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For Authentic Mexican, This Is the Real Enchilada

By Nancy Lewis
Thursday, June 1, 2006

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.

The ceviche compechano includes pieces of shrimp and chunks of white fish, served in a mild tomato-tinged vinaigrette. The flavors are bright and clean tasting. The tortilla soup is almost a meal, brimming with chicken and avocado and topped with strips of crispy tortillas.

Zapata's menu includes all the expected items: quesadillas, enchiladas, burritos, tacos, tamales and fajitas. But all are a little more sophisticated than the usual Tex-Mex fare. The steak fajitas, which arrive sizzling, are lean and juicy. The enchiladas are truly tasty, especially the tinga (shredded chicken with chipotle), and the Mexican rice that accompanies most dishes is full of flavor.

To taste true Mexican flavors, delve into the menu's so-called legendary specialties. The camarones al chipotle are large shrimp served with rice, onion, squash and peppers, drizzled with a creamy chipotle sauce. Carnitas are chunks of pork shoulder marinated in citrus juices and slow cooked until they are falling-apart good. The chile verde is a casserole of pork chunks simmered in a chile mora sauce with bits of nopales (leaves of prickly pear cactus).

Save room for dessert. The tres leches cake is light and saturated with flavor. The chocolate cake is large enough for four people and hugely satisfying; the cake and icing have a rich chocolate flavor. The flan is rich, as is its sauce, with a real home-cooked texture.

Flores said he chose the Harpers Choice location because of the area's diversity and its emergence as a center of Columbia's Latino community. He has worked to make Zapata's a focus in that community, backing many events and fundraising efforts.

Zapata's True Mexican Food

5485 Harpers Farm Rd., Columbia, 410-715-6929,http://www.zapatasonline.com. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Appetizers, $5-$9; main courses at lunch, $8-$10; main courses at dinner, $9-$17. Accessible to people with disabilities.

If you have a food-related event or favorite restaurant that you think deserves attention, e-mail Nancy Lewis atlewisn@washpost.com.

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