From Tex-Mex to Tapas: Charleston Mexican Restaurants

With offerings from authentic to taquerias to Tex Mex, there are Charleston Mexican restaurants for every diner.  El Pincho Taco, Santi’s, Taco Boy, Dos Taqueria, Jaunita Greenberg’s, and Pink Cactus are downtown, while Mex 1, Zia Taqueria, Lola’s Authentic, and May Del Sol ply diners with options in North Charleston and West Ashley.  For traditional Spanish tapas, Laurel, Malagon, and mainstay Barsa will not disappoint.  These restaurants invoke the earliest European settlers to the Lowcountry, and the crowing Hispanic community in the region today.

Tacos to go from El Pincho, served with fresh lime and salsa verde.

Historian Elaine Lacy notes that “Hispanics are among South Carolina’s oldest and most recent immigrant groups.  Tremendous diversity exists in the Hispanic or Latino population in terms of national origin, socioeconomic class, educational attainment, and other characteristics.”  Some of the state’s Hispanic residents are of early Spanish ethnicity from the Florida colonial era, while most are from Mexico and Central America.  Spanish explorers arrived on the Lowcountry coastline in the early 16th century and established short-lived Santa Elena (near present day Beaufort) in 1527, about 150 years before the English established Charlestown.  The English and Spanish contested their colonial borders into the eighteenth century, and the mother countries (one Catholic and the other Protestant) were often at war, which meant limited legal trade between Florida and Carolina.  There are definite similarities with Lowcountry foodways and Spanish traditions, however, namely the wide use of rice in every meal of the day.  Sarah Rutledge in her 1840s cookbook included dozens of rice recipes, one accompanied with fried tomatoes cooked with onion, butter, and green peppers, “the Spanish way of cooking them.”  She also described stewed rice and chicken dishes that would be customary in Africa, the Caribbean, or the Spanish colonial world.

And in both Florida, and Mexico, the Spanish intermarried with indigenous groups, which yielded a new creolized cuisine.  Traditional Mexican food is a fusion of Spanish and indigenous Native American traditions.  Meat and vegetables are roasted over coals (barbacoa) and served with thin cornmeal tortillas, and rice dishes are common in some coastal regions of Mexico.  Corn, beans (frijoles), chili peppers are staple ingredients, along with avocados and fish in coastal areas.  By the late 18th century, sugar, hides, and other goods were regularly imported from Havanah and other Spanish ports, directly into Charleston.

Ads from 1809 and 1791 for goods coming to the city from Havanah.

A fun 1936 News and Courier article reported on a new “Mexican Parties” craze, thanks to increased travel to Mexico City, and described “true Mexican cookery” for Charlestonians to try: “all cooking in Mexico is done over charcoal as there is no need for haste. The cheaper cuts of meat and vegetables form the main dishes, but the seasonings are perfectly blended and the slow cookery makes each dish a masterpiece. Mexicans can create miracles with free basic ingredients: tortilla, chili, and frijoles. Tortilla is a maize waifer. Corn is sometimes white, red or blue depending on the locality in which it is grown. The maize wafer is made of finely ground meal, washed and reground between stones, then tossed and patted into thin cakes in a precise, traditional way. When fried, the tortilla becomes a tostado. Roll the tortilla around a cheese, onion, and chili combination and the result is an enchilada.”  Chili con carne, sopa de arroz, and arroz y gallina a la Valencia recipes were provided; these dishes are all available at local restaurants today.

Local Spanish restaurants skew towards the tapas tradition, or small plates served hot or cold that allow diners to try several different dishes and flavors.  Barsa, the oldest tapas bar in town, is located in a historic corner store building at the corner of Line and King Street and has indoor seating, a jasmine lined outdoor courtyard, and ample off-street parking.  They’re best known for their seafood, vegetable, or chicken and chorizo paella, a traditional rice dish from Valencia, in which the ingredients simmered in a large skillet with spices, and served hot and fresh.  Other tapas include prosciutto wrapped dates, patatas bravas, cheese and charcuterie, and daily special empanadas.

Barsa’s exquisite seafood paella.

Laurel offers Spanish and Portuguese inspired tapas, an extensive Spanish wine list, and josper charcoal grilled dishes.  This romantic sit town restaurant’s menu includes anchovy brined olives, manchego and ham croquetas, pollo asado y mojo verde (springer mountain chicken with vegetable saffron rice and green salsa sauce), and whole grilled fish on rice.

Mussels, pictured on Laurel’s Instagram page.

Malagon in Cannonborough-Elliottborough is a taperia sister restaurant with Chez Nous, offering a regularly changing menu of small plates and a to-go mercado with Spanish wines, cheeses, and canned goods.

The Tex-Mex craze began in the 1950s with increased travel along Route 66 and the start of chain restaurants.  The typical menu includes Mexican inspired dishes, with more beef, non-traditional cheese blends, lots of nachos, and canned beans.  While less traditional, Tex Mex is filling, delicious with a cold beer in the summer, and the most popular genre of Mexican restaurant in Charleston and elsewhere.  One of the first local examples, riding a wave of national interest in Mexican food, was Yolanda’s Mexican Restaurant, which opened in Goose Creek in 1977. They served chalupas, tacos, and tamales, “original Mexican foods in a Mexican atmosphere.”

