Review: Nachomama's in Rock Hill

A short, stocky Mexican emigre named Pete Dominguez, who drove a huge Cadillac in the University of Texas colors of burnt orange and white, complete with plastic longhorns on the fenders and a horn that played  "The Eyes of Texas," introduced me to Tex-Mex cooking a long, long time ago.  His Dallas restaurant, Casa Dominguez, was an occasional hangout of friends and Texas writers like Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright and Dan Jenkins, and Pete was a gracious host when a party of coaches, staff, owners and traveling press from St. Louis would visit on a football weekend.

In those days – and you could look it up – the Cardinals went to Texas, kicked the cactus out of the Cowboys (remember 38-10 on a Monday night?) and came home with the plane laden with delicacies from Pete, who sent a delivery truck to the airport so that cartons of hot food would be waiting when we got there.  It was a little extra glow for the victory, and my Laclede Park neighbors would share in the leftovers, when there were some.

So Tex-Mex cooking, slightly hotter than the true Mexican variety but not of a style to blister the tongue, became a personal favorite, and so did Nachomama's, re-created from a fast-food joint in what the menu calls "downtown Rock Hill."  Like most other cooking, good Tex-Mex depends on proper raw material – beef that is shredded rather than ground, avocados that are soft and unctuous, beans that are more than a pasty mass, jalapenos that are crisp and properly peppery (picked, perhaps, by Peter Piper), a good use of tomatillos in the hot sauce.  

Nachomama's has been exemplary on all counts.

Even the rice, a dish the Guru once scorned the way he scorned all Mexican rice, has improved, with a judicious addition of pepper, and Margaritas are now on the menu – pre-mixed, of course, but of better-than-passable flavor.

Anyway, I've been eating in beautiful downtown Rock Hill since soon after Nachomama's opened in April, 1994, and have never had less than a satisfying and budget-happy meal.  Most times, the meal is splendid from start to finish.  Nachomama's, which also has a drive-up window for carryout orders, is in a one-time fast-food operation, and that heritage remains, but owners Steve and Nancy St. Eve have redecorated with old posters and license plates and things, and a soda tank that's only a little smaller than the stock tank where Cybill Shepherd swam in "The Last Picture Show."  The tank has a wide range of sodas and a large handful of beers and teas, and even milk, a rarity in too many St. Louis restaurants.

Like the fast-food spot that left a space for Nachomama the way a crab often leaves a shell where another animal can nest, this is a restaurant where you line up, place an order, get a drink, find a seat and wait to be called.  The system works satisfactorily, and orders come up rapidly.  It's a small place, but customers move in and out, always in better spirits when they leave than when they arrived.  Softball players and graduate students, technicians and mechanics share recommendations, hot sauce, chips and the occasional conversation.  Parents and children spend considerable time, and there's always someone in a corner, deep in an enchilada and a book.  Several publications, like Don Corrigan's Webster-Kirkwood Times and Sauce Magazine, are in racks for reading while waiting.

And while you read, there are chips to munch. Three or four sauces and salsas sit on the counter, rated from mild to exhaust temperature on Apollo, along with a small bowl of chopped jalapenos, the seeds mostly removed.  By the way, it's the seeds that cause the heat of the peppers.  Beware of whole peppers at Mexican or Chinese or Thai restaurants, or be ready to hear, through the pain, the voice of Bill Clinton saying, "It's the seeds, stupid!"

A small chalkboard with specials is an addendum to the menu, which leads with the restaurant's specialty, a marinated and wood-roasted chicken.  The meat is moist and flavorful, with overtones of salt and pepper, but perhaps a ground cayenne or chipotle instead of the standard black.  In any event, it has been slow roasted, and while the skin is not crisp, it is extremely tasty and the meat is delicious.  Like everything else on the menu, chickens are available to enjoy at the restaurant or to take out – a quarter, a half or a whole, served with beans and rice, and wheat flour tortillas.

The chalkboard seems to be an almost permanent home to a portabello quesadilla, which is a delight, with the musky mushrooms permeating the tortilla.  On a recent visit, fresh tamales and spinach enchiladas also were being promoted.  Both were excellent.  I'm a fan of tamales, and these were delicious.  So was the spinach enchilada, as are the beef, chicken or cheese-stuffed varieties.  Guacamole, chunky and luscious, is an excellent appetizer spread upon chips which are crisp and fresh, too, with no greasy aftertaste.

The entire menu has been a delight -- nachos or enchiladas or chalupas or burritos or chimichangas, soft or crisp tacos, filled with beans or chicken or beef and available in a variety of mix-and-match platters.  Mrs. Guru is especially fond of the soft tacos.  The beans are different from the usually mashed and sauteed variety.  They have cheese and often lard, which adds to the flavor – and also the calories.  Those at Nachomama's are pinto beans, cooked to be tender but not mushy and they have a little added flavor.  I like to add even more flavor with some hot sauce.  

Fajitas, of chicken, beef or grilled vegetables, are tempting, and the grilled, marinated steak is a winner.  Fresh tortillas are a proper accompaniment, though I admit I'd rather have corn than wheat flour. For the picky child eater, there also is that great Mexican delicacy, peanut butter and jelly.

Serving personnel and everyone else behind the counter are friendly, and the smiles simply add to the pleasures of a meal at Nachomama's.