Villa del Mar, like so many of Greensboro’s best restaurants, is tucked at the end of a strip mall on Gate City Boulevard.
The colorful signs and pictures on the storefront windows highlight delicious-looking menu items like tacos (on special Tuesdays and Thursdays), aguas frescas and sopes, while other outside decorations wouldn’t be out of place in an Old West saloon. In fact, in the mid-afternoon August heat, it isn’t so hard to imagine being in the high desert.
On Monday, Villa Del Mar will host Ethnosh NoshUp, the international food adventurers, to showcase the cuisine and culture of Mexico.
At this NoshUp, you can meet owners Marcos and Mary Medina and their staff who bring all of this goodness to your city. For $8, you get you a plate full of signature samplers. Beer, margaritas and other beverages are available at an additional cost. Electronic reservations are required to attend.
Before I get to what’s inside the doors, let’s start with a little word association.
Are you envisioning a trembling, bug-eyed dog? Fair. But those of you more internationally minded might envision the largest state in Mexico, which shares a long border with New Mexico and Texas. This Chihuahua is where Marcos Medina’s story and the story of Villa del Mar begin.
Chihuahua, like Texas, is a land of wide open spaces — a land of deserts, canyons and ranches. Chihuahuan ranchers raise beef cattle prized throughout Mexico. This ranch culture permeates the state: You can hear it in the norteña music with its accordions and see it in the vaquero (cowboy) gear that dominates fashion.
The décor of Villa del Mar reflects the influence of the Medinas’ home state. The walls are covered in memorabilia — tourist posters for Chihuahua, paintings of adobe buildings and deserts, and advertisements for flour tortillas (more popular than their corn brethren in northern parts of Mexico).
All of the items have been collected and curated by the Medina family over the years. But one piece in particular holds particular importance for Marcos: the metal jug that his father would carry from his home in Parral, Chihuahua, to the closest ranch to fill with milk so that the family could drink it and so his mother could make natas (a version of clotted cream).
Marcos grew up and studied in Parral, where he ate his mother’s natas and rice and beans and enchiladas — the same food prepared fresh daily at Villa del Mar. It is where he married his wife, Mary.
Eventually, Marcos and his family moved to Juarez, on the border with El Paso, but found that life there was too difficult because of the economy. In 1997, he and his family moved to Greensboro.
It wasn’t easy at first: Marcos worked at a truck wash and other small jobs with two children to support. In 2004, he and his family fulfilled their dream of business ownership when they opened Taquería La Chihuahua in the site of the former Coliseum Inn. They were doing pretty well, but in 2006, the original owner of Villa del Mar approached them with an offer to sell. They haven’t looked back.
Except they have, because everything is inspired by their Chihuahuan roots. The recipes are Marcos’ mother’s recipes. The two main cooks, who have been with Marcos for the past 10 years, since he bought the restaurant, also hail from Chihuahua.
The menu offers a staggering number of options that range far beyond the standard “chicken, beef or pork” and rewards those willing to have an adventure.
Marcos is particularly proud of his seafood selection. Diners know that if they order aguachile — a version of ceviche, raw fish or shrimp “cooked” in lemon juice and other delicious things — they will have to wait, because it is made fresh to order.
He is also proud of his antojitos, which literally translates as “little whims” and refers to the more snack-y street food normally prepared in market stalls. While tacos are standard fare (and they are delicious), Villa del Mar offers them in 21 flavors, including not only chorizo (spicy sausage), chivo (goat), and al pastor (pork with pineapple), but also even more exotic options like buche (pork stomach), tripa (intestines), lengua (tongue) and cabeza (beef head).
The vegetarians and vegans among us can also rejoice: There are sautéed veggies and nopalitos (strips of grilled cactus that are slightly slimy but very addictive). These options can also be placed in tortas (sandwiches that include beans, avocado, onion, and jalapeños), burritos, sopes (a thick, fried corn tortilla with open-faced toppings), and flautas. My math days are far behind me, but just to eat through the antojito menu would require about 105 visits, and that’s not even getting to the entrees.
Marcos and his family are always experimenting with the menu while remaining true to their roots. He pays close attention to what menu items are selling, and what is ignored. He noticed that the “gringos” tend to particularly like his Salsa Diabla and offered more things “a la diabla.”
The response was so good that he even began bottling the sauce under the name A la Brava and selling it at local grocery stores such as Compare Foods and Super G. While his main focus is his restaurant, he is also excited at the entrepreneurial possibilities that the sauce represents. He is in talks with other grocery stores across the state and hopes to be able to export his sauce to Mexico, where he has many connections and where his parents still live.
Marcos is justifiably proud of his restaurant. He and his family have learned the restaurant business and about life in America by doing and experimenting, always trying new things. And isn’t that the American dream?
So, in the spirit of the Medina family, I leave you with this challenge: Try a new restaurant. Find something new on the menu. Try giving in to an antojito or two. And the next time you hear the word Chihuahua, don’t just think about the dog.
In a former life, Sarah Gulley Neas was an avid traveler who studied in Guatemala, Argentina, Spain and Senegal, and taught in Lebanon. Now she is happily rooted in Greensboro, where she lives with her husband and daughter, teaches ESOL and Spanish at the American Hebrew Academy and explores the world through the many people who come to Greensboro.
Carolyn de Berry is a Greensboro-based photographer specializing in documentary, event and landscape photography. She is a partner and photographer at Monkeywhale Productions.