Mike Zanger was 15 when he first traveled to Mexico for summer school and fell in love with its simple, fresh and spicy cuisine.
More than 40 years later, the rural Edwardsville man is realizing his dream of owning a restaurant that specializes in “Mexican street food,” mainly tacos. Mike, 58, and his wife, Megan, opened Taqueria Z with partner Zach Miller earlier this month.
“The food is very, very authentic,” Mike said. “There’s nothing like it in Edwardsville. It’s modeled on Mexico City-style taquerias with a simple menu and all fresh product. We don’t have a freezer or microwave.”
Simple is right. The entire menu is posted on a small chalkboard.
First, customers pick one of six fillings: skirt steak, spit-roasted marinated pork, chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), seasoned chicken, roasted poblano peppers and potatoes or mushrooms, onion and garlic.
Next, they decide whether they want the filling served as a taco on a corn tortilla ($3); a chaco on a corn tortilla toasted with Chihuahua cheese ($3.50); a quesadilla on a flour tortilla with Chihuahua ($5); or a burrito on a flour tortilla with rice, beans and cheese ($6). All are finished with onion, cilantro and lime.
“Most of the menu you can hold in your hand,” Mike said. “It’s really a la carte.”
Taqueria Z has a few side dishes, such as frijoles, Mexican rice, fresh tortilla chips, green or orange salsa, a chunky guacamole-like dip called Rooster Beak and a Chihuahua cheese dip blended with chorizo.
“The Roaster Beak that we serve takes a lot of prep, and I think that shows,” said employee Kevin Miller, 33, of Godfrey. “It’s all fresh. We seed the tomatoes and peppers and hand-dice everything.”
The owners hosted a couple of weekend previews before officially opening Nov. 11, serving lunch and dinner Wednesdays through Sundays.
Matt Meyer, 40, a civil engineer who lives a few blocks away, already is a regular. He likes the fresh, authentic food and quick counter service.
“And the margaritas ($7 to $9) are really, really good,” he said. “Most places, you get a margarita mix. But they squeeze the lime juice right in front of you and add the tequila and orange liqueur. There’s no high-fructose corn syrup.”
Mike Zanger is a retired audiovisual systems designer who considers Mexico his second home because of regular visits and lasting friendships. Megan is a semi-retired nurse practitioner.
Zach, 32, owns two other businesses, Ziller Reptiles and The Main Street Beat advertiser.
Mike decided to pursue his restaurant dream after being diagnosed with liver cancer two years ago and undergoing a life-saving transplant.
“It was sort of a brush with death and an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I thought, ‘Life is short. I might as well try it. What have I got to lose?’”
Taqueria Z is tucked away on Park Street, between South Main and Edwardsville Public Library. The building housed a laundromat in the 1970s and later served as a small warehouse.
Now the exterior is covered with rust-colored wood siding and logo signs, featuring a Mexican sugar skull wearing a sombrero. Green sails shade a small patio with colorful picnic tables.
The inside has an industrial feel with corrugated-metal walls, an epoxy-resin floor and pendulum lights made of old-time canning jars and Edison-style bulbs. About 25 people can sit at high-top tables with metal stools.
A garage door could be raised to make the dining room open air in nice weather, pending city approval. Local artists built the custom counter and liquor cabinet.
“Our attitude about the environment is very important,” Mike said. “All of our utensils and packaging, except the bottled soda, is compostable. We’re trying to create minimum landfill impact. We recycle all the glass.”
Taqueria Z serves five craft beers and one Mexican lager on tap ($5), as well as a custom brew from Recess Brewing in Edwardsville.
“It’s called Mi Cabrona, which means, ‘My Tough Broad’ or ‘My Tough Woman,’” Mike said. “It’s a brown Mexican ale with chocolate, coffee and pasilla peppers.”
Beyond his audiovisual background and love of Mexican food, Mike is a singer, songwriter and guitarist. He will play periodically at the restaurant. He and Megan already host a performance and workshop series called Log House Concerts at their home.
Taqueria Z may have grown partly out of Mike’s health crisis, but the restaurant’s atmosphere is upbeat, laid back and community-oriented. Managers include Mike and Megan’s son, Michael, and Zach’s brother, Logan.
“The people who work here flow together just as well as the ingredients in the tacos,” Kevin said. “The mentality is very cool. Everybody is very like-minded and open-minded.”
At a glance
- What: Taqueria Z
- Where: 109 E. Park St. in Edwardsville
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays and 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
- Seating: 25 inside and 20 on the patio
- Carryouts: Yes
- Handicap-accessible: Yes
- Information: Call 618-307-5018 or visit www.taqueriaz.com or the Facebook page.