Real Deal with Tomatillo

The dining team at Taqueria Munoz. Photo by Matt Rose

The dining team at Taqueria Munoz. Photo by Matt Rose

When you go to Taqueria Muñoz, do not expect a blanket of melted cheddar cheese, big old scoops of red salsa and sour cream, or any of the other hallmarks of typical Mexican restaurants. That’s the Tex-Mex/California evolution of the cuisine — a deservedly popular style, but one that caters largely to non-Hispanics, particularly when it comes to chain and fast-food restaurants that are long-established national fixtures.

Call it the Burrito Effect. Almost any kind of meat or cheese tastes better made spicy and swaddled in starch, and, as a result, this staple item has moved as far outside its original genre as chewing gum from spruce trees.

But Taqueria Muñoz is the real deal, the real real deal, as authentic as it gets 1,350 miles away from the border. In its original location, the Asheville-born restaurant, formerly Taqueria Gonzalez, has inspired some of the most consistently favorable and articulate reviews on Yelp in the past year, including this one, by “Neal R.,” that was headlined “a billion stars”: “I just feel when this place is on, the love and passion in some of the plates cooked up here is unmatched in the Southern U.S. I’ve had some food on the border towns in Mexico including Tijuana & Juarez. That was a long time ago, but I never recall having handmade corn-masa tortillas there or nearly anywhere else that wasn’t some overpriced, gringo-run joint.”

Indeed, the homemade tortillas are delightful: a revelation. The burritos, meanwhile, are stuffed with meat and queso blanco, and there’s no ground beef in sight. Instead, the meat choices include asada (steak); several incarnations of pork (sliced pastor, roasted carnitas, braised cheek); chicken; lengue (tongue); and lamb stew on Saturdays. For vegetarians, the sautéed-mushroom quesadilla is a delicious option not available at the Asheville location. Juan Muñoz debuted Taqueria Muñoz 2 in its Hendersonville location last month, in a sparkling two-room space painted a festive turquoise.

Customers dress their own food to taste from a bar stocked with cilantro and onion, hot chile sauce, a smooth tomatillo salsa accented with uncut husk tomatoes, and pico de gallo. Quesadillas and tamales are the other dishes on the menu that will sound familiar, and then there are sopes (meat and refried beans served on a masa corn base), tortas (thick flatbread sandwiches with mayo), and platillos (platters with meat, rice, and beans).

The steak and pork were tender and savory, and the helpings were beautifully generous for the low price. A bistro burger will set you back $12 these days, and so getting a mound of carnitas with sides — lighter appetites will enjoy leftovers — for just under $10 is downright amazing.

Tongue and pork cheek are cultural delicacies that may seem intimidating or just plain unappealing to non-Hispanic customers, but considering the risks some upscale places are taking with tapas these days (hello, roasted crickets), it’s reasonable to assume that mainstream tastes may evolve, especially with the successful proliferation of taco trucks and independent taquerias like this one, tucked into small roadside plazas. In Asheville, Muñoz is getting ready to open a grocery next to the original taqueria.

In any case, at his Hendersonville taqueria, the homemade pineapple juice and horchata — a rice-based drink flavored with cinnamon — are so rich and sweet they can translate to palates in all languages.

Taqueria Munoz, Plaza Fiesta, at 2111 Asheville Highway, Hendersonville.

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