The new addition to the plethora of food options on the Hill is Zanita’s, which brings good food and a welcome change from the burrito-centric Mexican places around town.
I walked into Zanita’s expecting the usual displacement of culture that these so called “Mexican” places always seem to have, forgetting that the food they’re serving is best served with a side of sabor. At first glance, Zanita’s was just that, with an industrial menu and a bar that screamed “lets get drunk!” The atmosphere doesn’t make for a place that I would take anyone on a first or second date, but maybe our third, unless I was trying to get to a fourth. The style is fast-casual: place your order, grab a number and wait for your food – an awkward hybrid between Chipotle and The Med.
I sat down and talked to co-founder Nick Hayes, a middle aged man with heavy eyes and a Texas rasp on his voice. We talked business and margaritas for a while, and our conversation finally lead us to the name Ed Janos.
Janos is the mastermind behind the food at Zanita’s, food that Hayes told me he wants people to come back to as soon as they get hungry. Janos, although probably the most valuable member of Zanita’s, isn’t allowed to put any dish on the menu without first winning over the tasting team, a sign that they care about their product.
After talking for a while about his restaurant, he randomly asked me if I liked goat cheese, and as I thought about how weird of a question that was, I said yes. He shot up from his seat, and ten minutes later came back with a quesadilla. I laughed a little when I looked at it, figuring it would be just another Taco Bell spinoff. And then I tried it.
The first few seconds after that first bite, I experienced a horribley cliché moment. I was transported back to a small ranch East of Chihuahua, Mexico, a place I spent some of my childhood, running through warm dirt and avoiding snakes. It wasn’t the smoked chicken or warm spinach that made me think of the dry desert I would eat dinner in; it was the cheese. Goat cheese.
Out of all the time I have spent in Mexico, I can not remember once eating goat cheese, and I’ve even milked a goat. That kind of creativity isn’t supposed to happen to Mexican cuisine. The non-documented rules of Mexican food say a burrito is a burrito, no matter where you go. Ed broke the rules, and had me saying, screw the rules. I sit here now and crave that smoked flavor. It feels like the kind of plate I would need after a long day because it sits heavy on the taste buds. I was raised by a Mexican mother who cooked like it was a priority: my meals were usually named after a Spanish something, so I know Mexican food. Mama, this is an entrée that would make you happy.
I then tried the Happy Taco, something that looks more like a mistake than a meal. It’s a Frankenstein of food, a soft taco with grilled sausage, mac and cheese, avocado, cabbage and dilled pickles. I was confused why a restaurant would serve something like this, and so were my taste buds, but it wasn’t horrible and actually kind of fun to eat. Word of advice, if you do take your third date there, don’t order the Happy Taco because it spills everywhere, but do order the Zookies. A Zookie is pounded dough, filled with overweight child amounts of chocolate, then deep fried until it’s good enough to make you cry.
Hayes calls Zanita’s a “progressive Chipotle,” and I agree, especially since the food is prepared a little better though the prices are similar. It’s as north of the border as every other Mexican place around, but it definitely does Mexican better than everyone else. So next time you feel like trekking to the mall to get some Chipotle, don’t. Stop by Zanita’s, and if you spill some Happy Taco on you, just drink away the frustration with a $2.99 frozen margarita – those are served all day.
I would give it three Aribas! out of five. Its bar doesn’t stay open past 11 p.m., but the food is worth trying.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Chris Ayala at Christian.firstname.lastname@example.org.