Conversations freeze. Searing meat on blistering cast iron replaces voices. The hiss of the final moments of red pepper juice striking the heat fizzles to a faint squeak. Intoxicating scents of paprika and steak swell the area. Trails of smoke linger behind.
This is no accident from the chef. No spontaneous fire from the kitchen. This is how Zarape Mexican restaurant does fajitas. Owners Rosa Varela and Gerado Guzman know Mexican food. The Mexican born couple is proud to plate up authentic, traditional, made to order dishes at their three-year-old restaurant in Marlborough, MA.
Despite the showmanship, Zarape remains a down to earth restaurant. Hidden behind a Laundromat and sandwiched between two houses, it’s a veiled treasure. Easily overlooked, the brick exterior blends into the neighboring surroundings. It is up to one three-foot-tall, weathered man to catch the attention of the hungry passerby; a sombrero clad statue of a man holding up a chalkboard menu.
Inside is not so mundane. Small and personal, the space crunch encourages you to make friends. Tables are tightly packed on the left while the bar engulfs the right. The tight squeeze makes for a small trail to the second dining room and kitchen. The bar is fully clad in alcohol but the short, stout bottles of tequila are the reigning champion. If you can see past the oversized cerulean margarita glasses dangling upside down, Tecate and Dos Equis are available in the mini fridge on the back counter.
The walls of both dining rooms are flushed in tangerine tinged by cobalt glass tiles. Geometric Aztec prints in waves of vivid colors run along the curtains, while striped ponchos, also knows as zarapes, hang from the walls. The tabletops and chairs match, each having snapshots of Mayan myths and folklore hand painted onto them. Even the bar countertop depicts a tale of the famous Mayan Hero Twins.
The music humming from the speakers is what is to be expected in a place like this. An up-tempo energy is kept up with fast guitars and the occasional “ole” from the band heard on the speakers. Trumpets and violins cry along to the well-placed ballad thrown into the mix.
With not much space to stand and wait for a table, a waiter immediately greets us with a warm “Hello friends!” as we enter the door. We are led quickly through the crowded room to our table in the second dining room. As we sit our glossy haired waiter/owner’s son, hands us our menus and mentions he’ll be back with chips and salsa.
The menu is cohesive with the décor – rich citrus colors and zarape stripes are on every page. The majority of the dishes on the menu are pictured on the sides, making it a quick read and we planned to order when our waiter came back. It doesn’t take us long to thumb through the choices: appetizers, kids, salads and soups, tacos, steaks, fajitas, seafood, and lunch and breakfast specials. The longest time spent looking at the menu is the section titled “Los Tradicionales” or the entrée dishes. All 10 choices here including tamales (12.99), chiles rellenos (15.99) and enchiladas (11.99) all come with rice and beans.
Our waiter returns with a bowl of chips and salsa and takes our drink and food order. The chips are your typical corn tortilla chips, freshly fried to a golden blonde. On the other hand, the salsa is anything but typical. Served to us in a granite mortar bowl sans pestle, the salsa is a lively red tainted with emerald green specks of cilantro. Lime, onion, cilantro, and jalapeno seeds give it an invigorating bite. Not to worry, the heat is tolerable not overbearing. Our waiter arrives in perfect time with our drinks just as the heat begins to build in my mouth. The sweet taste of my pineapple Jarrito, a Mexican soda brand, cools my pallet and sets me up for more.
We started with a single pupusa (2.00) and a lone tostada (2.00) as we waited for the main course. In simplest terms, a pupusa is a tortilla stuffed with cheese, similar to ravioli but about eight inches wide. The pupusa arrived plated up immersed in a sea of simple cabbage slaw; shredded cabbage doused in lemon juice. Not a perfect circle, the irregular roundness hinted at the fact the corn tortilla was freshly made. Melted cheddar cheese oozed out of the middle with every bite. The deep-fried, crisp tortilla of the tostada was impressive in the way it continued to hold up bite after bite under the weight of the shredded chicken, cheese, lettuce, pico de gallo, and guacamole piled on top.
Not a fan of rice and beans, three single chicken tacos on soft tortillas (2.50 each) were ordered instead of the taco dinner (12.99). Arriving on a large white plate with a side of lime wedges in a cobalt shot glass, the meal looked picturesque. The taco base was two soft corn tortillas thrown on the grill just long enough to be christened with faint grill marks. Diced grilled white meat chicken stained a rust color from the adobe spices were next on the tortilla. A nest of crisp lettuce, shredded carrots, cheese, and fresh pico de gallo lay next on top. The dollop of smooth, sweet guacamole created the perfect contrast to the gentle heat in the spice mix rubbed on the chicken.
Next up was the vegetarian dish, a fajita salad (10.99). A large tortilla bowl arrived golden yellow filled with lettuce, pinto beans, sautéed fajita veggies (mushrooms and red and green peppers), and fresh cut zucchini and tomatoes, topped with cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. The lettuce remained crisp under the warm, marinated veggies, an indicator of just how made to order the salad was.
Dessert consisted of an order of fried churros (4.99) of which a mix of powdered sugar and cinnamon rained upon. The fried dough sticks were crunchy on the outside but flawlessly smooth and soft on the inside. A dip in the warm, hot chocolate sauce provided on the side made the whole experience even more indulgent.
One thing to note is Zarape is closed on Mondays. They offer long hours for the other six days of the week usually most nights closing at 10 pm. Friday and Saturday the place closes at midnight.
With its petite size and overlooked exterior aside, Zarape is spicy in spirit. The menu boasts the restaurants strong point, a slew of savory dishes, and few sweet deserts to boot. The energetic decor adds an uplifting kick to your mood. Nevertheless, if the simplicity of authenticity ceases to amaze, one can always go for the theatrics of loud, sizzling meat.