Metro-East Living

Zapata’s makes the most of move to Fairview Heights

Zapata's moves to Fairview Heights

Zapata's Mexican Restaurant, now located in Winchester Plaza, has a large covered deck and more space.
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Zapata's Mexican Restaurant, now located in Winchester Plaza, has a large covered deck and more space.

Several people have felt the need to tell Courtney Zapata that other restaurants in the anchor space at Winchester Plaza have gone out of business.

But she and her partner, Leonel Zapata, owners of Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant, are much too excited about their new digs in Fairview Heights to let anything from the past discourage them.

“We love it here,” said Courtney, 39, of Swansea. “The location is more visible (than the former one in Swansea). It’s a hop, skip and a jump from the mall.”

There’s also a giant covered deck, perfect for spring lunches, summer dinners, cocktails and Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Courtney and Leonel note that their business has flourished for 16 years, thanks to regular customers who appreciate quality. They insist that won’t change.

“Most Mexican restaurants have similar menus, and there are so many of them,” said Leonel, 47, of Fairview Heights. “How do you set yourself apart? Consistency. You provide good food and service all the time.”

Most Mexican restaurants have similar menus, and there are so many of them. How do you set yourself apart? Consistency. You provide good food and service all the time.

Leonel Zapata on his secret to success

Zapata’s formerly operated two years on West Main in Belleville and 14 years at Schnucks Plaza in Swansea. There’s also a Collinsville location off Interstate 55/70.

Kathy Kirchoff, 55, of Swansea, and her husband, Bob, have been regulars at the restaurant since the beginning.

“Their lunch buffet ($7.99) is fabulous, and we meet there once a week for dinner with family and friends,” said Kathy, a real-estate agent. “We’ve had several birthday parties there. The food is delicious, and there is no better margarita in town in my view.”

Kathy’s favorite item is Pollo Tampico, which is seasoned grilled chicken breast, served on a sizzling skillet and topped with cheese sauce. It comes with tortillas ($10.99).

Retiree Gene Verdu eats at Zapata’s every Thursday night with family and friends. He cites the tasty food, friendly service, reasonable prices and festive atmosphere.

“I pretty well mix it up, but they have very good shrimp and tilapia,” said Gene, 75, of Belleville. “And I like the Sampler Platter ($13.99).”

16 Number of years Zapata’s in business

200 Seating at new Fairview Heights location

Leonel moved from Mexico to the United States when he was 23. He couldn’t speak English but got a job as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant.

Leonel worked his way up to server, then assistant manager, then company supervisor before striking out on his own and opening Zapata’s in 2000. At that time, he and Courtney were married. They divorced 11 years ago.

“We make a great team in business,” Leonel said. “At the beginning, it was kind of hard, but after a year or so, it was working out fine.”

The Fairview Heights location opened Feb. 10. Tables and booths seat more than 200 people. The restaurant is decorated in earth tones with Mexican accents, such as metal lizard sculptures, artwork, pottery and a giant faux cactus.

Regulars are starting to check out the new space. On a recent weekday, Devon Moody-Graham brought her co-worker, Snowbia Varnes, after a meeting.

“I love it,” said Devon, 32, of East St. Louis. “The colors, the music and the food is always good. I like the location better because of how close it is to the mall.”

The next table over, Jeff and Gina Parker were eating lunch with their daughters, Aria, 4, and Ally, 2. Jeff is an accountant who works nearby.

“I like that you have a choice between a sit-down dinner and the buffet,” said Jeff, 38, of Shiloh. “So if you need to eat lunch in 30 minutes, you can get the buffet.”

Teri Maddox: 618-239-2473, @BNDwriter

At a glance

  • What: Zapata’s Mexican Restaurant
  • Where: 4660 N. Illinois St. in Fairview Heights
  • Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
  • Seating: More than 200
  • Handicap-accessible: Yes
  • Carryouts: Yes
  • Party rooms: One large and three small
  • Entertainment: D.J. and karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights
  • Information: Call 618-277-5474 or visit or the Facebook page

On the menu

  • Fajita Nachos — Crispy tortilla chips covered in cheese dip then topped with grilled onions and green peppers and choice of grilled steak, grilled chicken or chorizo (Mexican sausage), $9.99
  • Shrimp Tampico — Jumbo shrimp seasoned, grilled and served on a bed of Spanish rice, then topped with grilled vegetables and cheese sauce, $11.99
  • Fiesta Plate — Sampling that includes an enchilada, tostada, tamale, chile relleno, taco and tostada, garnished with lettuce, tomato and sour cream, $11.99
  • Fajita Chimi — Chimichanga with choice of fajita steak or chicken with green peppers and onions or fajita vegetables, including cauliflower, broccoli, red and yellow bell peppers, carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash, $10.99
  • Lunch Buffet — All-you-can-eat buffet with fixings for tacos, nachos, fajitas, chimichangas and enchiladas, including rice and beans and tamalito (sweet corn cake), served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, $7.99