Gonza Tacos y Tequila
2100 Hillsborough St., Raleigh
The restaurant was too full to request another seat.
By the time I had settled onto a broad black stool early on a weekday night last week, I had already elected against a 20-minute wait at the door of the fourth and latest location of the quickly growing local Latino chain, Gonza Tacos y Tequila, directly across Hillsborough Street from the strip’s central sigil, the Bell Tower. The line had pooled into a little portico at the lip of the new Aloft Raleigh, the chic boutique hotel owned by the same company that also controls the Sheraton brand. When it opened late last month, Raleigh became the last Triangle vertex to get an Aloft. Gonza has just launched the location’s first restaurant.
In my two visits during its first two weeks of service, the tables were loaded and the list long, with hungry and smartly dressed professionals clutching bobble-headed figurines of superheroes that served as surrogates for their name or the little black buzzers with the red twinkling lights. But I put myself at the mercy of first-come, first-serve bar seating. Since there was barely room to get a drink at the bar without disrupting the service of the well, I counted myself lucky in finding a seat at all. When I glanced to my left to nod to my new neighbor, who immediately pulled his pint glass away from his waiting lips and picked up his cell phone to show me a photo before he could introduce himself, I knew this dinner would soon become about more than food.
“You ever seen this?” said the middle-aged man, staring at me from beneath a baseball cap emblazoned with what looked like the state flag. “Did you ever go here?”
He presented a photo of Sadlack’s, the bar and sandwich shop that sat on this very corner until early 2014, when it and a neighboring strip mall that contained collegiate staples like a record store and a head shop were razed so the university could get nice, cross-campus digs for visiting parents. I told my neighbor I had been to Sadlack’s many times, in college and afterward. And then I let him lecture me on its importanceand how he had “grown old while Raleigh grew up”for the next hour.
During four decades in the same spot, Sadlack’s had gone from being one piece of a street that was by most accounts wild and crazy to one of the strip’s last vestiges of the weird and homey. Hillsborough Street has needed help in attracting students from campus and civilians from surrounding neighborhoods in recent years, but the strategy behind the recent boost seems to involve wiping out what’s worked in favor of what’s worked everywhere else.
In the name of city progress and economic revitalization, Hillsborough Street surrendered Sadlack’s like so many of its nearby outpostsThe Brewery, replaced by a canyon-sized set of student apartments, or The Jackpot, eaten to feed a big condo construction site. As with many collegiate rows across America, potential dens of iniquityor certain hubs of personality, depending on your vantagehave moved out so that brightly lit, relatively clean storefronts can take their place. In Durham, see 9th Street; in Chapel Hill, see Franklin.
Though Gonza started in Raleigh about a half-decade ago, it already possesses the polish and professionalism of a larger chain in waiting, as though each store were another chance to show potential franchisees what they, too, can have for only a large deposit. The place, the staff and the food have all the quirk and distinction of the Applebee’s about a mile away. During two visits, two bartenders invariably called meand every other male at the bar”honey,” “darling,” “champ” and “pal.” If someone vowed to return every day for the next year, I wondered, would anyone ever bother to learn the person’s name?
Likewise, Gonza’s food is, above all else, acceptable. Or fine. Or safe. Or boring. Or plain. Or any other word that connotes that the place’s combination of Mexican, Tex-Mex and Colombian dishes have been thoroughly fretted over and vetted for mass gringo consumption. It possesses none of the culinary zeal of Centro or Jose & Sons in downtown Raleigh, little of the elegance of Mez near Research Triangle Park, even less of the indulgence of Dos Taquitos. And it has dressed up the basics of the area’s taquerias only to dumb them down again, to make them approachable.
The vegetarian tacos, for instance, arrive on a thin white plate, covered by a deep green leaf. A bit bigger than the palm of your hand and resting open-faced on its flat tortilla back, as if too servile to assert a will of its (or the chef’s) own, each of the three tacos comes with a nondescript medley of tiny cubed vegetables and some cheese. “We are the vegetarian option,” they seem to say in polite unison. “You could make us at home, but don’t we look so nice?”
Much the same holds for the burrito, which is stuffed with such a light hand that the mix of meats and pico, beans and cheese seems somehow forlorn and lonely, as if their respective families have been left behind in the kitchen for eternity. The four plantain slivers that accompany it are less a side and more a ruse, designed to make you want a deep-fried dessert. The queso and the guacamole alike are chronically under-spiced. The salsa, though deep red and pleasantly savory, arrives chilled just short of the freezing point, as if preemptively attempting to cool any potential flames. The chile relleno was so underwhelming I can barely remember eating it a week later, though my receipt affirms it cost me $13.
And the “Mexican Flag,” which I was told repeatedly was the restaurant’s most popular dish, was but a haute re-creation of what restaurants with names like El Rodeo or El Dorado or Tres Amigos like to call an “enchilada supreme”three parallel tortillas, stuffed, rolled and bathed in sauce that washes onto the plate beneath them. Ingeniously designed, the Mexican flag puts the enchilada covered with crema in the middle, with a tomatillo-topped one to the left and a chipotle-caked one to the right, serving as the insignia’s flanking panels. But the salsas were so bland, so afraid of offending sensitive taste buds, that the colors felt like the key needed to tell them apart. I estimate that, of the $13 price tag, $3 owes to flavor and the remaining $10 to plating pizzazz.
As décor goes, the audaciously accessorized Gonza is obsessed with death. La Calavera Catrina, her hair done in pink flowers and her eyes outlined in thick black circles, stares out from a grid of four colored panels, suggesting Andy Warhol on a south-of-the-border sojourn. And in a mural sloppy enough to appear pixelated, she stretches in repose across the length of the bar, her long, exposed neckline suggesting a hint of morbid scandal and salacity. Gray placemats are emblazoned with dark gray skulls. And near the bar, a constellation of bright paper stars that double as light fixtures hangs above tables, an ever-present reminder of some great beyond.
This theme, echoed with variation in all four restaurants Gonza has opened during the last four years, seems to go a long way toward Gonza’s success. As one recent five-star Yelp review of the original North Raleigh location put it, “When I saw the chalk body outlines on the floor, I knew this would be a good meal.”
As another barstool neighbor suggested during a subsequent visit, Americans don’t do much to honor and celebrate mortality; we are tantalized by the playful dark that a place like Gonza suggests, teased by the cold, beckoning finger but comforted in the knowledge that at least the queso will be thick, the margaritas fruity.
During our time together at the bar, the man holding the phone with the photo of Sadlack’s became more and more romantic about his old haunt. (“I am drinking my dinner,” he admitted.) He told me Sadlack’s had launched the entire genre of alt-country (suspect) and that it was one of a kind (debatable).
At one point, he announced, loudly, that the space was full of ghosts, as if they hovered there where Sadlack’s street-side porch used to be. I looked around but didn’t find them. Instead, I only saw stylized portraits of the deadentertainment for the brightly lit, widely smiling living, like a still frame cut from a glossy city magazine.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Bright y bland”