Gringo a go go

100 N. Person St., Raleigh
Tuesday–Thursday, 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m.
Friday–Saturday 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
Sunday, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m.

L ast Friday, downtown Raleigh restaurant Gringo a Go Go had its grand openingand, according to first-hand accounts, it was a rager.

People swarmed the place. Its small, amusingly kitschy dining room was packed. The Dex Romweber Duo performed outside on the patio. A waitress says they went through four large margarita containers and eight bottles of house tequila.

While this opening may have been grand, the eatery actually has been operating since December. People of the Historic Oakwood neighborhood (where Gringo is located) already have made it a go-to spot for a quick and easy Mexican food-and-margarita fix.

Then again, considering its location on the corner of Edenton and Person, you can hardly blame this spot for wanting to let the world know it exists. So many businesses have been in and out of that property, which began as a service station in the 1930s, it almost seems like the place is cursed or built over a cemetery full of pissed-off corpses or something. In the past 10 years alone, it’s been home to several biscuit joints, a down-home diner whose chief specialtyturkey nuggetsit rarely (if ever) served and, before Gringo’s arrival, a convenience store. And let’s not forget about Gringo’s across-the-street competition, the Cuban/Argentinean cuisine-serving Oakwood Café, which has stayed in the same place all these years and continues to bring in customers.

So what does Gringo offer customers that could keep them coming back and keep this business from joining the long line of those “that previously vacated the premises? Well, with owner and founding Lilly’s Pizza chef Ben Shelton working the kitchen, the place is hellbent on serving up authentic Mexican food. Fans of Moe’s or Tex-Mex in general should know that their tacos and burritos are served without cheese (but you can ask for it if you seriously need it).

The tacos, which go for a nice $3 each, are corn tortillas where the filling is topped with cilantro and onions, while the $8 burritos are bulky delights, covered in swirls of sour cream, stuffed with cilantro, black beans, grilled onions, pico de gallo, cabbage, Jujyfruits, Tinker toys, tabs of acid and a partridge in a pear tree. As for the meat fillings, you got your steak (asada), chicken (pollo) and various pork varieties (al pastor, carnitas, chorizo). For all those people looking for healthy alternativeswell, what the hell are you doing in a Mexican restaurant? They do have vegan beef and chicken, as well as potato and a cactus version, known as nopales.

There are other, pricier dishes to be had, like tightly packed chicken enchiladas covered in a tart, tomatillo cream sauce, ultra-cheesy quesadillas and fish tacos, filled with lightly breaded, local farm-raised catfish that apparently had been fed properly, swam in clean waters and lived a better, harmonious existence than any of us ever willright up until it was caught, gutted, cooked and ready to be eaten by us.

The catfish is also lightly seasoned, yet another instance of how authentic Gringo wants to be with its menu. This place doesn’t go overboard with the seasoning, opting instead to give patrons red and green pepper sauces so they can spice it up however they want. There is also a condiment tray available, stocked with onions, jalapenos, radishes and cabbage, for those who like their tacos messy.

Of course, before you get your entrée on, you have to dip some chips in some salsa or guacamole, right? The kosher salt-covered tortilla chips come with two small bowls of freshly-made salsa, with a variety of mild-to-excruciating flavors ranging from sweet (orange) to sweat-inducing (habanero). The guacamole is OK, as it also has a spicy kick to it.

Since I’ve been on the wagon lately, I haven’t sampled their margaritas or cervezas although, judging from the diners I’ve seen consume one margarita, get hilariously chatty and look like they’re ready to fall out of their seat, this place knows what it’s doing in that department.

Now that this joint has made its presence known after a few quiet months of practice, Gringo a Go Go is quite ready to feed whoever walks in its doors. After all, there’s a huge “GRINGO” sign/bike rack implanted in the parking lot. Clearly, it looks like this restaurant is determined to be here a while.

This article appeared in print with the headline “It’s a go for Gringo a Go Go”