Even those who haven’t stopped in for a visit to Little Havana’s Taquerias El Mexicano probably recall cruising down Calle Ocho and seeing the brightly colored building with neon signs that help make its presence known. Inside, customers find wooden tables sitting on clay-colored tiles, colorful Mexican tapestries and sombreros like the walls, pinatas hanging from the ceiling, and the intoxicating smell of homemade tortillas.
Not many Mexican restaurants in Miami have stood the test of time like Taquerias El Mexicano. For the last three decades, the restaurant has remained a staple in the city by attracting a steady regular crowd while also keeping the attention of the tourists visiting the area. Today, the restaurant is working to hold onto that loyal fan base through menu adjustments and changes of ownership.
“It’s the kind of place we’d go for a home-cooked meal when we don’t feel like cooking for ourselves,” longtime customer Alexandra Lopez says. “Every visit we feel like we’re greeted as family, and each meal is just as comforting and special as the last. Our children basically grew up at Taquerias El Mexicano — we’ve been regulars for 20 years.”
The 34-year-old Mexican restaurant features a menu that’s got all the expected staples — tacos with various fillings, enchiladas smothered in an assortment of sauces, quesadillas oozing cheese, and, of course, combo plates. Over the years the prices have remained low and consistent — $13 is still enough to purchase a massive platter of food, including one tostada, one enchilada, one taco, rice and beans, and bottomless chips and salsa.
It all started with cousins Guillermo and Mario Martínez, who moved to the United States and landed in Chicago. They quickly became a part of the Lower West Side neighborhood, a predominantly Mexican area, and threw themselves into the music, the culture, and the food.
In 1985, they left Chicago and arrived on Calle Ocho to embark on their first venture together: Taquerias El Mexicano. The dream was to create a celebration of Mexico in the heart of Little Havana, a mostly Cuban neighborhood. They created a family-friendly place where their recipes took center stage, according to current co-owner Zack Bush.
But the menu was filled with more than just tacos and burritos. Guests fell in love with dishes like the tamale wrapped in corn husks and covered in red chile sauce, the chicken thighs in a rich mole sauce made with black pepper, cinnamon, and cumin, and enchiladas verde. The little restaurant that could quickly became a meeting place for local and international personalities looking for Mexican cuisine in Miami.
After 30 years in business, the Martinez family decided it was time to retire, and local restaurant group Mad Room Hospitality acquired the property. Mad Room is the same team credited for reviving neighboring Ball & Chain, a legendary Little Havana lounge and bar that opened in the 1930s and boasted regular Billie Holiday and Count Basie performances. The group knew the importance of preserving the historic spirit of Taquerias El Mexicano, and vowed to honor its legacy.
“We love historic venues and properties. We had been longtime fans and patrons of the business for many, many years,” says Bush. “When the opportunity arrived for us to carry on the incredible Taquerias El Mexicano legacy, we jumped at the opportunity. Taquerias El Mexicano is a staple in the community — we are incredibly proud to carry this torch.”
Along with the commitment to preserving the restaurant’s atmosphere, the owners looked for areas where they could make improvements while maintaining the low prices. They switched to making their own tortillas again, and made sure the enchilada and salsa verde sauces, along with the popular “welcome” salsa, were all made fresh at the restaurant each day. The regulars took notice — but they weren’t instantly open to the change, criticizing the new salsa recipe, among other adjustments. Over the years, loyal customers had grown to love the canned salsa and were caught off guard by the new fresh version.
“My wife and I have been coming to this restaurant for years because of how great and authentic the tacos along with the food was. And ever since they switched owners the food quality and flavor went down. They changed all the salsas and tacos which in my opinion were perfect and now they are horrible,” said Yelper Gabriel R. in 2017.
Over time, a happy medium was reached: Now, employees use the canned salsa as a base and add fresh ingredients, creating a salsa recipe that appeased customers and management alike. Sourcing fresh ingredients and revamping the kitchen to feature dishes without pre-made shortcuts like canned sauces or store-bought tortillas were the biggest challenges during the transition, which took place more than two years ago — and was only announced in late 2018.
The announcement about the new management didn’t come right away because the Mad Room team wanted to learn everything they could about their new venture. Getting the restaurant to be exactly where they wanted it was important. “You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and this is something we take very seriously,” says Bush.
The new owners have added some best-selling dishes, like the “mountain of tacos” (a choice of seven tacos) for $21, guacamole with sunflower seeds and green apples, and frozen horchatas.
As part of the restaurant’s update, they also revamped the forgotten space upstairs. The Los Altos Banquet Hall, also owned by the Martinez family, located above the taco shop was once a place for hosting quinceanera and wedding celebrations. Now it’s Los Altos, a sleek mezcal-fueled lounge open Thursday through Sunday evenings. Large green couches and girls dressed as sexy dancing luchadoras wait behind thick velvet curtains, discovered only when guests figure out where the entrance is.
The speakeasy spot has brought new life to the area, creating a late-night crowd that lingers until 3 a.m. As nightlife veterans, Mad Room Hospitality is thrilled with how they’ve been able to fuse the old-school restaurant with the new lounge vibe upstairs. “We see nothing but pinatas, tacos, and margaritas in our future,” Bush says.