RALEIGH - Before you’ve had your first sip of margarita, it’s already abundantly clear that San Marcos is not your typical Tex-Mex joint.
There’s the location, for starters – not in a strip mall but in a large building on a sprawling property overlooking Crabtree Valley Mall. The owners spared no expense in transforming the building (most recently home to Crabtree Tavern) into a palatial hacienda with faux adobe walls and ornate sculpted stone trim, tropical plants spilling out of massive urns, and colorful Spanish-tiled steps leading up to a columned portico.
The mood is reinforced inside, where more columns and urns wend their way through a maze of dining rooms furnished in festive folk art and tropical hues, past a bar stocked with dozens of tequilas (and a trendy nod to mezcal), then back out onto a tiled patio with a view of a verdant hillside.
Then there’s the glossy menu, whose color photos of dishes and slick layout make you wonder whether San Marcos is the latest concept of some national restaurant chain conglomerate, and the menu the product of its marketing department.
It isn’t. Okay, technically San Marcos is a chain. Its owners are Jose, Ruben and Marcos Mendez, three brothers from Michoacan (just up Mexico’s Pacific coast from San Marcos), who opened a small taco shop in Danville, Va., a little over a decade ago. Their company has since grown to a chain of six San Marcos restaurants in Virginia and North Carolina. The Raleigh location, which opened in August, is the most ambitious to date.
Delving into the menu, it doesn’t take long to discover the two main reasons for the restaurants’ success.
The food, in terms of both execution and presentation, is as elevated above the strip mall Tex-Mex norm as the decor. And distinctive dishes sprinkled throughout the menu, drawn from the Mendez family repertoire, personalize the offering in a way that no corporate chain’s marketing department ever could.