For Authentic Mexican, This Is the Real Enchilada
The first things you notice are the salsa and chips. Take a seat at Zapata's True Mexican Food in Columbia's Harpers Choice Village Center, and they arrive almost immediately.
The chips are warm, with the nutty taste of corn, and the warm roasted tomato salsa has a well-rounded flavor with just the right amount of heat.
It's the first clue that Zapata's is true to its name, offering authentic Mexican cuisine rather than Tex-Mex or California-Mex.
Owner Cesar Flores came to Columbia from his native Mexico 14 years ago and spent a decade working in most of the Tex-Mex restaurants in the area.
"I didn't know why nobody was using true Mexican flavors," Flores said.
So when the former professional soccer player for perennial Mexican powerhouse Toluca opened Zapata's three years ago, he fashioned a menu that features the subtleties of his native cuisine.
The differences are evident throughout the menu. First, most of the meats -- whether beef, chicken or pork -- are slow cooked and then pulled into shreds or cut into chunks before becoming tacos, tamales and enchiladas. There are five sauces, including a pleasantly tangy tomatillo and a smoky chipotle. The cheeses are Mexican, mostly asadero and Oaxaca. Although some of the dishes are spicy, the range of flavors isn't merely hot to hotter.
Zapata's is in a pleasant location, reached from the Harpers Choice Village Center parking lot. It fronts Joseph Square, where it has tables for dining outdoors. Inside, Zapata's is decked in golden yellow with red accents, adorned with photographs that tell the story of Emiliano Zapata, one of Mexico's most famous revolutionaries.
Flores said he has always been infatuated with the name Zapata and thinks the name helps imbue the restaurant with Mexican ambience.
Zapata's is an intimate space, where conversation is easy. The floors are concrete, the result of a continuing (but not intrusive) renovation.
Although Zapata's has an array of flavored margaritas, start instead with one of the artisan tequilas -- alone or as the base for a stunningly good mixed drink.
The appetizer selection is large and includes not only the usual nachos but also taquitos (rolled corn tortillas filled with shredded beef) and pork tamales. The guacamole, made fresh daily, is buttery and mild, with large chucks of avocados.