Viva Cinco de Mayo: Hit Up These Local Spots for Your Mexican Food Fix
Goofy me. I always thought Cinco De Mayo was Mexico’s version of our Fourth of July, the birthday of a nation and a chance to skip work and get plastered. Turns out that’s (partly) untrue.
Cinco De Mayo in fact commemorates the surprising 1862 victory of an outmanned and outgunned Mexican force over the invading French army in the southeastern district of Puebla. Today, in Mexico, the holiday is a regional one—mostly observed in Puebla with parades and reenactments.
Not so much in the United States, where in the 1960s Chicano activists made an effort to popularize the holiday as a way to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture. That spirit still survives in areas with large Chicano populations, but, of course, Cinco De Mayo has taken on another connotation—as an excuse for Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to down tequila and munch on Mexican cuisine. Here are a few local spots where you can do just that.
Bodega Charley’s Grill & Cantina
Bodega Charley’s knows how to do chips and salsa right. A basket comes out loaded with freshly fried and seasoned chips alongside a cup of shockingly scarlet salsa. That dip is incredible, fruity and sweet with a tangy bite, and even adds a nice touch if you save some and add it your tacos or enchiladas or quesadillas, the Tex-Mex standards that fill up the Bodega Charley’s menu.
The restaurant opened along Hillview last fall, in the spacious confines once occupied by Ocean Blues and a number of other previous eateries. Let’s hope Charley’s lasts longer than those past iterations. I need that salsa in my life.
Mi Pueblo owner Hugo Nuñez was born and raised in Chihuahua, the large Mexican state that hugs the border with New Mexico and Texas, and the cooking at his small chain of eateries shows it. The menus blend Mexican and American flavors with a focus on beef, a style of cooking Nuñez learned by watching his grandmother in the kitchen.
At 20, Nuñez came to the United States and started working in restaurants, moving up from the dishwash station till he could open his own place, which he did in 1999, with the first Mi Pueblo on Bee Ridge. A Venice location followed in 2001 and a University Parkway spot cropped up four years later. Do they ever considering expanding more? Not likely, Nuñez tells me: “We’re family-owned. We’re hands-on. I think it’s big enough.”
Two Señoritas has been such a central part of the Main Street scene for so long that it kind of blows my mind when owner Cheryl Woodruff tells me she and her husband, John, once owned 10 Two Señoritas all over Texas and that many of them might still be open today. She sold the spots when she and John moved to Sarasota in 1994.
“When we got here, downtown was dead,” Woodruff remembers. Now the stretch of Main that’s home to Two Señoritas is one of the busiest in the city, affording passersby the chance to stop in for a margarita and the enchiladas, chimichangas, and fajitas that have won Two Señoritas its large following.
El Toro Bravo
Tex-Mex isn’t typically known as the healthiest of cuisines—what with its focus on cheese, meat, and fried stuff. But while it’s far from a health food restaurant, El Toro Bravo is mixing up that image, including produce plucked from local markets and shunning lard.
Owner and chef Ruben Caban opened the Stickney Point spot a decade ago and has earned renown from diners and critics alike for his classic burritos, non-fried chimichangas, and quesadillas that come with either flour or spinach tortillas. Not health food, no, but a cut above for sure.
Definitely the priciest spot on this list, La Malinche sits in the southern notch of St. Armands Circle, serving flavorful tacos and enchiladas alongside enormous and intimidating molcajetes. The molcajete is a stew stocked with grilled meat and fish, blistered green onions, and fiery peppers, presented in a wide bowl made out of heated lava rock. I hardly know where to start with it.
Easier to grab are the tacos. That flank steak plate is killer—the meat comes rubbed with spices and marinated and cooked just right—but it’s tough to get over the price. $19.95 for four tacos? At lunch? I guess that’s that St. Armands life.
Poppo’s is blowing up. What began as a one-off shop on Anna Maria Island’s Pine Avenue has quickly grown into a mini-chain, with a second location open in Bradenton, a third imminent in east Manatee, and a fourth planned in the always-growing University Town Center mini-city.
That success and growth is due to Poppo’s impressive skills with tacos and burritos—each loaded up with whatever ingredients you select from a long counter à la Chipotle. But while Poppo’s might be getting bigger, it’s no cold-blooded titan, and it has so far maintained its dedication to organic meat and produce and collaboration with local producers like Pop Craft. I am hereby lobbying for them to come next door to my house next.
The Grasshopper Tex - Mex
The menu at the South Trail’s Grasshopper goes way back. Way, way back. Owner Dino Soto’s grandmother opened the first Grasshopper Lounge in Adrian, Michigan, in 1971, after arriving in the Great Lake State as a migrant worker from Edinburg, Texas, right near the southernmost border between Texas and Mexico. Soto opened Sarasota’s version two years ago after a long career at Outback, bringing his grandmother down to make sure the cooking was on point. And it is. Instead of relying on cornmeal mixed with water to make tamales, for example, Soto tracks down real masa, the Mexican corn dough that takes four days to make. Sometimes, the old ways are the best ways.
DO IT YOURSELF
A handful of Latin American groceries
La Primavera Mexican Food
901 N Washington Blvd, Sarasota 941-366-5321
Guerrero’s Bakery & Restaurant
3557 Webber St, Sarasota 941-923-4459 or 941-923-4406
2828 Clark Rd, #4, Sarasota 941-923-4878
Tienda Latina La Canasta Market
2268 Second St, Sarasota 941-917-0911
3070 17th St, Sarasota 941-366-3330
3626 Webber St, Sarasota 941-921-2054
El Mariachi Loco Latin Market
6350 15th St E, Sarasota 941-751-0906
Tortilleria Doña Chela
1155 N. Washington Blvd, Sarasota 941-953-4045
Taqueria Y Tortilleria La Fe
2209 Ninth St W, Bradenton 941-746-7628
La Placita Mexicana
12341 U.S. 301 N, Parrish 941-776-0438