Local ingredients, international flavors and legendary empanadas at Tapas 51

By Lindsay Kosma

August 16, 2016

Upon entering Tapas 51, an unassuming restaurant located in Fort Mill, South Carolina, there was a resonance of 90’s hip-hop coming from the back of the bar, where Chef Aaron Rivera greeted us. Though there was a bustle of activity as staff prepared for their night shift to begin, the tone was very relaxed. We were guided through the main dining area to a side room with a long wooden table. ‘What do you guys want to eat?’ asked Chef Aaron. Again, very relaxed. He explained that lately he has been changing up the menu almost daily and, while they keep a few staple menu items, there is always something new. Choosing what to prepare relies heavily upon which ingredients are in season and available since much is sourced from local North Carolina and South Carolina farms.

Course 1: NC Grouper Ceviche Marinated in Lime-Orange Citrus

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Photo by Kurt Shackelford

This vibrant dish was blooming with fresh and colorful ingredients. Atop the thinly sliced, lightly cooked fish rested a grilled corn and peach chimichurri. Scattered along the plate were slices of tomatoes, radishes, Fresno peppers which enhanced the crisp, summery essence of the dish. Cilantro and jalapeño powder, which mimicked charcoal in consistency, brought the heat and herbal elements that completed the course.

Course 2: Grilled Shrimp Pupusa

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Photo by Kurt Shackelford

This twist on a traditional dish was presented as a dripping tower of savory and dramatic goodness. At the base was a decadent masa pupusa oozing with seasoned mozzarella. The second floor housed a dollop of avocado, cilantro, lime, salt and pepper guacamole. Placed thoughtfully atop this rested three succulent shrimp, perfectly charred, and doused in Peruvian yellow pepper sauce. This rich and creamy sauce immediately demanded attention in the bite and I inquired about the ingredients. Chef Aaron, who wouldn’t disclose the secret recipe (sigh), said he hopes to begin canning and selling the sauce in the near future. The richness of this dish was nicely balanced with some sour-sweet pickled red onion and Fresno peppers.

Course 3: ‘Beat Bobby Flay’ Chile Coffee Brisket Empanadas

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Photo by Kurt Shackelford

A round of applause is in order for this dish, which did indeed beat Bobby Flay on his own show this past May. Upon biting through the airy crispness of the empanada and feeling the succulence of the brisket envelop the tastebuds, there was no doubt about how he won the show. Imagine and combine every satisfying and comforting flavor into one bite, the nuttiness of aromatic coffee, creamy goat cheese, and spicy chile. Alongside the empanadas, a charred onion aioli which was creamy with a tart onion flavor. Combining the two together is almost an ethereal experience. Plated alongside these savory items was a bundle of cilantro, pickled onions and fresno pepper.

Course 4: Peanut Butter Churros

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Photo by Kurt Shackelford

A bundle of churros, dressed in crystalline sugar, were the sweet treat that capped off the meal. Though the peanut butter flavor was understated, it added a noticeable twist to this classic Spanish dessert. The churros were accompanied by both a strawberry meringue and a chocolate mousse-like cream. As was the theme throughout the meal, the flavors were rich and perfectly complemented.

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Photo by Jonathan Cooper

“Everyone wants to be a chef but nobody wants to cook,” said Chef Aaron. Rivera, at this stage in his career, is not as motivated by accolades, but by his passion to prepare good food for others to enjoy. On this day, he should feel quite accomplished. 

Tapas 51 is located at 3415 Highway 51 N in Fort Mill, SC.

You can follow them on facebook, twitter and instagram.

Here are a couple more delectable photos from our visit to Tapas 51: 

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Pork Belly Tacos with guacamole and pickled red onion. Photo by Jonathan Cooper
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Octopus Salad with roasted peppers and pickled red onions. Photo by Jonathan Cooper
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NC grouper ceviche marinated in citrus (lime, orange, champagne). Grilled corn and peach chimichurri and pickled radishes, tomatoes, fresno peppers, and jalapeno powder. Photo by Jonathan Cooper
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Peanut butter churros, strawberry meringue, and chocolate creme. Photo by Kurt Shackelford
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