Brandy Rand

Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer

South of the Border on the North Shore

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of Northshore magazine –

It used to be that the only way to get your fajita fix on the North Shore was to visit a chain restaurant. But recently, Mexican has emerged as a culinary trend, with a host of new restaurants opening in our own backyard. This run for the border has given us slow-cooked carnitas, garden-fresh pico de gallo, hand-tossed corn tortillas, and bowls of chunky guacamole. Whether it’s margaritas with friends or takeout for the family, these places serve up a variety of tasty options. Here’s a rundown of the top local spots, just in time for Cinco de Mayo. (Click here for print article with recipes).

Agave Named after the prickly plant harvested for tequila, Agave not only serves up a mean margarita, but it fills up happy customers with homemade tortilla chips and guacamole that’s made tableside. Locals know to head up to the third floor to grab a seat at the comfortable bar, especially on Mondays and Tuesdays, when tacos are just a few bucks each. Agave is jammed on weekends, so it’s wise to make a reservation or to come instead for lunch (try the spicy sopa de tortilla) or brunch (pick the a chorizo-stuffed breakfast burrito). 50 State St., Newburyport, 978-499-0428, agavemexicanbistro.com.

Casa Molina Located a few blocks away from the beach on the border between Swampscott and Lynn, this take-out spot is as authentic as it gets. With generous portions and everything on the menu priced under eight dollars, Casa Molina is a great choice for a family fiesta. Everything is made to order, fresh and fast, including grilled vegetables for a healthy burrito filling (carne asada, chicken, al pastor, and carnitas are also available for meat-lovers). Tasty tacos are available American style (shredded lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese, and sour cream) or Mexican style (cilantro, onion, and lime). There are no tables to eat at, so be ready for your mouth to water all the way home. 183 Lewis St., Route 1A, Lynn, 781-581-0100, casamolinalynn.com.

Cielto Lindo You’ve probably driven past this small restaurant a dozen times in downtown Beverly, always meaning to stop in—now’s the time. Be transported to an atmosphere reminiscent of Mexico with delicious guacamole prepared and served in stone mortars. Notable at Cielto Lindo are unique regional specialties you won’t find anywhere else, like the Pollo al Mole, a chicken smothered in a spicy, chocolatey sauce. Seafood fans will delight in an array of fish and shrimp dishes, like Pescado al la Veracruzana: tilapia with herbs, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, and olives. If it’s classic Mexican you crave, several varieties of enchiladas and a make-your-own menu of burritos or quesadillas will fit the bill. Wash it all down with a cold Chelada: beer with lime juice over ice with a salted rim. 150 Cabot St., Beverly, 978-922-4657, cielitolindogrill.com.

Cilantro Holding court on a busy street in Salem for over 10 years, Cilantro has seen its share of change in the local dining scene. But this cozy, white-tablecloth restaurant is still going strong, serving up Mediterranean-inspired Mexican that offers a taste of the traditional with a twist. Expect everything from ceviche to tamales to albondigas de chipotle—cheese-stuffed meatballs cooked in a smoky chipotle pepper sauce. Owner and chef Esther Marin is always experimenting with new dishes, so the menu changes regularly. Cilantro is a fine-dining experience worthy of a lingering sip of anejo tequila and crispy sweet churros for dessert. 282 Derby St., Salem, 97- 745-9436, cilantrocilantro.com.

Comida Mexican Taqueria If you find yourself hungry and meandering through Salem after a visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, look no further than Comida Mexican Taqueria, conveniently located a few doors down. A counter with several stools makes grabbing a quick bite easy, or you can grab take out (patrons can order in advance online). Comida is run by the Waldron family with a focus on locally sourced products, including produce from the Waldrons’ own farm. Check out fun events like “Holy Guacamole” to learn how to make your own, or “Heat Night,” a sampling of hot sauces, including the Waldrons’ own habanero salsas. “Like” Comida on Facebook and get 10 percent off on second and fourth Fridays, or pop in for $2.50 “Taco Tuesdays.” 131 Essex St., Salem, 978- 594-8220, comidasalem.com.

