Mauricio Montano doesn’t do anything small. He brings home impressive purses from his winning racehorses, he launches eateries in multiple states, and, last month, he opened a local restaurant that, at a truly ambitious 8,389 square feet, is approximately the size of a Piper Aircraft hangar.
About 18 months ago, when Bold Life last caught up with Montano, the native of Mexico and long-time Hendersonville resident had recently debuted the fifth in his empire of restaurants: Tequilas Bar & Grill, an upscale translation of his successful formula that emphasizes sophisticated fusion dishes, including crawfish platters adorned with cactus and plantain. His four other restaurants encompass three locations of El Paso — two located in Hendersonville and one in tourist mecca Sevierville, Tennessee. El Paso offers accessible, uncomplicated, low-priced Mexican fare. And then there’s trendy Taqueria Mexicano, also in Hendersonville, an authentic taco shop — “no ground beef here,” noted one online reviewer — where all the right beer flows from the taps.
Montano told Bold Life reporter Tom Kerr that he got ideas for Tequilas from his many travels across the U.S. Southwest, and from his home country. All the décor, for instance, was brought directly from Mexico.
His latest restaurant, though, is a full-circle endeavor, ingrained in the fabric of casual, friendly Hendersonville culture. It replaces the original El Paso on Greenville Highway, opened by Montano — the star restaurateur started out long ago as a busboy — in 1999, but ousted last year by the arrival of chain grocery Publix. Montano scouted out the new spot and has been engineering the transition since last May.
“The move wasn’t really a choice,” Montano told Bold Life two days after the relocation to the rambling new building. However, he admits, “I love having more space. The increased capacity is great. Our patrons are not squeezed together anymore.”
This is an understatement. Diners, in fact, have so much room that wandering through the six separate eating areas is a bit like dipping in and out of various micro-communities. The feel is high fiesta. Some rooms face a bright bank of windows; others read more intimate, with dimmer lighting, ideal for parties; and the bar is savvily appointed and well-stocked. (Those boat-sized margaritas are a draw that sails across all fads.)
Fun décor fills the new El Paso, and it’s all suitably splashy and ambitious. Sculptural 2-D cutouts of horses, seen galloping across the walls, are more or less life-sized; movie stills from old Westerns are inset in niches like images from flat-screen TVs, though the resulting vibe is much more original than that sports-bar staple.
The new restaurant’s fare does not deviate much from Montano’s trusted M.O. for his most populist eatery. Burritos, enchiladas, tortas, and various combination specials rule the many-paged menu, typically served with rice and refried beans, and enhanced by a salsa bar that covers the whole spectrum of heat and flavor. Even the nonalcoholic drinks are enormous — offerings include a mug of horchata (a sweet, rice-based drink) not much smaller than a Smart Car.
El Paso’s food is hot, fresh, fast, ample, and simple, with occasional charming excursions in presentation, such as a fat house burrito sauced to resemble the colors of the Mexican flag. It’s tasty, it’s filling, and it’s almost beside the point. Camaraderie is the main grab here. On most new restaurants’ second full day in business, there would be gaps in service, obvious kinks, unavailable menu items, and a dash of understandable chaos. Not here. The whole operation appeared to be running as smooth as the gratis bean dip.
At one adjacent table, a large party included on-duty police officers lunching with what seemed to be a group of maternal relatives: mothers or aunts, if bits of overheard conversation could be trusted — although true eavesdropping is almost impossible in a restaurant with this much elbow room. All seemed to be reveling in the wide-open atmosphere, including that behemoth mug of horchata, which could have commandeered its own table and not seemed out of place.
El Paso Mexican Restaurant is located at 807 Spartanburg Highway in Hendersonville. Call for hours: 828-698-6040. www.elpasomexican.net.