Mole, chilaquiles and a phantom Vietnamese restaurant


Despite thoroughly enjoying the food at El Mariachi Mexican restaurant on my first visit, I didn’t return until years later — four, if memory serves — and only then by accident.

My friend Bekah and I showed up at the shopping complex way down Gate City Boulevard (formerly High Point Road) that is home to the $1.50 theater (formerly the $1 theater) looking for pho. Another friend had recommended a Greensboro coffeeshop and restaurant called Pho Nui, a place where old men go to drink and hang out, she said, but somewhere owned by her friend’s family and home to some excellent Vietnamese food.

The sign out front said “Ca Pho Hai Au” — Google Translate recognizes this as Romanian, so no help there — but an open sign glowed in the window while others proclaimed coffee and karaoke. Tinted out front windows concerned me, and when we walked in a group of men, maybe a few decades our senior, hovered around one of the tables inside, drinking and appearing to be playing a game. One asked if he could help us, and then confirmed my fear; no food served here.

The mole sauce is excellent a couple doors down at El Mariachi, I offered to Bekah, or if you still want Vietnamese, I <3 Pho is just a little farther down the road. I knew before I finished the sentence that my friend, a Chapel Hill native who left part of her heart in Mexico, would choose the former.

El Mariachi looks like your standard American Mexican restaurant, complete with beer specials on the wall, wooden booths and colorful decorations. But it would be a lie to call the food average or unremarkable, especially after my second visit on Monday when I dined on some pretty spectacular chilaquiles. Indeed, the reason for my absence has more to do with quality Mexican choices close to home, including the caldo de pollo at San Luis and a burrito I won’t shut up about at Villa del Mar.

El Mariachi is an important reminder that we all need to branch out more.

I’m a sucker for Mexican food with shredded chicken, avocado and queso fresco, but part of the particular appeal of the traditional — as opposed to American-born counterparts — dish is the runny fried egg and the gently fried tortilla base. This is what breakfast dreams are made of, superior even to my beloved Mexican eggs meal at Smith Street Diner. Breakfast is served all day at El Mariachi, though I found the chilaquiles in a different section of the restaurant’s extensive menu and argue adamantly that they shouldn’t be restricted to a certain time of day.

It can be challenging to find the sort of food here that you’d come across in a restaurant in Mexico, instead finding meatier and cheesier options often created or embellished anywhere from Texas to California (all a region that used to be Mexico, mind you, but that’s a history lesson for another day). That’s why Bekah, despite her affection for the country she might rather be living in, didn’t bother, ordering a chimichanga; think Tex Mex-style fried burrito.


We both loved our entrees, eating more than we should, and in my case downing two Pacifico beers without even feeling it.

It wasn’t until I stood to leave that I noticed the bar. Set apart from the main dining room along the restaurant’s right side, the dark room seemed almost foreboding with just a couple patrons at 9 p.m. on a Monday evening.

That feeling didn’t subside as I stepped back into the ghostly parking lot, the kind of place you’d bring a kid to teach them how to drive. An evening that started with a false start into a karaoke/coffee non-restaurant ended with a leering man, chomping on a cigar and slowly drifting through the lot in his minivan, staring at me like I’d trespassed on his lawn. The summer evening possessed an apocalyptic sort of mood, a closed storefront flashing “Sale” and a few moviegoers lingering near the distant theater’s edifice.

Better to come back to El Mariachi on a Friday night, I thought to myself, when the menu advertises a live mariachi band from 7 to 10 p.m. and the somewhat desolate strip is a little more inviting. And I should be sure not to wait nearly as long, too.

Visit El Mariachi Mexican Bar & Grill at 4623 W. Gate City Blvd. (GSO) or at