Chile Con Confidence

Photo by Matt Rose

Photo by Matt Rose

The male waitstaff at Zia Taqueria sport a common look: big healthy smiles, long-ish hair, and beards that are free-spirited but tidy. Like a tattoo-covered barista at an urban coffeehouse or a shapely Hooters girl, they match the restaurant’s overall culture: in this case, fresh, wholesome fare with a foodie-minded Asheville-y edge.

That could describe dozens of local eateries, except in this case, a good portion of the staff at Zia have been imported from Charleston, S.C., where the original restaurant was founded. In Asheville, the now-microchain fills the defunct Dolores & Jose’s Mexican Restaurant space on Haywood Road.

Set back from the street and surrounded by a rather gothic black-iron fence, Dolores & Jose’s was a West Asheville institution, originally housed above a fire station decades before the neighborhood was cool, and memorable to long-time Ashevilleans for the days when grumpy matriarch Dolores dished up inexpensive burritos and tacos with homemade hot sauce. Dolores kept sour cream in the kitchen, but you had to ask for it, and she didn’t like it.

The current atmosphere — with young, bohemian-chic female bartenders mixing specialty margaritas and eagerly answering any questions about the menu — is muy diferente. Signs assure patrons that the produce is local, and, further, that Zia co-owners Kevin Grant and Robert Tipsword have scoured small businesses in Mexico and New Mexico for the specialty peppers and signature spices that distinguish their menu. The pair even did some preemptive outreach via social media, seeking opinions from the neighborhood and expressing sensitivity about various aspects of the restaurant’s impending footprint.

That air of solicitous accommodation is seconded inside. Diners have the choice between full service (a few tables denoted by candlelight) or the more popular counter service. The latter can backfire on busy days, since all drinks are made on the spot, per order, leaving everyone behind to wait. The first time we dropped by, the line was borderline ridiculous, but on a subsequent visit, most of the logistical quirks had been de-kinked.

Arty, Santa Fe-style wall sconces complement the interior’s Southwestern hues (including brilliant turquoise walls), along with wooden booths and exposed beams. But it’s not overdone, and it’s nice to see this long, airy space finally live up to its potential.

I’ve taken up half the review already without mentioning the actual food. Really, a critique could be accomplished in a single word: outstanding. When it comes to Tex-Mex, words like “fresh,” “traditional,” and “authentic” are tossed around like so many jumping beans. Once in a while, the descriptions are actually true.

Here, it’s practically a religion. Even the garnishes are given solemn attention: the jalapeño relish is a simpatico blend of sweet and spicy, starred with whole garlic cloves, and the standard pico de gallo is anything but. Its bright tang, as with so many other items on Zia Taqueria’s menu, begs the query: “What is that I’m tasting?”

Flavors are delicate. They revolve; they surprise. The owners’ search for rare spices and peppers succeeds many times over, from the savory dry rub on the Beef Barbacoa plate to the achiote-guajillo glaze on the Pastor (pork with pineapple) tacos.

Pork shows up again in the traditional, groaningly juicy Carnitas (chunks of pork). The fish in the Baja tacos is tempura-fried. Even the queso-dip appetizer tastes heavenly, exquisitely flavored with white wine and offered with succulent morsels of chorizo sausage.

Chicken Yucatan, Carne Asada (seared beef), and sautéed shrimp are other delicacies incarnated in salads, enchiladas, tacos, tortas (sandwiches made with telera bread), and again in the plates. These are offered with a choice of inventive side items, including roasted corn with Chimayo chile lime butter and a light, festive Mexi-slaw.

The specialty margaritas get pride of place on the cover of Zia’s menu, including variations mixed with orange liqueur and homemade mint lemonade. My husband declined the fancy options and chose the house margarita, noting that its quality would prove the overall integrity of the place (much like the plain cheese pie in a pizzeria). The Zia Rita passed the test: honest ingredients instead of those cheap fern-bar mixes that bring the heartburn.

Some judge a place by its drinks, and others (e.g., me) by its desserts. Zia’s chocolate tres leches cake had a celestial texture, but the heavy bourbon infusion threatened to burn off my eyelashes. Less booze in the batter, or a second, milder dessert option, would render this place just about perfect. De veras.

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