When I visited my friend Melisa last year at her new home in Clarksville, Tenn., she and her husband served me smoky and spicy shredded steak, topped with chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro and sour cream, all folded inside a warm tortilla.
They know their Mexican cuisine, so when I was jonesing for a similar bite here in Augusta, I knew right where to go – their favorite Augusta spot for authentic Mexican, Taqueria El Rey in West Town Shopping Center.
It was Sunday after church, and the huge restaurant was packed. We managed to snag one of the few remaining tables right next to the toppings bar, which features almost 20 different items, including red salsa for chips, green salsa, pico, spicy peanut sauce, plus savories like radish, onion and lime slices. I quickly snapped a photo of and texted to Melisa: “Yummm!!” she responded. “Wish we were there, too. Enjoy every bite!”
The menu is just as supersized. El Rey describes itself on its Facebook page as “authentic Mexican…bringing a real taste of Mexico.” It also points out that it’s home to the “Margarita Tower,” a tall glass column of the libation. More than several customers had ordered it and were happily topping off their wide glasses right at their own tables.
I was more into the food, though. All the usual suspects are on the menu, along with more unique items. For example, appetizers include fish or shrimp ceviche with fresh avocado slices on a tostada (toasted tortilla). De la casa (house) specialties include huarache (a sandal-shaped fried corn masa topped with refried beans, a choice of meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cotija cheese and sour cream) or mole Jalisco (chicken smothered in the Jalisco style red mole, made with chiles, spices and of course chocolate, with rice and tortillas). Soups and salads include caldo de mariscos, a seafood soup loaded with shrimp, squid, octopus, mussels, surimi, crawfish, tilapia fillet and clams.
There are also vegetarian options as well dishes featuring steak, pork, chicken or seafood (del mar). There are burritos, fajitas, tortas (Mexican subs), a children’s menu and even gringo specials, most of which seem to come topped with cheese dip. A la carte items include cactus (I made a note to tell my brother), and there’s also a section of New Items, such as loaded baked potatoes, keto tacos and Mexican “pizzas.”
A box points out Jarrito combos, which include the popular Mexican soda, Jarritos, available in fruit flavors like mango, mandarin, pineapple and more. Desserts and drinks round out the menu.
Meat options similarly include what you might expect: asada (steak), barbacoa (beef barbeque); pastor (marinated pork with pineapple slices); chorizo (house-made Mexican sausage); pollo (chicken); carnitas (pork); or alambre (marinated pork with pineapple, bell peppers and cheese). Then there’s the unexpected: cachet (cow cheek); tripa (beef tripe); or lengua (beef tongue).
I love (with a capital L) carnitas, rich chunks of pork cooked slow for hours with seasonings then roasted. El Rey’s comes with rice, beans, guacamole salad and tortillas.
Meanwhile, my husband ordered surf and turf, in the form of a burrito stuffed with shrimp and steak, guacamole and sour cream, and he added green sauce.
We started though with their guacamole and cheese dip. The guac was a smooth puree of avocado, touched with lime and salt—pure and simple—and the cheese dip was salty, melty and completely addictive.
While we were waiting for our food, I noticed some customers had what looked like a meat stick atop their Bloody Mary’s. Curious, I asked our waitress about them. “Do you want to try?” she asked. Of course I did! So, she brought me one. It was Mexican candy, she said, on a straw and rolled in a spice called Tajin. I tentatively took a small bite off one end—and wasn’t quite sure what I was eating. “It’s weird, right?” she said with a laugh. I tasted again, and discovered it was soft and chewy mango paste, with the Tajin adding chili and lime flavors. Would I try it again? Maybe not, but I loved getting a chance to taste it.
The carnitas platter was so huge that I completely missed seeing the warm tortillas, wrapped in foil, that were hidden under one edge of the plate. No matter—I had my fill of the warm, rich, salty chunks of pork; the fresh crisp lettuce and ripe tomato topped with tangy guacamole and sour cream; the tender rice; and the creamy refried beans.
I also tried a bite of the surf and turf burrito: The green sauce added a lovely piquant sourness, which worked especially well with the plump seasoned shrimp.
After we finished our meal and were leaving, the restaurant was still packed. I think everyone there agreed—we all were taking my friend’s excellent advice to enjoy every bite.
Make Your Reservation
Taqueria El Rey
3830 Washington Rd., Suite #25
Open Sunday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Entrée cost: About $10 to $27
Danielle Wong Moores is a local freelance writer who’ll never turn down a shrimp cocktail, sushi or cheese dip. Her greatest food influences are her mom and writers MFK Fisher and Amanda Hesser. Her Dine and Dish column runs the second and fourth Fridays in The Augusta Press.