An unflinching love of Mexican food commands me to do outrageous things to satisfy urges. I've chased down street carts, eaten things out of convenience stores that I probably should not, and cut through traffic at the mere sight of a taco truck. Also acceptable: eating standing up in the street, sitting down on dirty pavement, or jumping out of a moving vehicle. If some seedy dive in a bad neighborhood serves an authentic taco, I'll make for it like they were giving away big-screen TVs.
Problem is, there are so many places claiming to serve "authentic Mexican" these days that the phrase means squat. The joints that actually do serve authentic food don't really have to say so — they simply do what they do and el gente come in droves. For proof, show up on a Sunday to Doña Raquel, a sort of no-frills Mexican cafeteria on Dixie Highway in Pompano Beach, and wait in line with the Mexican families. You'll huddle by the door and watch the women at work in the open kitchen. You'll simply ache for those handmade corn tortillas — which you will want to wrap around cuts of flank steak, scoop into thickly stewed frijoles with chunks of ham, and dunk in spicy bowls of menudo livened by lime and oregano. And then you'll sit in one of the yellow-backed plastic school chairs among festive piñatas and a few flags hanging from the mostly bare walls and know full well that everyone there is feeling just as elated as you.
I was expecting to find a scene not unlike this at El Zocalo, a Mexican restaurant that's tucked into the corner of a Margate strip mall so varied that it also houses a Vietnamese restaurant, a roti shop, an Asian food market, and an Irish sports bar. The place bills itself as an "authentic Mexican restaurant," and I believed it because of a few specific key words — cochinita pibil, menudo, pozole.
Instead, the place feels like walking into an elaborate telenovela set. Creamy stucco walls stretch up to tiny, fake balconies studded with potted plants and Spanish tile overhangs. Spotlights look like stars dotted along the black ceiling. The smell of fresh lumber mingles with the scent of chili and cumin. At its best, the room feels slightly romantic, like a courtyard in rural Mexico. At its worst, it creeps dangerously close to "Mexico Pavilion at Epcot" territory. All it needed to finish the illusion was an animatronic lothario poised in the center of the room screaming "Maria!" at a sultry-looking brunet hanging from the balcony above.
"Well, they obviously put a lot of work into the look, even if it does feel a bit labored," my companion says after we order drinks. Our margaritas taste like equal parts fountain lemonade and Sprite with a splash of Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville mixer thrown in. Screw authentic; I'll settle for someone who can mix a decent drink. I take a look up at those balconies again, half expecting a robotic Maria to emerge and tell me that she's pregnant and — gasp! — the baby is not Eduardo's!
We skip over "authentic" appetizers like deep-ried coconut shrimp (so weird) and jalapeño poppers, opting instead for a spread of tacos ($2.50 each). The corn tortillas are excellent and made in house, turned just long enough on the griddle to make them warm and slightly crisp. The fillings, though, are inconsistent. Cochinita pibil, slow-cooked, shredded pork made with chili and citrus juice, is overly tart and very tough. A mix of pungent bits of steak and grainy chorizo called campechano is better. The gamey tongue is not too chewy; spicy chipotle chicken "tinga" tacos are superb. Each is missing something, however: a bit more cilantro, onion, and lime, or at least a dish on the side. The very good hot salsa that's provided alongside chips adds some flavor, but skip the bland mild, which tastes like tomato puree.
Somehow, we manage to get the right entrée order, despite the oh-so-sweet waitress who kept repeating our orders back to us incorrectly. My girlfriend's breakfast huarache ($9) came as a sort of oblong, corn sope blanketed with refried beans, thick rojo salsa, and two over-easy eggs speckled with queso fresco. My Oaxacan grouper ($16), napped in a spicy garlic sauce, was badly overcooked and tasted at least a day or two outside its freshness window. Black beans on the side were so undercooked and bland that they'd make a real Oaxacan weep, and the yellow rice flecked with peas and corn arrived at room temperature. The al pastor alambres ($15) were far better: a mix of fleshy poblanos and onions plated with spiced pork and chorizo and a helping of airy flour tortillas.
The problem with inconsistency here might be the menu itself. It's just too damned big and filled with enough Mexican classics to keep a mythical team of animatronic abuelitas occupied for days. There's definitely plenty to love, like the sesame-studded chicken with mole poblano ($12) or the chile en nogada ($15), a cream-sauce-draped poblano pepper filled with pork, beef, and a host of summery fruit that achieves tart and spicy, savory and sweet all at once. But even I couldn't get through all of the chilaquiles, cochinita pibil plates, barbacoa, pork chops, burritos, breakfast options, or enchiladas the menu crams in. The chef already has to have his hands full making menudo ($7) and pozole rojo ($7) every single day, so how could he possibly keep track of all these dishes? Even so, the pozole, by some mixture of magic and grace, manages to be an awesome example of the hominy soup. It's so red that you think it might stain your insides the color of a sun-ripened chili pepper.
Then there are the tacos: Those great corn tortillas are a huge asset. If what they are filled with could be elevated even a little, it would be worth bellying up to the meticulously designed tile bar top to scarf them down by the dozen while watching telenovelas on the slick flat screens positioned just between Maria's bedroom and the front door. On one of those crazy hot Florida days that make you feel like you're somehow closer to the equator, I'd sip on the house horchata ($2), rife with the peppery coolness of cinnamon. And I'd finish again with a slice of cheese flan ($4) that made a divisive intersection between slightly spongy cheesecake and wet, sweet custard. Dishes like that don't need a well-constructed setting to prove they're authentic. But I'd certainly take it all in if they were.