Wednesday, June 19, 2024

All in the family: Las Margaritas Bar y Grill brings a fresh approach to ‘ritas and Hispanic cuisine

Tacos galore, including fresh mahi, are part of the Las Margaritas Bar y Grill menu, now serving diners in New Centre Market. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver) Click photo to view the photo gallery.

WILMINGTON — Ben Avalos grew up in an environment where serving the masses Mexican food was the family trade. It only makes sense he continues the tradition by opening his first full-service restaurant, Las Margaritas Bar y Grill, on New Centre Drive

Avalos was introduced to restaurant life in the mid-’90s when his father ran El Vaquero on Market Street — where Bill’s Brewing Company now resides. He eventually expanded the El Vaquero brand into Elizabethtown. 

600 miles away, Avalos’ uncle operated Las Margaritas in Columbus, Ohio. 

When Avalos was almost 17, his father died, and though his mother and other family members stayed in Wilmington, Avalos wanted to pursue a career in soccer. So he moved to Mexico to follow his dream.

“It’s a hard sport,” he said. “If you’re not, you know, at the top level, you don’t make it — and you don’t make a lot of money.”

After a few years, Avalos made the tough decision to hang up his cleats and head to Ohio to help his uncle run Las Margaritas. 

“I started learning everything in the kitchen to the front-of-house,” he said. “I was trying to learn the whole industry from his point of view — and from what I already knew by helping my dad.”

Though Avalos visited Wilmington every summer, it wasn’t until 2015 that he decided to return full-time. He began coaching for the Wilmington Hammerheads youth soccer program and took a job at a car dealership. Yet, his intent was to save enough money to open his own Las Margaritas in North Carolina.

But when the opportunity arose to partner in opening a Hispanic grocery on Market Street near Elizabeth’s Pizza — a few hundred feet from his father’s first restaurant — Avalos decided to go for it.

Las Margaritas owner Ben Avalos passes a freshly made strawberry margarita to a customer. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Carneceria Jalisco is a meat market,” he said. “It sells traditional Mexican food for takeout, as well as specialty groceries.”

Four years later, Avalos found out about a spot opening in New Centre Market near Bonefish Grill. Incredible Pizza was closing, and paired with the space next door, he thought it would be a perfect home for his concept.

Avalos wasted no time starting renovations after signing the lease in December 2019. The architects finished their plans in the first few months of the new year, and just as construction was set to begin, Covid-19 shut down the world.

“I’m not gonna lie: I never thought we were going to be in the pandemic when I started this process,” Avalos said. “Our construction crew and contractor, they all took a break — and so many permits still needed to be pulled. But early on in the pandemic, people weren’t going to work and inspectors weren’t going out.”

A year after the project began, in December 2020, Avalos finally opened the doors to Las Margaritas. 

Carne asada has proven one of the most popular menu items on the Las Margaritas menu. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Like most restaurants — both those established and those starting up — the pandemic required adjustments to the business plan. Las Margaritas — as its name implies — heavily relies on margaritas as part of its brand. The restaurant has more than 20 on its menu.

“But we close by 9:30 p.m. because alcohol sales have to stop right now at 9 p.m.,” Avalos explained, referring to Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders.

Rather than carry a lot of top-shelf tequila that Avalos would normally be able to sell during full operating hours, he’s easing his way into offering high-end varieties. So far he is carrying Casa Amigos, Casa Noble, Milagro Respado, Avion, Sauza Commemorativo Anejo, Sauza Hornitos, Patron Silver, Tequila Corazon, and Teremana.

“We want to make sure people respond well to what we have in the margaritas already,” he said. “And they have —  they have responded very well.”

Thamara Winqvist delivers chipotle enchiladas to diners. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Like his uncle’s restaurant in Columbus, Avalos is focusing on unique flavors not found in other restaurants in town.

His ‘ritas are served both on the rocks (14 varieties) and frozen (six varieties), with flavors such as fresh watermelon and jalapeño, banana and coconut, and raspberry or pomegranate. Different liqueurs are often added for contrasting hues.

“I’ve always been a fan of margaritas,” he said, “and my uncle used to have the best in Ohio. He was known for it, so I wanted to bring that same experience here. We use a bunch of fresh fruit.”

Fresh is the main ingredient in everything served at the eatery, according to Avalos. The recipes are all family honed; his grandmother’s carnitas is a personal favorite.

Bartender Gerson Alvarado shakes a specialty ‘rita. Las Margaritas has more than 20, both on the rocks and frozen, on their menu. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“It’s really tender and flavorful,” he said. “You have to make them the old Mexican style: boil them at a high temperature, not cooked in the oven. A lot of people do them differently, but we do it the old way.”

Diners will find enchiladas and fajitas, as well as tacos galore. Avalos said he amplifies the Mexican flavors with a twist of Baja, especially popular in his tacos. 

“There’s tacos everywhere,” he said, “but we garnish them different and make them from homemade recipes we’ve used for years — even before me — so the taste can be a little more traditional.”

It matches the trend Avalos said he is seeing more than ever nowadays — especially from when he helped his father and uncle run Mexican eateries twenty-something years ago. Modern diners have become more inclined toward authenticity in Hispanic dishes, the restaurateur said.

From left to right: Strawberry, traditional, Blue Curacao, and watermelon margaritas from the cocktail menu. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

“Back in the day, you would probably get a combination number one and it was pretty rock solid,” he said. “You know, rice or beans, an enchilada and taco — more Hispanic-Americanized dishes.”

The Las Margaritas menu includes staples such as carne asada and burritos. It also offers brunch seven days a week, including chilaquiles, huevos con chorizo, and breakfast burritos. A street food and vegetarian section rounds out the menu.

“We’re trying to get people in the door to see how they like it,” Avalos said. “Because once we get them in the door, I know they’ll come back for something else.”

Los Margaritas is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and on Friday and Saturday until 9:30 p.m. Hours will expand once the pandemic is over.

Chipotle enchiladas served with Mexican rice and refried beans. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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