You know what I say when people ask me where the best Mexican restaurant is? The closest one! And while that’s not always true for me, it is for some, and it’s always good for a laugh.
But what is no joke is the cool new Mexican spot Cozumel Express that (finally!) opened on Capitol Street last week after unexpected delays. I’ve popped in three times already to discover the food is good, the service efficient and the space itself has a casually swanky vibe.
More cantina-like than restaurant, a long bar runs down the entire length of the narrow storefront space next to Graziano’s on Capitol Street in downtown Charleston, with a long row of small tables lining the other side. Less colorful than most Mexican restaurants, the décor here features more wood, metal and contemporary accents to create a somwhat modern look and feel.
It’s also no joke when I say I’m just as excited with what they’ve done with the space as I am with the food coming out of it. I predict Cozumel Express will become a popular downtown place to hang speedy quick.
Don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s small space, either. Menu options are plentiful.
You can start with appetizers like deep-fried flautas with chorizo or chicken, carne asada fries with grilled steak and melty cheese, or sweet chili shrimp with rice, before moving on to some of the same Cozumel favorites you’re used to in the way of street tacos, quesadillas, burritos, nachos and sizzling fajitas.
Better still, you can also try several new items you won’t find at most Mexican places.
How about a Lupita Bowl with pinto beans, corn, rice, lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo with your choice of either chicken, steak, barbacoa, shrimp or carnitas? Or a Nino Pobre with two eggs over garlic potatoes topped with green tomatillo sauce, queso fresco, avocado and cilantro.
Maybe you’ll go for the chicken Enmoladas in housemade mole sauce, the served-all-day Breakfast Burrito with potato, chorizo, eggs, corn and salsa, or the whopper Cozumel Molcajete, a $40 smorgasbord featuring chicken, steak, shrimp, chorizo, nopal cactus, cheese quesadilla, al pastor flauta, chile, cheese, roasted onions and salsa – whew! – served in a stone bowl with pinto beans and rice on the side.
Or maybe you’ll try what I am next, a creation known as the Quesa-Chile featuring a handmade cheese-stuffed chile relleno, which is then stuffed inside a quesadilla. Mind. Blown.
On my first visit I tried a nice platter of birria tacos (you may know them as “dippy tacos” that are dunked in broth) that came with the best little bowl of savory, soupy pinto beans I’ve even had. Pro tip: If you get pinto beans here, ask for them in a bowl with the broth, not just “dry” on the plate. This birria was nice, but the ones at Los Agaves in South Charleston are better, thanks to a more savory and flavorful broth.
Two days later I went back for both lunch and dinner (don’t judge) where I really enjoyed the fantastic La Gringa al Pastor Quesadilla stuffed with juicy grilled pork, avocados, onions, cilantro, sour cream and plenty of gooey cheese, then later that night the Huevos Rancheros with eggs atop a fried corn tortilla with hot sauce, avocado, pico, cilantro, queso fresco and sour cream drizzle.
As you would expect from the restaurant’s cantina vibe, there’s a full bar offering a nice selection of beer, wine, liquor and 10 different specialty margaritas featuring flavors like pineapple, tamarind, jalapeno-cucumber and, umm, chocolate and gummy bear.
I’m gonna be a hard no on those last two, but y’all let me know how they are.
There’s also a whole line of infused cocktails with intriguing names like Royal Guava, Sangre Azteca, Taco Chile, Cantarito, Michelita and more.
As with any new restaurant, however, Cozumel Express is not without its hiccups. I tried ordering one of those specialty cocktails on Monday night, but no one working knew how to make it. So I stuck with my regular margarita (on the rocks with salt, of course) and it was delicious as always.
Just give them a little time and I’m sure such wrinkles will be smoothed out.
Owned by the same folks who run the Cozumel Mexican restaurant at Ashton Place, Cozumel Express was originally supposed to open late last year before a series of unfortunate events – including the roof caving in, new menus being printed with mistakes on them and ongoing labor shortages – kept pushing things back.
With all of that behind them now, a bartender told me over the weekend that they’re super excited to finally open their doors. Weekday business is building, he said, and they hope to ramp up Saturday crowds once the weather turns nicer and foot traffic picks up downtown.
Weekday or Saturday, no matter, I have a feeling I’ll soon be a regular.
IF YOU GO: Cozumel Express, 241 Capitol St. in downtown Charleston, is currently open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday. For more information, call 681-265-0570 or visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.
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Guess what The Food Guy is eating this week? Crow. And lots of it.
While sharing a passionate explanation on my approach to restaurant critiques last week, I explained the two “tenants” I base my philosophy on. Tenants are people who rent space. Tenets are principles or beliefs, which is the word I should’ve used.
More than a few of you wrote in with humorous and borderline angry comments about the gaffe, which I do appreciate, even though I do know the difference between the two words. My favorite response came from local attorney David Hoyer.
“While I’m sure whomever might be renting from you would like to be adopted (just think of all the great food they’d enjoy tagging along with you!) I believe you meant ‘tenets’ in that sentence,” he said. “Frankly, it gave me a nice chuckle this morning, so as far as small mistakes go, this was at least an enjoyable one. Please keep writing the column and letting us know where to go.”
As much as I’d like to pass the blame to an overzealous spell-check or auto-correct, I did use the wrong word so this one’s totally on me.
But hey, at least I know people are reading!
One of those readers is Leonard Womble, who apparently believes in cutting restaurants a break just as much as I do.
“Steven, you hit a home run with respect to your comments regarding second chances,” he said. “Positive or negative feedback from the customer – preferably before leaving the restaurant and delivered with specific details in a professional and constructive fashion – is much more beneficial than simply complaining to the cashier about a poor dining experience as the customer in walking out the door.”
Couldn’t agree more.
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Steven Keith is a food writer and restaurant critic known as “The Food Guy” who writes a weekly column for the Charleston Gazette-Mail and has appeared in several state, regional and national culinary publications. Follow him online at www.wvfoodguy.com or on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. He can be reached at 304-380-6096 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.