In Mexico City, the Zocalo is the main central square and a gathering place for residents since the Aztec era. In North Charleston's Park Circle, Zocalo is a new restaurant serving Mexican street food: tostadas, tamales, sandwiches on bolillo rolls, and lots and lots of tacos.
There are some good munchies to get things started. The chips and salsa sampler ($5) comes with a fine trio of housemade salsas that includes a mild green tomatillo, a smoky roasted red pepper, and a thick chunky pico de gallo with big cilantro flavor and a hot-pepper bite. The fried chiccarones ($3.75) are good ol' fashioned pork skins crisp enough to rattle your fillings, dusted in a chile spice that is warm but not too warm.
For dinner, there are almost a dozen different tacos to choose from, ranging from old standards like al pastor (grilled pork, $3.50) and carne asada (grilled skirt steak, $4) to more unusual entries like the barbacoa (barbecued lamb, $4) and the verdura (grilled mushrooms and corn truffle, $4.50).
You need to choose carefully, for the execution is a little hit and miss. Some, like the carne asada and the birria (braised beef tenderloin, $4) seem a little plain, needing something more than just onion and cilantro to bring them to life. The al pastor are topped with thin bits of deliciously sweet, slightly-charred grilled pineapple that, unfortunately, outshine the dry pork.
The barbacoa tacos, however, have thick, flavorful chunks of medium rare lamb that are absolutely delightful. The grilled shrimp ($4.50) are big and juicy and topped with pink-tinctured pickled red onions, crisp cabbage, and a great blast of jalapeño heat.
The tostadas are more reliable and more substantial, too, with toppings like guacamole, cabbage, and pickled onions piled high on a crispy fried corn tortilla. The regular menu features a tinga de pollo tostada ($3.75) that's topped with a smear of refried beans and then a big scoop of shredded chicken in a smoky, spicy chipotle sauce offset by cool cabbage and crema. Recent specials have included a tuna tostada ($4.50) that layers thin slices of rare tuna with guacamole, a big pile of those tangy pickled onions, and crema and cotija cheese ($4.50). The smooth texture of the tuna and guacamole contrast nicely against the crisp crunch of the fried tortilla base, and the bright flavors of the onions provide a perfect finish.
By far the most dramatic item on Zocalo's menu is the Sonoran hot dog ($6.75), a street-food classic that originated in the Mexican border state, then made a big splash in Southwestern cities like Tucson. And one can see why. An all-beef hot dog is wrapped in bacon and grilled, then crammed along with pintos and onions inside a big bolillo roll — a crusty, football-shaped Mexican-style baguette. The whole thing is topped with flourishes of white crema and yellow mustard and accompanied by little wagon wheels of wheat pasta that have been fried until puffed into airy crisp nothingness.
The Sonoran dog is a sloppy concoction that's big enough to constitute a meal in itself, though Zocalo's version has one big flaw: the bun is too dry and takes a lot of gnawing to get to the rich explosion of meat and condiments inside. But, once you make it through, it sure is delicious. And you will get mustard on your nose.
Were it just for the food alone, Zocalo would come up a bit short. But they've got at least two aces in the hole: a serious collection of tequila and tequila-based cocktails plus a great setting in which to enjoy them.
That setting is an old gas station that more recently served as a garden store. It's bare bones inside. The concrete floor of the former service bays are left with faded paint, while the cinder block walls are painted a slightly greenish off-white color, and a few big exposed steel beams support a pastel green ceiling. On a nice evening, they roll up the big bay doors and transform the indoor dining room into a semi-al fresco dining area.
Outside, a low wooden fence encloses a huge patio area with long picnic tables and two cornhole sets that seem sure to draw the happy hour and weekend crowds, especially if they love tequila.
Two long shelves behind the bar hold tequila bottles in all shapes and sizes: tall, skinny cylindrical ones, short, stubby square ones, big fat-bodied ones with thin necks like a lute. There are a dozen natural blancos (non-aged tequilas), 15 reposados ("rested" in wood for up to a year), and a dozen more añejos (oak-aged for more than a year). For samplers, a half-dozen flights of three 3⁄4-ounce glasses (don't call them shots: they're for sipping!) are available from $14 to $20.
When Zocalo mixes the tequila into cocktails, the results are superb. The basic "de casa" margaritas ($6) are made with cointreau and real citrus juices and are so simple and flavorful that there's no need to get any more adventurous. But for those who insist, there's a peach chipotle margarita ($7) made from reposado tequila and cointreau along with peach purée, orange and lime juices, and chipotle purée. It's served in a thick margarita glass with the rim dusted with a blend of salt and chile spice, and the peppers give a great spicy punch to a sweet fruit drink.
The stylish but minimalist vibe extends from the setting to the menu, and for me it works — if you order right. Zocalo is a good addition to Park Circle's restaurant row, which is well on its way to keeping North Charlestonians from ever having to venture downtown for entertainment again. But the real question is this: can the food become good enough to keep them from venturing over to Remount Road for some more authentic taco action?