If I’m honest, I’m always a bit skeptical when I see the word ‘authentic’ being touted by a restaurant. Often times, not always, the meaning of that word is lost in translation of both menu items and flavor of the food. Not the case with Tapatio’s in Lakeland, they are the real deal, delivering on their ‘authentic’ promise.
Twenty-three years ago, Tapatio’s was started by Jesus Vargas, according to his brother’s wife, Sandra Vargas. Sandra and her husband Rene joined the venture not long after. “My husband and I came along to the business a year after, when another partner left,” said Sandra.
If you visit their website to browse the menu before a trip to Tapatio’s, you’ll see the words ‘Auténtico Mexicano Cuisine’ across the top of the screen, and auténtico they are. Cooking is rooted in their family tradition with the Vargas brothers’ parents having run a restaurant in Mexico. “Their mom and dad use to have a restaurant in Mexico and the whole family use to run it. My husband would do dishes, the older sisters would help with the cooking, others will serve,” explained Sandra.
Even their name pays homage to their Mexican culture. “Tapatio’s is actually made out of two words– ‘Tapa’ meaning top and ‘Tilo’ meaning uncle. It’s the oldest member of a generation which also means respect to the older,” explainED Sandra. “It’s actually a nickname given to the people from our home state, Jalisco in Mexico. It is very common to hear women being called ‘Tapatias’ and men are called ‘Tapatios.’”
With seemingly endless menu items to choose from, they have all the usual suspects–tacos, fajitas, enchiladas, along with an assortment of other delicious Mexican dishes with most of the recipes passed down from Sandra’s mother-in-law.
“We have over a hundred items on the menu and if I was asked to remove one item on the menu, I wouldn’t know which one to remove,” said Sandra, expressing the quality of all the restaurant’s dishes.
Tapatio’s has two locations, on Memorial Blvd. and on South Florida Ave., both in Lakeland. When I went for lunch to their Memorial Blvd. location on an overcast Thursday afternoon, the parking lot was packed. I sat in my car for a moment watching as cars would pull out only for the space to be filled promptly afterward. It was clear this is a favorite lunch spot for many.
Walking into the door, the smell of sizzling meats and vegetables and warm tortillas filled the air. The atmosphere was pleasant, full of chatting patrons enjoying their meals. The walls were adorned with colorful murals depicting Mexican landscape, people, and culture. Awnings over some of the booths were furnished with Spanish tile and mariachi music played through the speakers, conveying a true cantina feel.
I took my seat and the waitress brought out a basket of warm tortilla chips and two carafes–one filled with mild and one hot salsa. The mild was very tasty, but the hot had quite an enjoyable kick to it, if you are a lover of spicy food.
Chicken fajitas were calling my name as I skimmed the menu. They came out, piping hot, smelling amazing. The chicken was incredibly well seasoned and carried a refreshing hint of lime, tossed with delicious peppers and onions. Also on the plate were other fajita toppings and accompaniments–lettuce, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, refried beans topped with melted cheese and rice. The tortillas came on a separate plate wrapped in foil to keep them hot. I assembled my fajitas, topped them with a bit of hot salsa and devoured them!
Sandra gives credit to the quality and freshness of food, good service, fair prices, and the friendly staff at Tapatio’s for keeping customers coming through the door, adding, “We try to treat others with respect as we would want to be treated.” The restaurant delivered on all those things, along with their promise of ‘Auténtico Mexicano Cuisine’ and will be getting my business again!
734 East Memorial Blvd.
Lakeland, FL 33801
Fri & Sat 11am-10pm
6645 S. Florida Ave.
Lakeland, FL 33813
Fri & Sat 11am-10:30pm