From bartaco to Taqueria del Sol, and from Mas Tacos Por Favor to Chuy’s, Nashville has no shortage of Latin American and Tex-Mex restaurants. But Plaza Mariachi, a new hispanic “cultural shopping experience” in Nolensville Pike, is expanding Nashville’s Latin American food scene and is adding a cultural experience to boot.
The new shopping and dining plaza officially opened in May. Once a Kroger grocery store, the building was transformed over three years into what feels like a small city.
Once you walk inside, you will notice brightly-colored, intricate designs adorning the walls and columns of the complex. Five individual streets, each with a variety of shops and storefronts, lead to the central square. Here you will find Plaza Mariachi’s several restaurants, dining areas and the stage.
Plaza Mariachi offers several dining options, from the spacious Madera Cafe to smaller stalls like Kouzina Cafe, which offers Mediterranean cuisine. However, Tres Gauchos, an Argentinian-style steakhouse with a variety of meats on their a la carte menu, felt like the only truly Latin American option for food.
At Tres Gauchos, customers fill out a menu card and give it to the cashier, who enters the order into their system. Customers write their name and phone number on the menus card and receive a text when their food is ready.
It is unclear whether this system is working correctly. While some people received a text and were able to get their food right away, my food took about 15 minutes longer, and I never received a text indicating that it was ready. While this system has potential to be useful when Tres Gauchos is busy, it needs to be refined.
I ordered the tapapecho, an eight ounce beef brisket, and choclos, grilled corn on the cob topped with parsley, chili powder and crema (a Mexican version of sour cream that is thinner and saltier). Both were delicious. The serving of tapapecho was larger than I expected it to be, but also had a substantial amount of fat left on it. That being said, the meat was tender and moist. The choclos was equally tasty, although difficult to eat while on the cob because of its intricate toppings.
The other dining options at Plaza Mariachi did not look particularly promising or authentic. For example, the menu at “Las Tapas” Bar de Tapas was three quarters pizza options. It only offered a handful of tapas options.
Plaza Mariachi is branded as “a city within a city,” and it lives up to this description by providing a variety of services. It has wireless providers, including MetroPCS, Boost Mobile and Sprint, as well as insurance firms, including America’s Insurance and Auto Masters. Plaza Mariachi even has a law firm, Reforma Law, and a hair salon, Salon Ixchel. There are also several clothing stores, including sporting goods store Deportes Panamex, a women and children’s boutique named “Dia y Luna” and Bella Boutique, a dress store.
A peek at Plaza Mariachi’s event calendar shows that they have many mariachi bands and other performers on any given night of the week. Thursday nights feature salsa dancing with free lessons. On the Monday afternoon that I went, a mariachi band and fire dancers performed. While the mariachi band was lively and engaging, the fire dancing show felt out-of-place and sensationalistic.
In the middle of the central square, a section is roped off where acrobats perform aerial feats on stretches of cloth hanging from the ceiling. While these performers were impressive in their agility and strength, the performance felt strange because it was in the middle of the tables where people ate lunch. There was little distance between families eating their meals and the performance.
This performance illustrates Plaza Mariachi’s endemic problem: rather than feeling culturally rich and authentic, it comes off as forced and even manufactured. While the building feels nothing like the Kroger that it once was, the central square still ultimately feels like a food court rather than the streets of Mexico City or Buenos Aires.
At its core, Plaza Mariachi feels new and distinctly commercial. The owners of the complex had “theming teams” that also worked on Disney World and Disneyland to help them create Plaza Mariachi’s atmosphere. This is unsurprising—Plaza Mariachi felt like a caricature of Latin American culture at times.
About half of Plaza Mariachi’s stalls do not yet house vendors. Filling these storefronts would certainly help to give the space the marketplace the atmosphere that it strives for and to draw a larger crowd.
Between churros and paletas, desserts is one area where Plaza Mariachi has the rest of Nashville beat. Try a popsicle at Paletas Tocumbo to understand why. These frozen infusions of yogurt and fruit are not only nice to look at, but also sweet and refreshing.
I’ll be back to try the churros at Plaza Mariachi, and perhaps to have another popsicle at Paletas Tocumbo. I’m hoping that each time I go back, Plaza Mariachi will have a new store or treat to try. It has the potential to be a true Nashville favorite.
Photos by Hannah Haecker//The Vanderbilt Hustler