While Tex-Mex is a fusion of American and Mexican cuisines, Tuco’s Tex-Mex Cantina offers the flavors and textures with regional ingredients to provide a Southern twist. Tuco’s opened this past spring at Ogletree Village in Auburn serving fresh, made- to-order dishes. Tuco’s owners George Spence and his brother-in-law Jim Parker opened Hamilton’s in 2009, and with the restaurant’s success, they were looking to branch out with another Hamilton’s or something different. They had been discussing opening a Tex-Mex restaurant, as it would offer a different selection from others in the area.
After signing the lease on the former Beef O’Bradys’ building in February, the owners began completely changing the interior. While the ceiling remained the same, everything else changed, including the lighting, the furniture and installing wood decor in poplar with some cypress. A new bar was built across the back of the casual restaurant and 23 televisions were added. A covered porch offers seating in the front, while a back patio features a fire pit and live music on Friday nights.
Spence’s sister, Lisa Parker, and Chef Trey Holland selected items for the menu. Holland created the dishes, which are prepared from scratch. “It is not like the typical Mexican restaurant,” says Spence, “where your food is in front of you in minutes. “Some people from Texas may say this is not real Tex-Mex,” adds Spence, “but after researching the cuisine, this is our interpretation.” Their interpretation of Tex-Mex is printed on the wall above the opening to the porch. It basically says it is Tex-Mex with fresh ingredients and a Southern flare. Lisa designed the menu to be user friendly. It is easy to read in bold blue letters and separated into the different items, including starters, favorites, tacos, burritos, fajitas, tortas, salads and desserts.
Chicken, brisket and pork butts are smoked on a smoker in back of the restaurant. They cook between 200 and 250 chickens a week. “It turned out to be a lot more work than we thought it would be,” says Spence, “but the seasoned, smoked chicken has a good flavor.” The smoked chicken is pulled off the bone and served in a variety of dishes n the menu.
The first bowl of salsa and chips is served without charge. “We found that many customers were ordering a second bowl, but not eating it,” says Spence. “We were going through about 25 gallons a day and throwing a lot out. We decided to charge $2 for additional servings.” A variety of salsas are served, including Queso Blanco, which is offered with the addition of Capps’ chorizo sausage or spinach. A choice of sauces is available in a trio for sampling different ones.
Since the crab cakes served at Hamilton’s have been a long-standing favorite, the owners included a Tex-Mex version embellished with jalapenos and roasted corn. The crab cake is offered as a starter or part of the Blondie under favorites with a chili relleno and a red chicken enchilada. Dishes listed under favorites come with Mexican rice and black beans that the chef has enhanced with Tex-Mex flavors.
Among the tacos, the shrimp tacos are most popular. The shrimp are fried and covered in a chipotle sauce that is a little on the sweet side. Check the tacos of the day. A recent taco featured blackened shrimp topped with grilled corn and black beans with pico de gallo, cheese and lobster sauce. Fish tacos are also popular prepared with grilled or blackened mahi and topped with cabbage slaw, avocado and chipotle tartar.
The fajitas choices include smoked chicken, grilled shrimp, beef filet that has been marinated or a combination. The tender beef is cooked on a flat top and served with red and green peppers and sautéed onions. Accompaniments include guacamole, rice, beans, shredded lettuce, pico de gallo and sour cream. The menu provides something for everyone with the “tortas” offering a burger, brisket sandwich or fish sandwich served with potato wedges.
Holland also prepares two classic Mexican desserts. Traditional tres leches dessert is made with three milks and brandy soaked sponge cake, while sopapilla offers fried pastry with cinnamon sugar and honey with whipped cream on the side. Brownie and ice cream are also on the menu for those preferring an American favorite.
While the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, some menu items are only available for dinner. Look for special brunch dishes on Sunday. The owners are looking to please customers with a variety of options at Tuco’s. “If we do what we are supposed to do,” says Spence, “we will be successful. We are offering good food, good service and keeping the prices reasonable for families.”
Tuco’s Tex-Mex Cantina
1849 Olgetree Rd in the Ogletree Village
Open daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
An award winning journalist, Ann Cipperly has been writing features, as well as food, travel and restaurant articles for East Alabama Living since 2004. She is a former newspaper lifestyle and food editor and currently writes features and a food column for the Opelika Observer. Ann is a native Opelikan.