Going in, I had one goal for my first trip to Los Zarapes Mexican restaurant in Mahomet: I didn't want it to kill the vibe I get from being in the little shopping plaza that houses it on the north side of town. Dr. Williams — my family's dentist — has a cozy little practice there, complete with wood-paneled walls and Fisher Price toys similar to what I remember enjoying twice a year when I was a kid. Down the sidewalk from that is an Ace Hardware that still lets you bag up a little free popcorn or pick a sucker for your walk around the store (not to mention the fact that it has a whole range of Yeti products to ogle).

You can imagine my delight when, upon entering Los Zarapes, I found the breezeway had walls of cut rock/faux stucco and a charming little fountain. It’s exactly that kind of unapologetically fun design that I wish to see in a restaurant that pipes in mariachi music and serves jumbo margaritas. 

The rest of the decor didn’t disappoint; tropical colors on the walls and booths are set off by tables that have varying artistic designs under the lacquered tops (ours featured Georgia O’Keefe-style painted tulips). The restaurant space has plenty of booths but also enough large tables to accommodate larger groups.

Within a few seconds of being seated our chips and salsa appeared. Salsa is something I take very seriously: I may never attempt another homemade pie crust but will gladly whip up my own salsa if I just can’t take another meal or snack accompanied by the jarred stuff. I was very pleased, therefore, to find Los Zarapes does it right. Theirs was loaded with blended tomatoes which clung perfectly to the edge of a chip (the chips were warm, fresh, and on the thin side — just right). Cilantro and garlic — two ingredients so beloved in my household one is currently flourishing in our garden and the other is recently planted — were present in a perfect balance. If there was cumin I couldn’t really detect it, which is just the way I like my salsa (cumin in chili is another story altogether).

This being a research mission, I decided to try the margarita. It tasted pretty much like a margarita might in restaurant in this price range, no better or worse. Fancy adult beverages don’t really seem to be Los Zarapes’ main thing; I didn’t see a bar, they don’t offer any draft beers, and their liquor selection appeared to be small and getting smaller. However, my husband ordered a Pacifico (similar to a Corona, but better) and I filched a sip; it was pretty darn fresh for something that had to travel from a little farther away than Milwaukee or St. Louis.

One of the perks of being on a restaurant review mission is getting to order for the table: I chose the Acapulco Especial (marinated shrimp, chicken, and beef with peppers, onions, and tomatoes covered in cheese sauce and served with a chicken enchilada and rice, $10.50) and the Burrito Jalisco (beer-simmered pork tenderloin burrito covered in both cheese and ranchero sauce with rice, beans, and pico de gallo, $8.50) for my husband and I to share.

For my almost-13-year-old son, I chose the #3 combination (beef tacos, a beef enchilada, and a chile con queso, $8.25). For the almost-five-year-old, it was chicken tenders and fries ($5.75 including chocolate milk). I didn’t get to try much of either of those, although the tween — a newly reformed picky eater — was enthusiastic in praising his meal. I tried a bite of one of the leftover tacos (soft shell) straight from the fridge the following day and it was delicious. Also, I did swipe a fry from the youngest — pretty fresh and tasty for a place that doesn’t specialize in American cuisine.

I thought what I got for myself and my husband would span enough of Los Zarapes’ possible food combinations to give us a sense of how they handle different items. The first thing I wanted to try was a shrimp from the Acapulco Especial, because I think like the way a place selects and cooks their shrimp says a lot about the care they put into their food in general. The one I got was fairly large, well seasoned and perfectly grilled. The rest of the dish followed suit with a nice balance of quality ingredients, skillful seasoning, and careful preparation.

I was probably more excited to try the Burrito Jalisco (you had me at beer-simmered pork). There was a nice caramelization on some of the larger pieces of pork, which was the star of the dish. It was not the kind of meal you need a doggie bag for — owing to both the portion size and the tastiness — but at $8.50 I was not expecting to feed myself for days. We did end up with quite a few leftovers from the table in general, however (if you didn’t know this already, you can usually request little plastic ramekins for your salsa, but I didn’t do that this time — I just dumped it over the leftover rice after packing it in the to-go container).

The one complaint from the evening was that our dishes arrived one at a time; our oldest was well finished by the time my husband’s and my food came; granted, he’s a fast eater. And I think this might have been a fluke with our order because the other tables seemed to get their meals all at once.

The total for our dinner, including a $10 tip, was just under $60. I felt like this was a bargain for a relaxing night out with our boys.

I’m envisioning a fun holiday shopping trip to Mahomet (I’ll have to do a little research to find which local businesses to support besides the Ace I mentioned) with lunch at Los Zarapes either before or after. Or, perhaps we’ll work it into a visit to the always fun Museum of the Grand Prairie. Regardless of whether we make it back there this year or not, adding Los Zarapes to the my family’s Mahomet wanderings feels likely.

Los Zarapes is located 840 Eastwood Drive, Mahomet, and open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

All photos by Rachael McMillan.