(In First Look, we pay a quick visit to a new restaurant or bar in Central New York to give readers an idea of what to expect. Our food critics might visit these places eventually and give us their take, but we want to highlight what’s new in our area. If you know of a new place, send an email to [email protected] or call/text me at 315-382-1984.)
Syracuse, N.Y. — Downtown Syracuse has had Tex-Mex food for a couple years, and it got a new California-Mex restaurant last month. Still, members of our Where Syracuse Eats Facebook page have been jonesing for a downtown restaurant that serves authentic Mexican dishes.
Well, the wait is finally over. Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant opened a few weeks ago for takeout-only as it waited for an in-person dining permit. On Friday, the city granted owner Salvador Ramirez’s request to open the dining room. Now customers can eat at one of the 12 booths inside or the six tables outside the restaurant on West Water Street below the towering Art-Deco National Grid building.
Guadalajara occupies the southeast corner of the Creekwalk Commons building, next to Cafe Kubal and behind Talking Cursive Brewing Co.’s tasting room.
Salvador, 55, grew up in Mexico and has worked in the restaurant business since moving to California in 1983. He cooked in the Golden State for several years before moving to New York. Most recently he was a manager at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant in Liverpool.
Early last year, he and two friends decided they wanted to work for themselves rather than cook someone else’s recipes. When Covid-19 forced restaurants to close their dining rooms last March, they methodically searched for an ideal location to build their own kitchen. They settled on a shuttered convenience store that had served the residents of Creekside Commons and nearby businesses.
They gutted the interior and added a kitchen with deep-fryers to cook their own tortilla chips, a flattop griddle to grill chicken, steak, pork and fish, and plenty of prepping stations to store the fresh-cut vegetables and grated cheeses.
“The menu at Rio Grande is very similar to mine, and it’s good,” he said on Monday. “But our food is truly authentic. It’s very different. Every one of my dishes comes from my grandfather’s recipes handed down over generations.”
About that menu: Guadalajara’s menu is so big that you could eat here every day for seven months and never have to eat the same entrée twice. The first five pages detail 224 meals originally created in Michoacán, a state in southwestern Mexico. The menu’s sixth page lists dozens of drinks including 11 margaritas and 18 tequilas. (Their liquor license should arrive within the month, Salvador said.)
“I don’t want people to get bored. I want them to return to try something very different,” Salvador said. “We will cook it however you want. You want hot? I’ll make it extra spicy. You want it mild, I’ll do that too.”
I ate here four times and was treated to a vastly different experience during each visit. I almost always went with the extra hot, and Salvador threw in a cup of his homemade hot sauce.
Each visit was prepared quickly. I usually ordered two or three entrées, and the cooks had them done and plated within 5 minutes.
Most of the dishes are served with rice and refried beans. The beans are meat- and lard-free. The rice stayed loose and didn’t get sticky at all.
Your order will come with a bag of the chips made each morning and a cup of pico de gallo. This cold salsa carries a slight zing brought on by what I’m guessing are some bits of serrano peppers mixed with chopped tomato, onion, a bit of salt, lime juice and cilantro.
TIP: Be sure to NOT wolf down all the chips on your way back to the office or home. Twice I made that mistake, and twice I found myself unable to finish my meal.
You must try …
Chipotle Burrito ($9.25): While “researching” this story, I went through three burritos. I can’t decide which one was better: this one or El Burrito Verde ($8.75).
The chipotle burrito was filled with grilled chicken, rice and beans and topped with a cheese sauce, pico de gallo sour cream and guacamole. Eduardo, a reader who enjoyed this burrito made by Ricardo, said “It had just enough get-up-and-go to make you sip a glass of water, but the cheese cooled things down a bit. ¡Es muy bueno!”
El Burrito Verde was filled with pork, grilled onions and covered in green salsa. This wasn’t the least bit offensive to the senses, so I just dunked it in Salvador’s special sauces.
The shells on both were slightly doughy—in a good way—probably because of the to-go containers.
Arroz con Pollo ($8.75): Rice with chicken is a popular Latin American dish, and has several variations. What sets the version at Guadalajara apart from many others is the cheese. Salvador grates it himself.
The dish has the standard ingredients of yellow rice and chunks of chicken, mixed with generous amounts of green peppers, onions and tomatoes. It’s well-seasoned, but it isn’t spicy hot. That’s why some of us choose to ask Salvador for a few extra cups of his hot pepper sauce.
I gave one of these to my colleague Don Cazentre, a food and beverage writer for The Post-Standard. “At Guadalajara, the cheese, listed on the menu as cheese dip, is the glue that holds the whole thing together,” he said. “Each bite delivers a gooey cheese texture that binds the chicken, rice and veggies into one single satisfying package.”
Fajitas Texanas ($11): Usually a Tex-Mex chain will offer chicken or beef for their fajitas. Guadalajara has both. But get this: They throw in some shrimp! You’re getting an entire farm in this delicacy.
The menu says you get two tortillas; I got three. That still wasn’t enough because there was enough food to fill maybe five of the soft shells.
The beans serve as a binder that hold everything together and keep the veggies from spilling all over your lap. (I did get a mess of green salsa on my white t-shirt, though.) This meal is certainly enough for two, especially if you do what I did and pass the time by munching on tortilla chips.
Tacos a la Diabla ($13): These are nothing like something you’d find at your nearby Taco Bell. For one thing, there’s no lettuce, tomatoes or cheese. This is how tacos are supposed to be.
You choose between flour or corn tortillas. Inside is just spiced-up meat (steak and chorizo) and a green onion stalk. That’s it.
You get a side of rice and beans, and it comes with a cup of tomato sauce and a serving of pico de gallo. These are pretty much just Mexican street tacos, just larger.
The venue: Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant, 324 W. Water St., Syracuse. (315) 552-1300
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Credit cards? Yes
Parking: Plenty of on-street parking. Just be sure to feed the meter if you park outside during lunch on a weekday.
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