Florida Ave Lakeland, FL 33813 863.646.2199
734 East Memorial Blvd. Lakeland, FL 33801 863.686.6958