Run for the Border: Zia Taqueria casually dishes up more authentic Mexican options

Zia Taqueria
1956-A Maybank Hwy.
James Island
(843) 406-8877
Entrée Prices: Inexpensive ($3.25-$12.95)
Serving: Lunch and dinner daily

I'm partial to Mexican joints that my friends — with the exception of those who speak fluent Spanish — find rather intimidating. I'll drive all the way to North Charleston or Goose Creek to score a gigantic torta, a plate of lamb barbacoa, or a steamy bowl of menudo (not the boy band) on a Sunday afternoon. I'll stand in line in the sweltering summer heat with half a dozen hungry construction workers for a plate of authentic tacos spiked with chilies and a squeeze of lime and served out the back of a roadside truck. I'll overlook massive health violations for the chance to sample some weird concoction of offal and corn meal.

But "normal" (make that intelligently cautious) people needn't fret, Zia Taqueria, the newest purveyor to fill the little space at the end of the Terrace Plaza strip mall on Maybank Highway, does an ample job of providing reasonably authentic Mexican food (at least relative to the rest in town) in a familiar environment. It's not the most successful of spaces — we've reviewed numerous comers and goers who've tried their luck here, but Zia puts forth a menu at a price point that should have the place packed.

Start at the bar, where they take orders for food and drink and hand you a number to take to your table. It would be nice to have a server, or at least someone to help you carry four drinks across the room to your waiting table, but the service is reasonably fast and fully competent. Leftover artifacts from the restaurant's former life as a French/Moroccan fusion restaurant still hang from the walls. Much of the layout and aesthetic remain unchanged, the colorful lights and carved wooden screens fit right in and speak to the Atlantic connections between the Moorish influences of the Alhambra, the souks of Tangier, and the colonial ancestry of Mexican cuisine. In all, it's a cool place done on the cheap, but perhaps a perfect fit for the remnants of a former, failed venture.

Like any good modern Mexican-American place, they serve a variety of creative margaritas, thankfully leaning toward the traditional side of things. A standard house "Zia Rita" will set you back five bucks, and for $1.50 more you can upgrade from triple sec to Grand Marnier. They also offer something called a "palapa mas" ($6), a blend of tequila, mint lemonade, and creme de cassis, along with a $5 bloody Mary and a good selection of domestic and Mexican beers.

The menu divides the fare into somewhat traditional sections, antojitos on top followed by soups and salads, enchiladas, tortas (a very nice addition), tacos, and combo plates, which join the various proteins available with the kind of beans, rice, crema, and salsa associated with American Tex-Mex fare. What makes Zia different from your average place slinging giant margaritas and stomach churning refried beans are those proteins. Like any "authentic" Mexican place, Zia offers the same basic fillings: barbacoa (that's basically Mexican barbecue), al pastor ("shepherd-style" pork that has been marinated, roasted, and shaved into thin strips), and carne asada (grilled beef). They've also got a smattering of creative, non-traditional fillings such as portabello mushrooms, sautéed shrimp, and grilled fish (ostensibly for that pesky vegetarian/pescetarian in your crowd). You pick the filling and they probably have an enchilada, taco, or torta that features the stock meat. Simple, but good.

We found most of this fare to be legitimately good. Outside of an exceptionally dry al pastor taco, and an overly bland bowl of "fresh" guacamole ($5), which desperately needed a hit of salt and more lime, the food was excellent. Beef barbacoa enchiladas ($3.50) were masterful creations. Warm tortillas were wrapped around the meltingly soft meat and the whole thing was bathed in a rich crema, a deeply flavored red chile sauce, and sharp, acidic green salsa.

The tortas, which a friend once aptly described as "the Mexican Whopper," are huge. We got one with the carne asada stuffed inside among beans, onions, tomato, lettuce, and avocado ($9.95). It's hard to get your mouth around the thing, but I would have preferred a bit less bun (even if it was exceedingly soft and delicious) and a bit more filling inside. A good torta runs out the back of the bun, covers you to your elbows and leaves you needing an extra napkin. Zia's made me want to run up to the bar and reenact the old "Where's the beef?" commercial.

Tacos ($3.25-$3.75) are, of course, where it's at for a taqueria and Zia hits a home run. They serve the traditional two small, soft corn tortillas covered with your selection of filling (they even have a fried fish taco), and, with the exception of the dry al pastor, all are delicious. The tortillas are fresh and served warm, and the same great fillings, barbacoa being a must here, come in ample portions. The taco plates are missing a requisite wedge of lime, and any taco plate should have some raw sliced onions tossed over the top, but those aren't deal breakers.

By all measures of a quality restaurant, Zia's should do well. Even if they have a few kinks, there's great value here. Perhaps the taco has come full circle, relieved of its pop culture chihuahua shtick, and returned to the roots of poverty and cultural miscegenation. If so, then Zia's just may be on to something.



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