EATS & DRINKS
Delicious Mexican cuisine created with fresh ingredients
By Case Dighero
Photos by Meredith Mashburn
1 E. Center St., #160 Pryor Center, Fayetteville
I find Mexican cuisine to be as diverse, interesting and narrative in nature as any other on the planet. Aside from its accessible, chill vibe and delicious fare, perhaps the greatest virtue of Tula, the newest restaurant to open on the Fayetteville Square, is its practice of exposing familiar, traditional Mexican food in a completely new, re-energized way.
Tula quietly opened its doors in early January in a former bank building that myriad eateries have occupied over the years –including some of my favorites. Rest assured, at Tula it only took one sip, a single bite followed by a deep sigh, to make me feel right at home.
The bar, visible through the entrance vestibule of the building, features a vibrant blue painted brick wall that is sharp and bright – a perfect spot for imbibing before entering the dining room, where the lights become dramatically muted. The bartender is busy, enthusiastically muddling, stirring and shaking drinks for the guests crowded around her. On my first visit, I had an opportunity to sample the Tula Cafe ($9), a rich concoction layered with Patron XO Cafe, bourbon, vanilla syrup and cold brewed Arsaga’s coffee. The sweet, leathery taste revealed great potential for a post-dinner drink. The menu boasts a number of archetype cocktails such as margaritas and palomas, but done in new and exciting ways – one example is the Smoked Mangonada Margarita ($14) designed with Patron reposado, smoked Patron Citronge, sweet mango and fresh lime juice. But perhaps my favorite on the list is the brilliantly simple but satisfying Detox Tonic ($11) made with Patron Silver, tonic, mint and fresh cucumber – a devilishly sensual drink and ideal palate cleanser before a rich, delicious dinner in the room next door.
Tula works its magic at both lunch and dinner, but it’s also great for noshing on small plates with friends after work or on the weekends. A special beer tap system located along the entrance wall allows diners to preload a swipe card for access to a plethora of cervezas, also a great incentive for dining with small or large groups. Nothing in the world goes better with beer than Ceviche ($12), fresh fish and shrimp tossed gently with pico, serrano peppers, cilantro and fresh squeezed lime. But let’s not overlook the fanciful Queso Fundido ($10) – melted, stringy Chihuahua cheese, red chorizo, oregano and roasted poblano peppers served alongside warm maize tortillas. This completely satisfying dish is one of my favorites at Tula. I could make a meal of the earthy corn tortillas wrapped around spicy cheese and smoky peppers...culinary nirvana.And while we’re getting our hands dirty, why not try the Elote ($6) – grilled corn on the cob, slathered in cotija cheese, warm drawn butter and a whisper of arbol chili powder. Of course, I spied other diners using a knife and fork on their Elote, but please trust in knowing that it will taste better if using your fingers.
The dining room at Tula is exceptional. I love sitting close to the windows that look out over the picturesque Fayetteville Square. The entire room is enveloped in warm, subtle and muted light, and each table is graced with a single aloe plant. A large pink-and-blue mural, hand-painted by artist Caite Mae Ramos, glows as a thing of beauty. It works not only as a clever trick of ambience, but also as a large-scale public art exhibition of Ramos’ detailed, stylized work.
At dinner, the Tula kitchen churns out rustic, but elevated, fare in ways that are simultaneously familiar and innovative. Consider the Torta Ahogada ($12), Bolillo bread chock-full of refried beans, braised carnitas, tomato sauce and arbol chili salsa – a nearly deconstructed sandwich, turned up on its head both physically and figuratively. Another standout is the Pozole Verde ($15), a brothy stew of tomatillo, buttery hominy, braised pork shoulder, cabbage, radish and pork rinds that is large enough to be shared by two people, but only if I’m not one of those two people.
As a fan of traditional Spanish paella, I relish Tula’s version of Arroz a la Tumbada (market price), a layer of rice embellished with shrimp, scallops, mussels, lobster broth and spicy roasted tomato salsa. Perhaps my favorite on the dinner menu is the Costilla ($18), luscious, slow-braised guajillo marinated beef short ribs served over fluffy, buttery mashed potatoes. And the Chile en Nogada ($13) is to die for, a plump poblano pepper stuffed with ground pork picadillo, walnut sauce and tiny pomegranate seeds that “pop” with every bite – divine. Have no fear if you’re a vegetarian, because the kitchen also cranks out deconstructed Tacos al Carbon ($14) that include pretty grilled vegetables alongside roasted peppers, pinto beans and homemade corn tortillas.
Dessert can often be excessive, superfluous after a long dinner, but please make time — and allow room — for the small, delicious sweet offerings at Tula, specifically Churros con Chocolate ($6) or the ethereal Arroz con Leche ($5) made of delicate, wobbly rice pudding kissed with fresh ground cinnamon.
Unión de Tulais the name of a beautiful city located in the Jalisco region of central-western Mexico. In fact, the name itself is an acronym of the four families who founded the municipality in the 16th century. I can’t help but think that those four families would find solace in knowing that the heart and spirit of Tula is beating in the center of our community in a completely new, re-energized way.