To some restaurants, social media is a mixed bag. Sure, it can help enhance a restaurant’s visibility, but it also allows detractors to reach a large audience at the click of a button. There is one type of restaurant, though, for which social media has been an unqualified boon: the hidden ethnic gem.
Consider El Tepeyac. In another era, this unassuming Mexican and Salvadoran restaurant tucked into a strip mall on Greenbrier Drive with a laundromat next door might have gone undiscovered. Today, it has its own Facebook page, with more than 800 “Likes.” It also appears in the Twitter feeds of area chefs, many of whom are fans. I recently enjoyed a feast there with chefs from the Clifton Inn, Ivy Inn, Maya, and The Whiskey Jar.
El Tepeyac opened in its original form in 2010, when Adolfo Solorzano and his wife, Bertha, moved to Charlottesville from Chicago to start what was then just a small tienda selling Mexican groceries with an even smaller area in the back serving food. Late last year, they expanded to a full-service restaurant and lured their daughter from Chicago to help. Smart move.
A savvy management consultant with a degree from Northwestern University, Maria Gracia has done wonders for El Tepeyac’s image and visibility, appealing to an ever-broadening audience. In the eight months since El Tepeyac opened, the proportion of diners who are not Hispanic has grown from just five percent to 30 percent. Key to that growth has been social media, as customers often tell Gracia they learned about El Tepeyac on Facebook.
But, it is the food that will keep customers coming back. The “genius behind the food,” as Gracia puts it, is her father, the tireless chef who has spent most of his life in restaurants, and runs the kitchen seven days a week, taking off only Thursday mornings. With Solorzano from El Salvador and his wife from Mexico, the food reflects both heritages. Pupusas, thick handmade tortillas with a variety of fillings, are a house specialty inspired by those at his family’s pupuseria when he was growing up.
Ivy Inn chef Angelo Vangelopoulos recommends that diners “be adventurous,” which is sound advice. Over conversation about the trade-offs required by a career as a chef, we devoured delicious plates of tongue stew ($9.95), tongue tacos ($1.95), and tongue sopes ($2.95), as well as tripe tacos ($1.95) and tripe sopes ($2.95). We also enjoyed chicharron (pork rinds) in two forms—first as an appetizer served over fried yucca with Salvadoran slaw and a savory roasted tomato sauce ($7.50), and later in tacos.
It’s hard to imagine higher praise for Solorzano’s food than the number of “wows” and groans it evoked from some of the most talented chefs in town. And, there were no disappointments. “I have yet to try something I did not like,” said Clifton Inn chef Tucker Yoder. Especially good was a weekend special of carnitas—tender pork butt, cooked for three hours, served either in tacos or as a platter with rice and beans ($8.95).
But, you don’t have to like tongue, tripe, or even pork butt to enjoy El Tepeyac. Picky eaters can do well, too. Families with young children are frequent customers. My own children, ages 5 and 3, love it, and not just for the festive soundtrack or the futbol on the television. There are (complimentary) housemade chips and salsa, chicken tacos ($1.95), and outstanding made-to-order guacamole ($6.25). Another crowd-pleaser, an enormous plate of shrimp fajitas ($11.95), is one of Solorzano’s personal favorites. Squeeze bottles of fresh fiery salsa on the tables (one verde, one rojo) allow diners to tailor heat to their liking.
Ever the business consultant, Gracia continues to make improvements, with sleek new menus and a facelift to the décor, which, along with the food, remind Maya chef Christian Kelly of “a legit West Coast taqueria.” Best of all is the new list of cocktails, all $8. The much-improved margaritas—goodbye bottled mix, hello fresh lime juice—now rival any in town. There are also exotic options like Horchata con un Toque—rum with house-made spiced rice milk, and even a cocktail made with fresh corn.
Will Richey of The Whiskey Jar may have summed it up best when he observed how rare it is to find a restaurant that cares about fresh ingredients and traditional preparations, while also making excellent cocktails from scratch. “El Tepeyac,” Richey said, “is excelling at all of them.” And, it’s not just chefs who are noticing.