Saturday, December 18, 2010

Zia Taqueria, James Island, SC

It was the kind of meal you know you should stop eating, but it's so good you just can't...

A friend of ours who has never steered us wrong on restaurants (Dean Rommes, Charleston Security Systems), mentioned that Zia Taqueria is the place to go for great Mexican Food, so off we went. 

It was past lunch hour (after 2:00 p.m.), on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  I have always believed that a good way to test the mettle of a restaurant is to go there when it’s slow.  During the busy lunch/dinner periods, things usually go well, since the restaurant is usually in a rhythm. But when it’s slow – fewer employees, people are beginning to think about the end of the shift and starting to clean up, then things can slip.

When we entered the restaurant we were a little confused about what to do.  Do we wait for a hostess? Do we seat ourselves?  And then we looked up and saw a small wall menu adjacent to the bar and a sign that told us to order there. There were seats at the bar open and we decided to sit there.  It was still confusing.  Was someone going to wait on us?  We glanced around the restaurant, still uncertain.

Small, not overly themed, with about 30 – 40 seats, plus the bar and an outside patio, light music played in the background.A very quiet atmosphere, but then again, we were hitting it at a rather slow time.


The bartender came to take our order. It surprised me that there were no sparkling bottled water options, so I made due with soda water.  I would normally have tried a margarita but we were heading to a Christmas party later that night.  We started with a Chile con Queso. Before we could just about blink it was in front of us along with fresh salsa and chips. That was fast!

The Queso was made with pepper jack cheese, red bell pepper, garlic and white wine (I’m stealing this from the menu, as I would never have remembered everything.) We could not wait to dig in.  It was by far one of the best Queso dishes I have ever had (I lived in Dallas for many years and there are many great Mexican restaurants there…). Warm, smooth, colorful and it had a light kick to it. Nice.

The only downside of our appetizer was our service at the bar. We never received any silverware, plates, napkins, etc. from our bartender. At this point I was still a little confused as to whether it was self serve or full service at the bar. The lack of service put me off a bit.
Chili Con Queso

We rustled up plates, etc. from a nearby condiment station.  The service style continued to be confusing.  I finally realized that if you place your order at the register you received a number and your lunch would be brought out to you.  If you were seated at one of the high tops in the bar area or at the bar, the bartender would wait on you.  No prob, we were too busy enjoying our appetizer.

Although the bartender seemed to know some regulars, she became animated only when she spoke to her colleague that this was the last day-shift (thankfully), that she had until a week from Tuesday.  We did ask her how long the restaurant had been opened, (2 yrs.), if she was one of the original hires (yes, there is very little front of the house turnover), and how business was (good, we’re pretty busy, especially during the holidays), but otherwise, she didn’t speak to us. Isn’t she supposed to be paid for her wit and charm?? Guess I'm used to a bit more interaction from bartenders.

Carne Asada Torta
Our lunch included a 10+++, super star, unbelievable, can’t-say-enough-about-it sandwich and another item.  Here’s the scoop. But first, we had to ask for silverware to begin eating. Urgh.

We ordered the Carne Asada (thinly sliced beef) Tortas Mexicanas.  The menu description hardly does this sandwich any justice.  It was served on fresh baked telera bread that had been toasted. It is topped with black beans, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, avocado and cilantro jalapeno spread (again, a direct steal).  PLUS… it is served with a small, grilled corn on the cob topped with melted butter and sprinkled with fresh, grated cheese.

The sandwich is massive, easily the size of a small dinner plate. By the time I went to ask to try the corn, it was gone.  All I kept hearing was, “Wow, this is something.” Now, on to what I ordered for lunch.

Carnitas Quesadilla
The carnitas quesadilla’s presentation was just lovely, (ut oh, that's like telling someone they are about to go on a first date with they have a nice personality…), overstuffed and served on a fajita-like cast iron skillet. It was accompanied by “cream” (similar to sour cream only thinner), homemade guacamole and a very spicy jalapeno relish.  It looked sensational.  But alas, the pork inside the quesadilla was dry and not very warm. The cheese had melted nicely, but having the carnitas just luke warm took away from the meal, especially since it tasted great.

It was however, the type of meal that you know you should stop eating, but just can’t.  I only ate ½ of my quesadilla, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.  The sandwich was MIA before you knew it.

Every time I have a meal somewhere and plan to write about it, I drop a card that says, “Read our thoughts @diningaroundcharleston.com.” As there have been some hidden gems that we’ve really enjoyed. If the experience was great, I want them to know and hopefully enjoy and share my thoughts with the team, if it wasn’t that great, I hope that they take it to heart and know that I am just being honest in what my experience was like. Hopefully, they can also fix a few things.

Sometimes I get a note from the owner, GM, etc. She/he will explain what happen if we’d hit a speed bump, or thank me for my thoughts and invite me back.  I’ve even received an email where the owner was YELLING at me for what I wrote and questioned "Who do you think you are??"  (I responded that I was Jane Q. Customer, and I helped to pay his mortgage, staff, keep his lights on and his suppliers happy.) But here’s the interesting part.

Within minutes of leaving, Kevin W. Grant, the owner/chef dropped me an email.  He thanked me for dropping the card and visiting the restaurant, hoping that everything was superb.  I applaud his pride of ownership and concern about his brand.  I would go out of my way to recommend the place (and already have).  I can't wait to go back. 


We gave Zia Taqueria 4 out of a possible 5 plates
Zia Taqueria on Urbanspoon

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