Charlottesville is home to many fine Mexican restaurants of all sizes and modes – think Baja Bean for students, Guadalajara for margaritas, the farmer’s market for tacos al pastor. But Aqui es Mexico, tucked away in a shopping center in Belmont, offers something special: a unique combination of Salvadoran and Mexican cuisines, an expansive menu, and a comfortable interior.
The restaurant itself is spotless, brightly decorated, and well-lit, with many seating options suitable for different party sizes and a rather impressive curved bar. The service was friendly yet not overly so; my server seemed interested in my enjoyment of the food, which was all too easy to communicate.
As I am unfamiliar with the food of El Salvador, I ordered some Mexican favorites and a Salvadoran speciality as well. The first in line for consumption were chips and salsa, washed down with a horchata agua fresca. After a fifteen-minute walk in 100+ heat, the creamy sweetness of the cinnamon-spiced horchata was surprisingly refreshing – so much so that I ordered another to-go for the walk home. The chips were freshly fried wedges of thick tortillas, substantially ridged for the thin salsas to coat. The green sauce tasted mild and tart, while the thinner red chile sauce had a building and lingering spiciness. Following the chips and salsa, the server brought a cheese and bean pupusa, a Salvadoran speciality made of a thick corn tortilla filled with hot refried beans and melted cheese. The pupusa was the surprise hit of my meal. The fresh, simple dish, coupled with a thin, cooked tomato sauce and pickled coleslaw, was completely satisfying.
Perhaps the success of my first two dishes set the bar too high for the last, but I found the chimichanga to be less than perfect. While the carne asada filling was tender and flavorful, the dish was overall dry, very doughy, and heavy. It could be my own fault for ordering three fried dishes in a row, but the bright and fresh flavors of both the salsas and the pupusa did not come through in the chimichanga.
I dined at Aqui es Mexico at 4:30, the no-man’s-land of meal hours, so the place was entirely empty. I would imagine that even on a busy night, the atmosphere at the restaurant would remain as comfortable and low-key. However, don’t expect Taco Bell prices at this stop – most entrees fall within the $10-15 range, and chips and salsa do not come free. The horchata alone, however, is worth its weight in gold.
Jed says: “Though it lacks the must-drink-margarita energy of Guadalajara, Aqui is the best Mexican/only Salvadoran in town, and further evidence that a mush of protein in a pocket of dough should be on the flag for world peace (please refer to empanadas, pierogies, dumplings, pot stickers, pupusas, etc.).”
Rating: Casey: Jed:
Pros: Fresh and vibrant food in a tasteful environment.
Cons: Occasionally heavy food, not cheap.
Price: $10-15 per entree.
Parking: Spots usually available in the shopping center or nearby.
Tue-Thu 11 am – 9 pm
Fri 11 am – 10 pm
Sat-Sun 10 am – 10 pm