Antojitos Izcalli: A 100% authentic Mexican restaurant experience—without the Iguana Grill BS
623 Hargrove Rd E
Antojitos is what many foodies lovingly cast as a hole in the wall. It’s small and somewhat out of the way, but the hole in the wall moniker usually carries a little more weight than that.
Calling a restaurant a hole in the wall is a lot like your mom complementing your college apartment. Sure, it’s nice, but she’d never live there, and it certainly doesn’t compare to her million dollar estate.
Unlike other taquerias in town, Antojitos Izcalli isn’t directly connected to a tienda or grocery. It’s a small restaurant located in a tiny four store shopping plaza off McFarland Boulevard. Patrons choose their own seating and, if the restaurant gets crowded during rush hour, are encouraged to share tables with other parties, since the restaurant only holds about 35 patrons max. Two TVs tuned to Latinx channels, usually fútbol or noticias, project rapid Spanish from newscasters, which fits right in with the humdrum of the kitchen.
Three specialty beverages that are prepared fresh, such as horchata or freshly squeezed juice, and sodas in glass bottles are the only drink options. The menu consists of traditional Mexican dishes such as sopes (fried masa topped with refried beans, a meat, crumbled cheese, lettuce and sour cream) and pambazos (bread stuffed with potatoes and chorizo, then dipped in red guajillo pepper sauce and topped with crumbled cheese, lettuce and sour cream). On the weekends, you’ll find tamales—pork, chicken, or cheese and green chile—and posole, a Mexican soup made with chicken and hominy.
Also available are street tacos filled with your choice of a variety of meats: asada, chorizo, barbazoa, chicken, al pastor, beef tongue, beef cheek, and beef head. To the side of the restaurant near the kitchen window is a small bar with a wide array of toppings including juicy limes, diced onion, fresh cilantro, pickled carrots and jalapeños, and a variety of homemade salsas. Usually, I opt for the street tacos. They’re easy and quick to eat, and relatively inexpensive.
Today, I needed something more filling. Today, I ordered a gordita al pastor.
The gordita is a cocoon of thick masa roasted in a frying pan then split open and stuffed with meat, crumbled cheese, lettuce and sour cream. At first bite, your mouth is immediately overwhelmed by the crunchiness of the masa, the heartiness of the meat, and the lightness of the lettuce. As you keep devouring the sandwich/taco hybrid, the flavors of the meat intermingle with the masa and the lettuce softens just a bit, and you find yourself eating faster and faster until your plate is empty and you’re absolutely satisfied. The pocket full of the flavors of Mexico has slain your hunger.
Eating the gordita was blissful, and I could feel Mexico calling me through this little hole in the wall.
Iguana Grill, on the other hand, much like your mom’s house, is comfortable. Located in the busy Midtown Village shopping center, it’s a favorite lunch or dinner destination for tourists and local well-to-do shoppers alike. As soon as you walk through the doors, you’re greeted by an overload of Mexican décor: Moravian stars, fake palm trees, wrought iron window grates. Playing overhead is cheery but not too distracting Mariachi music interspersed with the occasional Pit Bull song or, worse still, Justin Bieber’s “Despacito.”
As you’re led to your seat, you’ll find that the restaurant is massive. On one side is an expansive room with rows of booths and tables surrounded by equipale chairs. On the other side is the bar, stocked to the ceiling with liquor of every species and adorned with flat screen TVs. Cinco de Drinko…right?
Iguana Grill’s menu attempts a more upscale variety of Mexican dishes. Appetizers include the usual suspects—cheese dip, guacamole, salsa—and one inharmonious buffalo wing plate. Main courses are comprised of shrimp plates, steaks, fajitas, and chimichangas. There are no a la carte options. The dessert menu includes churros, flan, fried ice cream and, an abomination, a chimichanga cheesecake.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that cheesecake wrapped in a tortilla and deep fried would be sinfully delicious. But it doesn’t quite strike me as authentic as the restaurant would like to pretend.
My partner and I ordered two classic entrees, fajitas and a combo plate that included a cheese enchilada, a chicken burrito, and a chicken quesadilla.
The combo plate was exactly what Americans have come to expect from their local Mexican restaurant. Dependable. Safe.
The red sauce on the enchilada and the burrito had a tinge of extra tomato reminiscent of ketchup. The chicken in both the burrito and quesadilla was overwhelmingly stringy and impossible to cut into manageable bits.
But overall, it was pretty good. The food was hot, and the cheese melted all the way through. It wasn’t the kind of meal that I left raving about or complaining about. It was just—expected.
The fajitas were pretty standard fare as well.
My partner enjoyed his meal, but wished he had more than four small tortillas. He also noted that the peppers and onions were unevenly cooked—some were burned to a crispy brown while others seemed almost raw. The beans and rice were not unusually striking, and the chicken had very little flavor.
Again, it wasn’t the worst meal he’d ever had by far. In fact, he agreed that he’d go back when he was hungry for an America’s take on Mexican cuisine.
And I realized what it is—the key difference between Iguana Grill and Antojitos Izcalli.
Antojitos Izcalli is an embodiment of Mexico—it gets you damn close to the real thing. It’s meant for everyone: local working people, couples on a date, families looking for an inexpensive dinner. The ingredients are fresh and leave you feeling satisfied but not overindulged.
Iguana Grill is a fabricated idea of Mexico. It’s the image that everyday Americans like to hold dear to their hearts, a snippet of a place that truly doesn’t exist, an end of semester drinking holiday, or spring break vacation to a tourist trap city.
So, I suppose that leaves restaurant goers with pretty clear choice: Either go to Antojitos Izcalli and get damn good food paired with an authentic atmosphere or go to Iguana Grill and get mediocre, expensive food and a fabricated idea of an atmosphere.
My advice? Give the hole in the wall a chance.