There’s soon to be seven Mexican restaurants on the edge of the University of Kentucky campus. What’s the draw?
By the end of 2019, the north side of campus boasted five Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurants right off campus: girlsgirlsgirls burritos, The Local Taco, Cinco De Mayo, Qdoba and Chipotle.
This semester, there have been two new additions: El Cid and Bandido Taqueria Mexicana.
Mexican and Tex-Mex food has become a staple amongst college students, so much that the university once offered a class named “Taco Literacy: Public Advocacy and Mexican Food in the U.S. South.”
“What I learned from this, and what I learned from teaching about the complexities of immigration to largely white students at a southern university, is that people in Kentucky love Mexican food,” said Steven Alvarez, the professor for the Taco Literacy class, of his findings from this experimental course.
“It is a different blend of spices than what I’m used to,” said Katie Williams, a sophomore psychology major. “I’m from a very southern like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans for dinner every night, and it’s nice to have something that’s different that’s also delicious.”
Sara Wood, co-owner of girlsgirlsgirls burritos, said her restaurant plays to this strength by combining their house-made, locally sourced food with a Tex-Mex flare to offer a menu full of flavor in both regular and vegetarian options.
“It’s the queso, I swear to you!” Wood said.
While obviously joking, it seems like she may have been on to something.
“My favorite part of any Mexican restaurant in the chips and salsa,” said Meagan Nye, a sophomore chemical engineering major. “I crave that stuff.”
While food is the cornerstone of any restaurant, students seem to be drawn in by the space itself as well.
“Especially the places around campus, they have a really nice atmosphere, and the local owners are all really nice,” Nye said.
Wood said her and her staff have worked to build a space and atmosphere for students to feel welcome and supported. Her business offers free reservation space for any student clubs that may want to have club meeting and even hosts events like trivia night.
Aside from how good the food or atmosphere is, another driver behind college students love for the genre seems to come from the price.
Madeline Wonders, a sophomore psychology major, said she thinks the Mexican restaurants around the area are really inexpensive, and as a college student on a college budget, that’s something she really appreciates.
Wood and her staff appeal to this by offering a monthly student special and daily deals like $1 coffee.
El Cid, one of the newest additions to the Mexican food scene around campus, saw the importance of price within just their first few days of opening when they hosted their first $0.85 margarita night.
“We had a full on blow out,” said Chris Bravo, owner of El Cid.
Bravo said he plans to continue these kinds of special deals with events like Taco Tuesday or Sombrero Night, where anyone who has purchased a El Cid sombrero can wear it and receive whatever special is going on that Thursday night. In less than a week, Bravo said he has already sold 300 sombreros.
Despite these elements of appeal, how do so many restaurants of the same genre compete? They don’t.
Even though each of these restaurants fall under the general blanket label of Mexican/Tex-Mex, their menus seem to be rather different from each other.
girlsgirlsgirls burritos offers a local, even vegetarian flare on the traditional classics like burritos and quesadillas. Local Taco puts a bit of a Southern twist on some of these classics. El Cid brings in a focus on authentic street tacos. Cinco De Mayo stays true to authentic Mexican cuisine. Qdoba and Chipotle give a quick option with a build-your-own business model. Bandido Taqueria Mexicana is bringing their own taste sometime this spring.
“It’s all different options for all different markets,” Wood said. “It’s kind of like metal music. You start listening, and you realize there is so much nuance between each, and you’re going to go to all the shows to get all the vibes.”