Is a can of Spaghetti-O's Italian? Does shaved beef on a sub roll with a side of "jus" qualify as French? How about chop suey? Does it make the grade as Chinese? Nobody would claim the above as examples of authentic ethnic fare, yet enormous piles of nachos blanketed in melted Velveeta and double-decker tacos loaded with seasoned ground beef, bright orange shredded cheese, and thick sour cream are regularly presented as authentic Mexican. Thankfully, Raul's Taqueria and Mexican Grill is here to dispel that myth, one dish at a time.
Right off the bat, their fresh, citrusy guacamole ($6), nachos ($6.99), and fish or shrimp ceviche ($7.99) are not the type of fare we're used to finding at typical "Mexican" joints in these parts. Raul's secret citrus ceviche marinade is spicy, fruity, and delicious, but the fish is actually cooked with heat before marinating. Traditional ceviche does not use heat. Instead, the acid from the citrus breaks down the proteins, essentially "cooking" the fish without really cooking the fish. We'll let Raul slide because delicious is delicious, and state law requires that fish cannot be served raw or partially cooked unless it has been frozen at a specific temperature for a specific length of time. Safety first.
While you peruse the menu, you can enjoy a complimentary basket of housemade tortilla chips, which are accompanied by a spicy salsa. Raul's has one of the best margaritas in town. The house blend and fresh-squeezed lime juice sing in harmony, creating a drink that is a little sweet, a little acidic, and has the right amount of kick to take the edge off a tough day. All the typical Mexican beers like Modelo, Pacifico, Tecate, and Dos Equis are available, and all can get ramped up with clamato and lime juice to create a refreshing Michelada.
The menu has all the Mexican staples, but read closely. The chile rellenos ($10.99) are not the typical slices of pepper covered in a mound of melted cheese with a spoonful of beef or beans on the side. This is the real deal: a whole roasted poblano pepper stuffed with cheese, battered, and deep fried to a perfect golden crispiness and topped with a savory tomato sauce.
Things get even more interesting when you get to the tacos. There's no seasoned ground beef in a Raul's taco ($2.79). Instead, you select from choice meats and seafood such as carne asada (charbroiled steak), pollo (chicken), and barbacoa (steamed beef). The juicy al pastor (broiled pork) has a zesty note with a lot of citrus flavor. The pescado (fish) is not fried crisp, but broiled and topped with sweet mango salsa.
If you're feeling adventurous, order the lengua (tongue) tacos. The marinated beef tongue chopped into small pieces is truly mouth-watering. Hot tongue tacos may not be your thing, but they could be, so even if you don't kiss on the first date, build up some courage and try it on your next visit. The savory filling is nestled in a traditional corn tortilla with chopped fresh onions and cilantro and a lime wedge on the side.
Raul's burritos ($5.50) are huge and filled with beans, your choice of meat, lettuce, onions, cilantro, and guacamole. Traditional burritos are dry but can be converted to Tex-Mex by adding cheese or red chili sauce for $1. Enchiladas ($10) are made using corn tortillas, filled with one of those flavorsome proteins, and topped with red, green, or mole sauce. There is also a vegetarian option for burritos, enchiladas, and tacos.
The most compelling reason to go to Raul's, though, is to dive into a big bowl of carne en su jugo ($9.99), which literally translates to "beef in its own juices." Strips of tender marinated beef sit in a bowl of savory broth redolent with fresh cilantro, bacon lardon, slices of avocado, and radish. A cross between chili and stew, this dish has two secret ingredients that I was unable to discern or get them to explain. The flavor profile is so complex and delicious that you'd think it had stewed for hours on the stove, but Raul says he makes batches three to four times a day so that it's fresh. Enjoy it as a stew or spoon out some juicy beef and vegetables onto a warm tortilla to create your own personal taco.
The Pollo Acapulco ($10.99) consists of pieces of bone-in chicken baked in a parchment bag with quartered mushrooms and red chili sauce tweaked with the addition of garlic, oregano, and ginger. The fragrance of this dish set expectations high — and the flavor did not disappoint.
Raul's family uses recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. The mole sauce is a 90-year-old recipe comprised of 75 different ingredients. It's savory, sweet, and incredibly complex. The flavor is truly astounding and can be enjoyed with a chicken entrée ($10.99) or it can top a plate of enchiladas.
Although Raul's serves up delicious Mexican cuisine in a Day of the Dead setting that evokes a taqueria in a sleepy south-of-the-border town, the service is not nearly as appealing. During most visits, a single person tended to both the bar and dining room. Drinks came out one at a time and baskets of chips sat empty. Although in Mexico this is par for the course, service in Charleston tends to be a bit more fast-paced. In the end, we have to remember that this is not a line-driven kitchen, as most of the items are cooked to order by Raul and his mother, Magdalena, but service could easily be stepped up a notch or two. Perhaps an increase in staff would help.
Ultimately, spending a little extra time sipping a refreshing margarita and noshing on housemade chips and guacamole while waiting for a big bowl of beef in its own juices or a plate of mole made from a 90-year-old family recipe is completely worth it. The food is that good. And you can't get more authentic around here than Raul and his family, who put honesty and love into every dish.