Today, Mex-1 Coastal Cantina has locations in West Ashley on St. Andrews Boulevard, in Park West, and on Sullivan’s Island.  This Baja Peninsula, surfing inspired chain conjures “little cantinas that dot the coastline”, and offers “freshly squeezes margaritas and mixers” alongside spice shrimp appetizers, baja rice bowls topped with beans, guacamole, and pico de gallo, and fish tacos.

A refreshing margerita and rice bowl. Mex 1 Instagram page.

Taco Boy (with a Folly Beach, Summerville, and Downtown Charleston location on Huger Street) is a local favorite for its strong and tasty pina coladas and margaritas, fun and lively atmosphere, cozy outdoor seating, and wide selection of tacos.  They’re open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, serving up chips with a salsa trio; “taco boy salads” with greens, roasted corn, salsa cruda, and queso; rice bowls; quesadillas; heuvos dishes for brunch; and of course tacos- shrimp and avocado, baja fish, el pastor, and loads of other options.

Taquerias focus on the most famous Mexican dish of all time: the humble but delicious taco. Zia Taqueria on Maybank Highway claims “the best salsa in Charleston” and is known for its fabulous baja fish taco.  Other specialties include portabello mushroom tacos, chicken Yucatan (grilled with red hatch chili and cayenne), lots of quesadilla options, and the zia tortilla soup (spicy chicken, rice, and tomato broth garnished with tortilla strips.)

Fresh tacos, chips, and a cold drink, on Zia’s Instagram page.

Dos Taquerias, from the creator of much-loved East Side Bagel, offers fresh, tasty, no frills breakfast and lunch tacos and burritos from its small shop on Line Street, doing brisk business in take aways.  Dos also has a small outdoor seating space. Their breakfast tacos- egg and salsa verde and choice of meat on a corn tortilla- and burritos made to order with choices of fillings and salsa verde, roja, or fuerte, are delicious.

A breakfast taco; a burrito and “taco cat”, from Dos Taquerias’ Instagram.

On upper Meeting Street, El Pincho Taco is one of the most authentic options, and their delicious food is accompanied by a traditional salsa bar with homemade verde and tomato options. El Pincho has indoor seating, a fun outdoor courtyard, and offer Uber Eats and take away service. For vegetarians, there are vegan chorizo, tinga vegeteriana (hibiscus), and nopales (grilled cactus) tacos, and al pastor with grilled pineapple, and a host of other pork and beef tacos for the meat lovers.  They also serve tortas, burritos, platos with rice and beans, mixed drinks, and traditional hibiscus flower or horchata (rice, cinnamon, and milk) agua frescas.

A taco plate, and the fun back courtyard, from El Pincho’s Instagram.

Sommelier Brooke Warden opened the Pink Cactus on Spring Street “with the goal to bring a hip, fun and casual Oaxacan style restaurant to Charleston’s blossoming food scene.”  They have chirizo, poblanas rajas, pork and salsa, cauliflower, chicken tinga, and local shrimp tacos, all served with traditional onion, cilantro, radish, and lime. This fun, casual neighborhood spot has an extensive cocktail list, including mezcal negronis, margaritas, and the “melon ball” (tequila, watermelon, and lime.)

An salada Jamaica del flor, a Restaurant Week special. Pink Taco’s Instagram.

As Charleston’s Hispanic population has increased in the last twenty years, there are more authentic Mexican restaurants in town, and more that offer a mix of Americanized and authentic dishes.  Impromptu food trucks and vans at construction sites probably offer the most authentic tacos and hot lunches, but there are stationary traditional “brick and mortar” restaurants like Lola’s Authentic and Maya Del Sol (and others with no English web presence) in North Charleston, which has a large Hispanic population and culture.  Maya Del Sol is a special experience of regularly changing, five course meals available by reservation only from Thursday to Saturday.  They also offer tacos and burrito lunch specials to go.

Beef and fresh grilled shrimp over a bed of rice, from Maya Del Sol’s facebook page.

Lola’s Authentic in Fabian Shopping Centery (Reynold’s Road, North Charleston) is the opposite dining experience: it’s a traditional Mexican food truck with some outdoor seating, low tech and loved by locals for its fresh and authentic food.  They serve tortas (a traditional Mexican sandwich made with toasted telera bread).

No Charleston Mexican restaurant list would be complete without beloved Santi’s, located on upper Meeting Street in a humble former Huddle House, and known for its unpretentious but delicious food that ranges between Tex Mex and traditional, depending on your fancy. Santiago Zavalza and his staff pride themselves on authentic dishes from his childhood in Jalisco, like caldo de res (beef stew), menudo sopa (Mexican tripe soup with avocado, and cilantro), and Vuelve ala vida sopa (seafood soup with shrimp, mussels, and octopus.)  All meals come with tortilla chips and red salsa, and the platos come with refried beans and rice. The enchiladas verdes with a green sauce and melted cheese, and enchiladas poblanas, with a brown chocolate mole cause and melted cheese, are fabulous.

Crunchy loaded tacos with rice and beans, and traditional zopa. Santi’s Instagram.







Author: Christina Butler

Owner of Butler Preservation L.C., Professor of Historic Preservation at American College of the Building Arts, author of Lowcountry At High Tide (USC Press, 2020).