By Mary Colurso | firstname.lastname@example.org | Oct. 3, 2023
Grab a margarita, munch on some chips and consider this question: What’s the best Mexican restaurant in Birmingham? Your answer may be different from ours, and that’s a very good thing. The metro area boasts a wealth of crave-worthy eateries that specialize in Mexican cuisine — fine dining, fast casual and everything in between.
AL.com has been showcasing its picks for the best food in Alabama, and as far as we’re concerned, Birmingham is the star of the show. The Magic City, after all, has won seven James Beard Awards, and the city’s chefs and restaurants regularly appear as finalists and semi-finalists for the accolades known as “the Oscars of the food world.”
If AL.com had some special dining awards to give out — say, focusing on five places that make us want to eat Mexican food every single day — here’s where we’d bestow them. Now let’s head out the door for a fajita fix; just thinking about this topic is making us hungry.
5. EL ZUNZUN
4105 Crosshaven Drive in Vestavia Hills. el-zunzun.com
Here’s the first thing you should know: This casual Latin American eatery is named for a tiny Caribbean hummingbird that flies from Mexico to Alabama. And the second thing? El ZunZún was founded by Becky Satterfield, the owner of Satterfield’s Restaurant. She teamed with chef Angela Schmidt in 2019, opening El ZunZún in the Cahaba Heights neighborhood of Vestavia Hills. Flavor and authenticity are important to the food served at El ZunZún, from the chicken tortilla soup served as an appetizer to the hot churros (fried donut sticks covered in cinnamon sugar) on the dessert menu. Carnivores have been known to drool over the beef short rib enchiladas with homemade mole sauce, and the pork carnitas are a slow-cooked dream. The diverse menu also features crispy fish tacos, street corn, chile relleno, pan roasted salmon, homemade pork rinds and a mouth-watering queso. Confession: We became a fan of El ZunZún as soon as the server set down the huge chips paired with two kinds of yummy salsa.
Order this: The Chicken Tinga Tostada is tasty and satisfying — and a good starter dish for first-timers. You’ll get a crispy tostada heaped with shredded chipotle chicken, crema, lettuce, avocado, queso fresco and cilantro, paired with green rice and black beans. Don’t forget to order a margarita, if you’re inclined to imbibe. They’re refreshing, potent and not too sweet, which is exactly how we like ‘em.
4. SOL Y LUNA
920 Lane Parke Court in Mountain Brook. solylunabham.com
Sol Y Luna was a groundbreaking eatery when it opened in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood in 1997, introducing many folks here to Mexican tapas-style dining. These are basically small plates of food, served with beer, wine, cocktails or tequila. Think of tapas as savory bar snacks, best when ordered in abundance and shared with congenial companions. Sol Y Luna closed in 2013, causing tapas fans to groan, but the restaurant has returned in fine style at the Lane Parke shopping center in Mountain Brook. Then and now, Sol Y Luna elevates the tapas experience, with elegant dishes such as Shrimp Diabla, cilantro mint chicken skewers, iron skillet mussels, crabmeat enchiladas and puntas de puerco (oven roasted pork tenderloin medallions). The hearty eater in your life may be hesitant to try tapas, and — we’re not going to lie — ordering several dishes when you’re in full dinner mode can be a pricey experience. But the food is top-notch at Sol Y Luna, and we think of this place as a wonderful splurge destination.
Order this: You can’t go wrong with Shrimp Diabla, a signature dish that features tequila and chipotle flambe jumbo shrimp, served on a bed of garlic mashed sweet potatoes with fried flour tortilla strips. Another scrumptious option? Fried duck empanadas, served with chimichurri sauce and queso fresco. Pair these with a tequila sampler — three half-shots from a premium selection — and you’ll be on your way to tapas heaven.