The Happy Taco Food trucks are just getting a foothold in Boston, but Travis Grandon stayed local when launching the Happy Taco late last summer in Gloucester. While this bright yellow trailer might draw you in with your eyes, what really should be leading you is your stomach. It’s no surprise that one specialty is the fish taco, done right: California-style with crisp, pickled red onions and lightly battered cod that Grandon gets from local day boat fishermen. The carne asada taco was inspired by the fare in magical Rosarito Beach in Baja. Grandon admits his philosophy of global hand-held street food is based simply on what he likes to eat—and the man has phenomenal taste. Track down the Happy Taco on Twitter, @HappyTaco_Glo, or at thehappytaco.com.

Howling Wolf A gathering spot for students, families, and couples, Howling Wolf covers all the bases: It’s spacious, has a hip and casual vibe, and offers live music on select nights. After smoothing out a few initial opening bumps, the food and service have fallen into their groove. The vegetarian posole, a red chile stew with vegetables and hominy, wins high marks, as does the Howling Wolf burrito with shredded beef, pinto beans, salsa, guacamole, chile con queso, and a touch of crispy bacon. Don’t miss the Monday night “Triple B Special”—a burrito or burger and a beer for 10 bucks—and the wildly popular 30 cent Mexican wings on Wednesdays. 76 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-744-9653, feedyourwolf.com

Red Lulu Cocina and Tequila Bar This sexy, sleek space is a bright new spot on the Salem scene, serving artfully prepared cocktails like the Broken Heart or the Mezcal Mistress. But bringing a little class to an otherwise beer-and-flat-screen nightlife isn’t all this bar-cum-restaurant has going for it. It’s hard not to fill up on the chips, which are served with three kinds of spicy dip, but save room for ahi tuna tostadas and the delightfully messy zocalo grilled corn, which is smothered with lime aioli, chile powder, and cotija cheese. And because there are over 150 kinds of tequila, you’ll keep coming back for more. 94 Lafayette St., Salem, 978-594-5195; redlulusalem.com.

Tacos Lupita This is the amazing hole-in-the-wall place in Lynn (or Lawrence or Haverhill or Gloucester) you probably heard about from a friend of a friend. Though they may not look alike from the outside, these Tacos Lupitas are all owned by members of the same Salvadorian family and use the same recipes. The seemingly out-of-the-way locations aren’t stopping Tacos Lupita from having a line out the door on busy days, with the regulars (some come from Boston!) swearing by overstuffed steak burritos and, of course, the tacos. Popular for takeout or a casual quick bite on the go, the quality ingredients at rock-bottom prices can’t be beat. Many discover Tacos Lupita by pure accident, and with no official web presence, they aren’t easy to find—but perhaps that’s what makes discovering them all the better. 129 Munroe St., Lynn, 781-593-6437 (Lupita Restaurant, 22 Munroe St, Lynn, 781-599-3004); 505 Broadway, Lawrence, 978-681-4517; 194 River St., Haverhill, 978-374-1839; 68 Washington St., Gloucester, 978-282-9600.

Spicy Cucumber Margarita, Red Lulu

Margarita Maestro the art of cocktails with Josh Jamison, owner of Salem’s red lulu and 20-year veteran of mixology.

“The philosophy behind my cocktail menu is [to be] organic and intriguing. I like to work with the freshest ingredients, often combining flavors that would not otherwise be seen together—incorporating spices (like rosemary and basil) and fresh fruits. Each cocktail is carefully balance; when I say ‘balanced,’ I mean that the levels of alcohol, sugar, and acid must all be as one—no single element should take center stage.  It’s fun to push the boundaries when it comes to ingredients, but at the end of the day, it always must come down to taste and whether or not a guest will say, ‘I’d like another, please.’”

Spicy Cucumber Margarita 11/2 oz. Cabo Wabo blanco tequila 1/2–3/4 oz. Patron Citronge orange liqueur 2–3 oz. simple syrup 2–3 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice English cucumber slices Serrano chiles

Muddle three or four cucumber slices and Serrano chile slices together in bottom of mixing glass. Add tequila, orange liqueur, simple syrup, and fresh lime juice. Add ice and shake, then pour mixture into a rocks glass.

White Lie 3–4 lemon wedges 11/4 oz. Maestro Dobel tequila 11/4 oz. St. Germain 1 oz. basil-infused simple syrup 2 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice 1 oz. pink grapefruit juice 1/2 oz. guava puree

Muddle lemon wedges in bottom of mixing glass. Add remaining ingredients, shake, and strain over fresh ice in a wine glass. Garnish with a lime wheel and strawberries.

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