Friday, April 17, 2009

Review: El Tapatio, Washington, NC

It would appear that MySpace's new Local service is for Corporate restaurants only. I tried to review an independently-owned Mexican restaurant closer to where I live, and it pretty much said no. It did, however, give me the option to suggest a restaurant, so I suggested it, and I will copy this there when, and if, they decide to add it. If not, well, I'll have reviewed it here anyway, and that's fine.

Washington's El Tapatio restaurant, conveniently located on Highway 17 in Washington, next to Taco Bell, is the best place Jen and I have found for Mexican food in Beaufort County. In fact, I asked her, and we both agree that if we lived in Greenville, it would be worth it to drive 25 miles or so to Washington for El Tapatio if we were craving Mexican. In fact, when we're craving Mexican, El Tapatio is automatically assumed.

When you see the place, it's not impressive at all. It could be anything, and in fact used to be a Golden Corral before GC moved to the Walmart shopping center, just a quarter-mile to the north. Two cheesy fake palm trees (which light up at night) stand between the restaurant and Hwy. 17, but the parking lot is spacious and easily accessed from either the northbound or southbound lanes, even in rush hour, as the nearby McDonald's light (yes, Washington has a dedicated traffic light for McDonald's) often provides cover. The building exterior could use a paint job, and the little lobby is littered with fliers advertising mostly local Mexican music and wrestling/fighting events.

Once you come inside, it's much nicer. Murals inside show Mexican revolutionaries, and are nicely done. They have one of those new Internet jukeboxes which can download all kinds of songs, and you're liable to hear just about anything in there. Oftentimes it's Mexican music, but a lot of times it isn't. Either way, it isn't loud, so you can hear it, but it won't overwhelm you. I haven't sat at their tables, but their booths are all pretty nice, and they can be moved if you need more or less room, depending on your size. From the door, the entire right side is non-smoking, and the entire left side, with the bar and jukebox, is for smokers, so it's well separated.

I cannot stress how fast the service is. As soon as you're seated, you'll be asked what you want to drink. Drinks are brought out very promptly with freshly made tortilla chips and homemade salsa, both of which are very good. Once you order, they can have your meal out in as little as five minutes. We have fast food restaurants out here that can't serve you in five minutes (mostly Hardee's). You can't make a decent meal at home in five minutes, but El Tapatio can have good, hot Mexican food in front of you in five minutes. Unless you are extremely impatient, and they are very busy, you will not find yourself wondering when your food will arrive.

The food itself is great. It's served hot, and you'll often be advised not to touch the plate. The portions are generous, even when ordering side items. When I'm not very hungry, I just order three enchiladas. They come covered in sauce and the ground beef just falls out of them, no shortage of food. When I'm really hungry, I order their special nachos without guacamole (I'm allergic to avocados) and it's always more than enough. I have never once finished it. Jen usually orders lunch or dinner specials, of which they have a couple dozen. Chances are they'll have a combination you'll like, otherwise you can improvise with the sides. Neither of us have ever been disappointed with their food.

The service is also very good. Everyone we've seen there speaks fluent English. We never feel like they don't understand us, and everyone is friendly. After our food comes, within 5 minutes, the server will return and ask if everything's alright. After that, however, they tend to leave you alone for a while, so if you need a drink refill or more salsa, you might have to flag somebody down, and Jen said I should note that, but at the same time, I like to be left alone when I eat. Plus, I order my soft drinks without ice, so they don't get diluted and they fill the glass. I really don't need a refill - the cups hold 16-20 ounces. They are shy about bringing the check, but have no problem finding your order in their computer if you just walk up to the register to pay. We've never paid more than $20, including a good tip, for both of us to eat and have soft drinks. We have drank beer and/or mixed drinks there once before, and I don't recall the prices, but I do recall that they were fair.

All in all, El Tapatio offers a great Mexican dining experience; the best we've found in eastern North Carolina. If you're in New Bern, Williamston, or Greenville, or anywhere in between, and want something good that won't break your wallet, give them a try. If you're near Hwy. 17, just head up/down the road. Look for the Taco Bell; they're right next door. If you're in Greenville, take 264 to Washington, turn left on 17 (there's a Kangaroo Express gas station on your left) and it's about a mile up the road on your left. Here's a map:

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