Is there anything better than fresh, authentic, affordable Mexican food? The jury is still out on that one, but in the meantime, we highly recommend sampling your favorite traditional dishes from some of Charleston, South Carolina's best Mexican restaurants. You'll find them both off and on the downtown peninsula, with sunny outdoor seating, free bottomless chips and salsa, and a whole lot of variety on the menu.
A meal at one of Charleston's local Mexican restaurants is ideal after a busy day outdoors. Hit up Taco Mamacita's street-front patio after a visit to Sullivan's Island, or sample the Tex-Mex tacos at Taco Boy on Folly Beach, just a few blocks from the ocean. Urban hiking through Charleston's busy downtown streets is enough to make anyone hungry for quesadillas and enchiladas; head to Santi's on the North end of the peninsula or La Hacienda on King Street to fill those Mexican food cravings.
Of course, Mexican eats go well with tequila and rum, particularly in margaritas and mojitos. You'll find these perfect food and drink pairings at the Zia Taqueria happy hour on James Island and among the Mex 1 Coastal Cantina tequila flights and housemade tequila infusions.
The best part about Charleston's local Mexican restaurants? They're ideal for every resident and visitor, with family-friendly menus and seating, dog-friendly patios, and party-starting drink specials.
Juanita Greenberg's Nacho Royale
This popular Upper King Street establishment is of the "Mexican-ish" variety, serving up big portions of nachos, quesadillas, tacos, burritos, salads, and rice bowls. You choose the protein from a selection of bean, tofu, veggie, beef, chicken, sausage, steak, fish or shrimp to make each entree your own! Everything on the Juanita's menu is topped off with fresh pico de gallo, and it all comes out fast and fresh. Juanita's is for everyone, with a dog-friendly patio, and a Kids Eat Free special every Wednesday. There's seating in the sun or shade out back, as well as indoor bar and table seating. Juanita's always boats a hoppin' bar scene for those looking for good food, fast, before heading out for the night. That's not to say that no one lingers here; the huge outdoor patio and weekly live music brings in a crowd the whole week long! (843-723-6224)
Established in 1990, La Hacienda, or "LaHa" as it is known locally, is a Ayala family-owned establishment that has grown to include more than 10 locations across the Southeast. LaHa has become legendary among the Charleston restaurant and nightlife scene, due to the simple fact that the drinks are always stiff, and the food is fast, cheap, and served in large portions. That's not to say they skimp on taste here; the family's Jalisco heritage lends itself to authentic dishes across its massive menu of soup, nachos, burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas entree and combo offerings. La Hacienda is a very popular spot for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and an ideal starter to a fun night out downtown. (843-723-3333)
Located just a few steps from the eclectic Terrace Theatre, and across the street from The Pour House music venue on James Island, Zia Taqueria is an ideal spot to start or end your night out. That is, if you're night out involves delicious nachos, tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas. This restaurant is family-friendly, with a pay-at-the-counter service style, and several vegetarian options. There are also food and drink specials galore, including $3 Zia 'Ritas, $3 well liquors, and $3 Mexican beers during happy hour and $6 frozen screwdrivers every Sunday. Weekly food specials such as the $3 baja or grilled fish tacos on Mondays, $3 carnitas or pastor tacos on Tuesdays, and $3 chicken yucatán tacos on Wednesday are reason alone to visit Zia Taqueria during the week. They're also open until midnight Thursday through Saturday, with the bar staying open until 2 a.m.! (843-406-8877)
Mex 1 Coastal Cantina
West Ashley's Mex 1 Coastal Cantina is named for the Mexican Federal Highway 1, which runs from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas and is known for a heavily seafood-influenced style of Mexican food. Mex 1 delivers on this tradition with seafood (and other) tacos, nachos, ensaladas, quesadillas and baja bowls, brown rice bowls topped with your choice of protein. There are 8 varieties of tacos here at Mex 1, including the Shroomer, Mahi (beer-battered or grilled), Santos or Bangin' Shrimp, Carnitas and more. There's also happy hour from 4-7 p.m., with $5 margs, $4 house liquors, and $3 Mexican beers. Tequila lovers will adore Mex 1's housemade influsions, made each week with fresh produce and agave tequila, like the Strawberry Cucumber and Pineapple Habañero. Try a tequila flight if you're feeling especially adventurous! The restaurant itself is decorated in this same baja surf-style, regularly showing surf competitions on their TVs. (843-751-4001)
This Taco Mamacita is located on Sullivan's Island, just a few blocks from the beach access stations. It's a no-brainer that you're going to want their chips and salsa, nachos, tacos, and enchiladas after a fun-filled day in the sun! The Taco Mamacita patio out front offers both shaded and sunny seating, and is great for groups with its casual, family-friendly, come-as-you-are atmosphere. There are 13 kinds of tacos on the menu at Taco Mamacita, from the Memphis port to the shrimp po'boy BLT and vegetarian jerk plantain, as well as stellar enchiladas. Order the Whole Enchilada plate for a sampling of all 3 varieties: the brisket, suizas, and vegilladas. There's also the popular roasted Peruvian chicken, and must-have Mexican Street Corn, char-grilled and topped with cheese. Did we mention they have an awesome happy hour, tequila flights, and margaritas? Say no more! (843-789-4032)
