By Beth Mack
January 16, 2021
Photo: Javier Morales
Home. In a city notoriously known for transplants, ask Charlotteans what home means to them and you will commonly hear the same things: family, friends, and food. Located in Charlotte’s self-proclaimed Little Mexico on Central Avenue, Tacos El Nevado has been providing that sense of home for Hispanics in Charlotte for the past 13 years. Visit the restaurant and you’ll find patrons, largely of Mexican heritage, speaking their native language and sharing a taste of home in an atmosphere reminiscent of Mexico. The owners of Tacos El Nevado have devoted themselves to honoring their Oaxacan heritage and traditions through their recipes and cooking methods that have been passed down for generations and transcended over a 2,000 mile immigration.
Oaxaca (wa-ha-ka), a largely rural, mountainous south Mexican state bordering the Pacific Ocean, is a gastronomic hub of Mexico. With a climate similar to North Carolina and an economy heavily reliant on agriculture, Oaxacan cuisine incorporates more of the abundant fruits and vegetables into their food than other Mexican cuisines. The area is best known for its tlayudas (lay-u-dahs), an Oaxacan take on pizza, and their numerous varieties of mole.
As you may have guessed, Tacos El Nevado started with its tacos, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg in their story. In the early ‘80s, the largely rural state of Oaxaca had an economic downturn leading many Oaxacans to leave their homeland in search of a more prosperous life. The Tacos El Nevado story starts here, with the immigration of husband and wife team, Victor Santiago and Isela Juarez-Ramirez. Born with a gift to cook and the experience of having worked in the gastronomic hub of Oaxaca before she immigrated to the United States, Isela dreamed of opening a restaurant one day in the States to continue to share her love of food and to preserve traditional Oaxacan cuisine. Armed with her mother’s recipes and with the help of Victor, Isela’s dream took shape in 2008 when they started selling tacos from a cart off of Central Avenue. As word spread about their tacos, business grew and they opened their first brick and mortar restaurant, La Guelaguetza, off of Eastway Drive in 2009. In homage to Oaxacan culture, they named it after a renowned festival held in Oaxaca every July that celebrates the indigenous cultures of the state. It was at this restaurant where they were able to expand beyond tacos and offer more traditional authentic Oaxacan cuisine.
In a time with few traditional Mexican restaurants, Charlotteans responded overwhelmingly enough to warrant Victor and Isela to open another restaurant, Tacos El Nevado, off of Central Avenue in 2009. This location has a smaller kitchen, so they offer more street food. They quickly became a Charlotte staple for authentic tacos. Business was good at both restaurants until the recession, when Victor and Isela decided to close their flagship restaurant, La Guelaguetza, in 2010.
Luckily for Charlotte, Victor and Isela persisted. Fueled by their passion to share a robust offering of authentic Oaxacan cuisine and their loyal customer base, Victor and Isela opened another Tacos El Nevado off of South Boulevard in 2012. Having a larger kitchen and more seating, this location enabled Isela to expand the menu once again to offer traditional Oaxacan foods.
With the help of family, they proceeded to open another Oaxacan restaurant, La Oaxaquena Taqueria in 2016. Located in Naples, Florida, this restaurant is operated by Victor and Isela’s daughter, Ana Santiago, and niece, Patricia Mali. The second one, located in Wilmington, NC is operated by Victor’s cousin Patricia. Today, Victor, Isela and their son, Chris, operate the South Boulevard Tacos El Nevado location, while Isela’s sister Vianey Juarez Ramirez, her husband Heriberto Mali, and niece Nereyda, operate the Central Avenue location.
In a world where few things are homemade, especially food, Tacos El Nevado has stayed true to its roots making virtually everything from scratch, ranging from handmade corn tortillas to the three varieties of fresh salsa. They even hire people to import ingredients directly, not just from Mexico, but Oaxaca, every two weeks. All of this is not only done to preserve the authentic flavors of Oaxaca, but also to support their fellow Oaxacans still residing in Mexico. The restaurant also supports fellow immigrants right here in Charlotte by working with immigrant-run businesses utilizing their products at their restaurants. One example of this is the bread for their torta sandwiches, which is purchased from Panaderia Odalys, a Mexican bakery located off South Boulevard.
In 2019, as more Mexican immigrants arrived in Charlotte and word of mouth spread, the overwhelming patronage prompted Victor and Isela to take over the operation of a Mexican grocery store, Mini-Super El Nevado, located in the same building as their Central Avenue location. They were also able to expand seating in the restaurant.
A testament to the food, despite the pandemic that has ravaged many restaurants across Charlotte and the country, business did not skip a beat for the Tacos El Nevado empire. The Santiagos’ son, Chris, credits their incredible, predominantly Mexican customer base. At their Central Avenue location, it is common for lines to easily wrap around the outside of the restaurant during peak lunch and dinner times.
Open the doors at Tacos El Nevado at Central and you will find a welcoming atmosphere with vibrant orange walls, colorful Mexican décor, and mariachi music playing softly in the background of this quaint restaurant. From hand-painted tables and chairs imported from Mexico to their associates whose first language is Spanish, Tacos El Nevado is as authentic as it gets.
While tacos remain one of their most popular menu items, don’t overlook the rest of the menu. For a true taste of Oaxaca, the tlayudas are a must with a large handmade tortilla and quesillo (Oaxacan cheese) that are both directly imported from Oaxaca, topped with meat of your choosing, black beans, avocado, tomato and cabbage. Another best seller is the torta– a large bolillo roll (a type of sandwich roll) fresh from Panaderia Odalays stuffed with a variety of meat, beans, lettuce, tomato, jalapeno, avocado, mayo, and cheese– that will definitely fill you up. With five varieties to choose from ranging from the breakfast centric Albañileras torta, Hawiiiana, and of course the Oaxaqueñas, there is a torta to satisfy whatever craving you may have.
If you want to taste where it all started and try the tacos, you won’t be disappointed. With a cooked-to-order, handmade tortilla– filled with one of their 12 flavorful meats served with onion, cilantro, and lime wedges– you can’t go wrong. And, while not posted on their menu, Tacos El Nevado also offers one of the hottest emerging food trends: birria tacos. Birria tacos are made with stewed meat (traditionally goat but can be made with lamb or beef) and served in a corn tortilla that is dipped in the consomme from the stewed meat, before it’s filled with meat and pan fried until crispy. If all of that is not enough, birria tacos are served with onion, cilantro, and a bowl of the consomme for dipping. These are the most savory, comforting tacos you will find.
From the sopes (a traditional Mexican dish with a thick tortilla and various toppings) to the guacamole, their food not only speaks for itself, but for the love and perseverance of Oaxacan culture and family tradition. It feels like home for many.
In this article
- Ana Santiago
- birria tacos
- central avenue
- Dipping Tacos
- Heriberto Mali
- Isela Juarez-Ramirez
- La Guelaguetza
- La Oaxaquena Taqueria
- Little Mexico
- Nereyda Mali
- north carolina
- Oaxacan culture
- Panaderia Odaly
- Patricia Mali
- South Blvd
- South Boulevard
- Tacos El Nevado
- Vianey Juarez Ramirez
- Victor Santiago