3. CANTINA TORTILLA GRILL
162 Oxmoor Road in Homewood. cantinabirmingham.com
Cantina Tortilla Grill was ultra-popular in Pepper Place during its run there, 2003-2019. Like Sol Y Luna, it was founded by Guillermo Castro, a chef who grew up in Mexico and had a magical touch with food. Castro, who died in 2011, remains a dominant force on Birmingham’s dining scene, thanks to family members who keep his spirit alive with Castro’s signature cuisine. After a four-year hiatus, Cantina recently returned with a new location in West Homewood, at the former site of Little London Kitchen. As before, this casual eatery offers dishes that are fresh and flavorful. There are eight different types of tacos on the menu, including tangy shrimp, shredded chicken tinga, vegetarian and Cuban. The Truck Fries, heaped with chicken or tenderloin, are ideal for folks with growling tummies. And we can’t get enough of the homemade quacamole, served with a basket of crispy chips. (Diners will notice, by the way, that chips and salsa aren’t automatic on the tables here; you have to order them like guacamole or queso.)
Order this: Our go-to at Cantina is the grilled salmon filet, served with poblano peppers, corn, garlic mashed potatoes and queso fresco. It’s one of the Platos Grandes, or “large plates,” and every bite is delicious. Also, the margaritas here are highly recommended, whether you’re in the mood for key lime or prickly pear.
2. LITTLE DONKEY
2701 18th St. South, Suite 200 in Homewood; 5363 U.S. 280, Suite B100 in Hoover. thelittledonkey.com
Have you ever heard of a Mexican restaurant that’s famous for its fried chicken? Welcome to Little Donkey, an eatery that brings a Southern kick to authentic Mexican food. When Little Donkey opened its first location in Homewood in 2012, long lines snaked outside the building, as folks waited to try this twist on a well-known cuisine. Now Little Donkey is a beloved staple on our dining scene, thanks to chef Joshua Gentry. There are two locations in the Birmingham metro area, and a third in Montgomery. The fiery fried chicken has earned kudos from websites such as The Daily Meal, and this dish certainly brings the heat, as the bird is brined in three different chilies. But the menu has treats aplenty, such as a smoked pork burrito bowl, smoked beef brisket burrito, Gulf shrimp fajitas and queso con carne. There are four different kinds of salsa — gotta appreciate that — and over-the-top nachos that can be loaded with beef, chicken or pork.
Order this: Fried chicken, of course. Newcomers might want to start with the fried chicken sandwich, which features a chicken breast topped by chipotle crema and Wickles Pickles, plus a choice of side dish. (Mexican street corn, anyone?) Little Donkey also offers some appealing cocktails, such as the Rosemary Sage Paloma and Oaxaca Old Fashioned.
1. EL BARRIO
2211 2nd Ave. North in Birmingham. elbarriobirmingham.com
El Barrio might not be the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Birmingham, but this excellent eatery tops our list for its creative cuisine, upscale/funky decor and inviting atmosphere. Brian Somershield and Geoff Lockert of Trattoria Centrale opened El Barrio in 2011, and the place (whose name translates to “The Neighborhood”) became an immediate hit. It’s easy to see why. The inventive dishes are “Mexican inspired,” and include plantain nachos, grilled chorizo meatloaf, Masa roasted trout, bacon quesadillas, Barrio cornbread and a luscious orange cake. Everything tastes so darn good — yes, it sounds basic, but there’s no higher praise — and repeat visitors may find themselves simply going down the menu and ordering something new each time. More traditional dishes (such as roasted chile relleno, chunky guacamole, ceviche, chicken enchiladas and pork tacos) are made with equal care and flair. The owners of El Barrio aimed to be bold and imaginative, boosting the dining profile of downtown Birmingham. Mission accomplished.
Order this: Go for the gusto with the grilled chorizo meatloaf, served with spinach, cotija-mashed potatoes, ranchera sauce and cumin sour cream. It’s a longtime specialty at El Barrio, but we just think of it as fancy comfort food. And if you’re feeling adventurous, try the spicy margarita, made with jalapenos and orange liqueur.