Taco Boy Folly Beach
Like its sister restaurant downtown, the Folly Beach Taco Boy brings in a regular crowd of both visitors and locals with its wide variety of tacos and killer drink menu. It's no accident that Taco Boy is an easy walk from the beach; the menu (and prices) are just right for refueling after a long day in the sun. There's free chips and salsa for the table, alongside shareable taquitos, guac and nachos for starters. You'll want to order some tacos (2-3 per person), on flour or corn tortillas, or in bibb lettuce wraps ($0.25 extra). There are more than 15 varieties on the menu, priced at just $3.50 - $3.95 each. There are also platos of shrimp, chicken, carne asada or carnitas, served with 2 sides, as well as 7 kinds of quesadillas. The drink menu encourages patio relaxation, with a long list of margaritas, cocktails, and Mexican cervezas. (843-588-9761)
Established in 2003, this family-owned North Charleston Mexican restaurant is traditional in both cuisine and atmosphere. The La Norteña interior is colorful and comfortable, with booth seating and friendly service. That's a good thing when you're about to leave completely stuffed with fresh, authentic Mexican food, influenced in particular by the cuisine of central Jalisco on the Pacific coast. The huge La Norteña menu contains something for everyone, with such seafood offerings as shrimp nachos and tacos, ceviche, whole grilled Tilapia, as well as other standard favorites like tostadas, burritos, tortas, tacos, fajitas, and even an entire section of the menu dedicated to vegetarian entrees. One highlight is the 4 varieties of enchiladas, including enchiladas poblanas, green enchiladas, red enchiladas, and enchiladas norteñas; each plate includes four enchilada for just $10 - $11.99. The prices are right for an affordable large group lunch or dinner, plus drinks or dessert. (843-225-7055)
Open for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, Básico is known for its thoughtfully prepared and beautifully plated Mexican-inspired fare. Many ingredients are sourced from Básico's own patio garden - reflective of Básico's standard of freshness. Start off your meal at Básico with guac plus a sampling of all 7 of their unique housemade salsas for just $15. Vegetarians will love the several veggie-centric dishes on the menu, including the mushroom tamale with black molé, mushroom enchilada, and grilled shishito peppers. Other meat-focused platos include the green chile burger, Básico rice and bean bowl with chorizo, and paella loaded with chorizo, rabbit, octopus, chicken, and sofrito (tofu). Of course, there are also four types of enchiladas, ($12 - $15), and 7 varieties of tacos, (48 for 2, $11 for 3). Básico also has a kids menu on hand, as well as an affordable happy hour menu for both drinks and food. (843-471-1670)
This affordable, casual Mexican restaurant is an unmissable fixture for those looking to dine among the many restaurants of East Bay Street downtown. With James Beard Award-winning Chef Sean Brock at the helm, they've done their research into authentic Mexican cuisine. The restaurant name itself is a tribute to the mineros, or miners, of Mexico who are credited by some as having invented the taco, modeling it after the dynamite bundles used in mining. Expect everything on the menu to be as fresh as it can be, as the chips and tortillas handmade in house each morning. The drink list is just as dedicated to authenticity with a full page of tequila, piso, mezcal, and rum cocktails and shots. Crowd favorites include the Shrimp & Masa Grits, Chilaquiles, Valentina Charcoal-Grilled Chicken Wings, and Pork Carnitas Taco. Tacos range between $3.50 - $4, with other entrees falling between $8 and $9.50. (843-789-2241)
Santi's Restaurante Mexicano
Though you'll have to catch a ride to Santi's for your fill of fresh Mexican food and margaritas, the drive to this northern part of downtown Charleston is well worth it. For years, Santi's has been known as an iconic hotspot for cheap, authentic Mexican grub. This family-owned restaurant is equally beloved for its food (and prices) as its drinks (think very strong margaritas and mojitos by the pitcher). The restaurant's cozy, festive interior and covered, leafy patio are an ideal setting for a get together with friends before a night out downtown. The large menu holds every possible Mexican app, soup, entree and dessert you can think of, and the staff happily customizes orders by request. Food portions are sizeable, and the food comes out fast. Free bottomless chips and salsa are on the table while you await your entrees. ((843) 722-2633)
About Clare Sweeney
A South Carolina native and avid locavore, Clare also ventured abroad to Spain and north to Boston before returning to Charleston and her beloved Lowcountry.
Clare works and plays in downtown Charleston, spending her days enjoying the city’s perpetually sunny weather, nearby beaches and ever-growing food and craft beer scene.
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