Text and images by Sol Weiner
On a recent lunch break, fellow NC FOLKer Evan Hatch insisted that we go to El Restaurante Ixtapa in downtown Hillsborough. I’ve been hearing friends talk for months about Ixtapa’s no-frills combination of surf-and-turf options typical of Guerrero-style Mexican food. As Latino migration to North Carolina continues to grow, more and more states and regions in Latin America are being represented here in restaurants, churches, and other institutions necessary for thriving communities. From what I could gather, Ixtapa is one of those places. The name itself, Ixtapa, is a coastal town in Guerrero.
Based on the scents wafting from the kitchen and the man chopping coconuts outside, it’s obvious that the staff puts time and care into their food and service. Ixtapa is not the place to go for an instant lunch. Some of the dishes—sopa de camaron (shrimp soup), for example—can take hours to prepare, but are integral to making this place feel, as Ixtapa describes it, “authentic.” I don’t mind waiting for a meal when I know the cooks are giving it some TLC, especially because it gives first-timers and regulars alike an opportunity to chat with friends and take in the atmosphere.
After scouring the menu, I looked up to see a welcome sight on the daily specials board: barbacoa—barbecued beef—with Ixtapa’s special green salsa, served with flour or corn tortillas, rice, refried beans, and guacamole salad. As a native Texan, I’m something of a self-proclaimed beef aficionado. However, I realize that Texas does not have a monopoly on slow-cooked beef, and I’ve recently been searching for the best bovine in the Triangle. This is part one in my 1000-part series. Stay tuned.
There are few things I appreciate as much as a hefty lunch special, and Ixtapa delivers—a large mound of chopped beef took up near a third of the plate, and the beans, rice, tortillas, and guacamole salad could have stood as a meal on its own. The beef was tender and just fatty enough, with enough char to give something to chew on. The server brought me three flour tortillas wrapped hot in tin foil, perfect for making tacos. I was already giddy with the prospect of taking my leftovers home for the next day’s breakfast with a cold Cheerwine.
Evan ordered the fish tacos and cut one in half for me, insisting on their deliciousness. The spicy and crunchy purple slaw on the tacos contrasted nicely with the tender and buttery sea bass, and the green hot sauce that the staff brings out on request makes everything even more pronounced. Although I didn’t order a drink, one of Ixtapa’s coconut drinks (in a coconut shell, no less!) or a Jarrito soda would fit perfectly with a meal like this.
As we were leaving, I heard the woman behind the register telling two of the customers about her home state of Guerrero, Mexico. What’s it like? they asked. Do you miss Guerrero? How is this different from Tex-Mex? With all of the fear and mistrust of newcomers to the U.S., these conversations are more than welcome. Food is just one way—albeit a very important one—that people can initiate dialogues with one another about who they are, where they come from, and why it matters. And it doesn’t hurt that Ixtapa’s food is easily some of the best in the Triangle area. I highly recommend sitting down, taking time to enjoy a meal here, and then walking down to the Eno to take a few minutes to think about the Nuevo South.