The Hunt Leads To El Cazador

Story by Janet Gibson

Photos by Matthew Wonderly

Know how you can immediately tell if a Mexican restaurant is going to be worth its salt? The chips and salsa. That’s right. The first thing that gets delivered to the table by a server who disappears as quickly as a shadow in the desert.

But, wait. Chase him down for some fresh, chunky guac, and you know the rest of the story. We eat too much. It’s in those initial moments – bonus points if the chips have been warmed – that set the scene for the main attraction: our entrées. In the case of El Cazador, come hungry. Because every bite is guaranteed to be pure, authentic Mexican bliss.

Agustin Alvarez is the man to thank for that. If you hear a laugh echoing throughout the place, it’s probably him. The affable owner and head chef serves up a happy vibe, along with generous plates of nachos, tacos, burritos, fajitas, quesadillas, enchiladas, tamales and … so much more. All are made with quality ingredients and meticulous attention to detail.

(And, yes, the chips, salsa and guacamole are rave-worthy, too, as are the margaritas, frozen or on ice, to nicely wash it all down.)

Alvarez’s sense of humor extends to the outside of his golden-colored restaurant and cantina, one of his four locations. This, the flagship, is situated on one of the ’Ville’s busiest thoroughfares – Skibo Road. Look for the imposing, life-size deer statues fronting Skibo. Alvarez says he knew they were perfect for his eatery as soon as he spotted them at a roadside outpost near White Lake. The deer setup includes a Western-style wagon, crafted by one of his friends who simply goes by the nickname “The Gas Man.”

Longtime locals may recall that El Cazador was the site of the eponymous restaurant owned by the late Pedro Osornio, a revered and colorful entrepreneur who first brought Mexican food to town in the early 1960s.

Some years later, a chance meeting between Agustin and Pedro led to a long friendship that was more akin to father and son. Agustin was an immigrant from Jalisco in western Mexico, the birthplace of tequila, who had come to this country with little more than a few dollars and a dream. He landed in the state of Washington, picking apples. There, he toiled for years on a 100-acre farm before the owner unexpectedly sold the land.

So Agustin moved to North Carolina, where he went to work in a Mexican restaurant in Carolina Beach. The business was owned by some family members, and the kitchen became his school. There, he soaked up cooking knowledge and honed his skills. (That restaurant, formerly called El Serape, is now El Cazador. The name, translated “the hunter” in Spanish, was inspired by a tequila bottle label.)

Pedro Osornio was a loyal customer when he was down at the beach. One day, he approached Agustin about becoming his heir apparent in Fayetteville. In 2002, El Cazador opened. The décor, down to the chairs, artwork and tchotchkes, are still pure Pedro’s.

Yet, Agustin’s personal touches can be felt, too. He covered all the chairs in a bright green material. And he built every table from oak. The primitive stylings in the tables are a wonder to behold – and even more so when we learn the artist. Larry Frazier, who was confined to a wheelchair because of a birth defect, with no use of his hands or feet, created the table art by maneuvering a brush in his mouth. Frazier, who also was an English teacher, died in 2014. As for Pedro, he was a loyal customer of El Cazador until he passed away in 2016.

The menu pays homage to the icon with items such as Pedro’s Quesadilla, a dish “which comes straight from Guadalajara and was created in the original restaurant.” The creation proves that simple can be best. Two tortillas are pressed together with a filling of chicken or beef, along with cheese, and topped with sliced jalapeños.

After a lunch of perfectly seasoned steak fajitas on a recent weekday, a siesta is in order.

My main server is Dolly from Colombia. Charming, attentive, big smile. She’s wearing a mask. The diners are a cross-section of humanity. From millennials to boomers. Many are active duty military, sprinkled in with business people, construction workers and retirees.

On a Saturday, we go for takeout from the drive-up window. The beefy burrito, refried beans, rice and guacamole salad were nothing short of outstanding. And beyond filling. For $7.95. The crew even included chips and salsa.

No doubt, the excellent food, service and ambiance earn El Cazador five stars all around.

Consistency keeps the hungry crowds coming back for more. The hunt is over.

Two words: Come hungry
 
* The place: El Cazador Mexican Restaurant, 1904 Skibo Road. Phone: 910-864-0700, elcazadormex.com. Dine indoors, on an outside patio, or call/log on ahead to order from the drive-up window or delivery. Catering also is available. Owner Agustin Alvarez has three other locations: 2800 Gillespie St., near the Fayetteville airport; in the western Harnett County community of Cameron off N.C. 87; and at Carolina Beach, 103 N. Lake Park Blvd.
* Specialties: Lunch specials include all the Mexican favorites such as tacos, burritos and enchiladas, complete with refried beans and rice. Fantastic fajitas, including chicken, steak or shrimp, or a combination. Salads satisfy carb-watchers. Plentiful options for vegetarians. Chicken tortilla soup is comfort in a bowl. One of the most popular menu items is Pedro’s Quesadilla, named for restaurant pioneer Pedro Osornio. who had a restaurant in this spot for years. If you still have room, indulge in the flan for dessert, which is large enough to share. Beverages include Mexican soft drinks, imported or domestic beers and a special menu of mixed drinks, including excellent Margaritas.
* Prices: Many lunch choices are about $7 to $9. Dinner selections cover a wide range of prices; several entrées range from $11 to $22. 
* Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
* Reservations:
First-come, first-served. As of presstime, the 60-plus seat restaurant was limited to half its capacity because of coronavirus restrictions, so there may be a short wait. The staff wear masks, and a sign on the door indicates that masks are required for customers, but of course, not while eating or drinking. Mariachi bands are expected to play again when Phase III takes effect.

Livin’ la vida local

The Beatles got it right when they sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Just ask Arvind Kishan and his wife, Kanila, aka Chef Kelly, who owns Bombay Bistro off Cliffdale Road. For years, the couple have been praising El Cazador for its excellent food and service, but mostly for the owner, Agustin Alvarez, who has become a cherished friend.

“No matter how busy he is, Agustin comes with his truck and tools to help us out if something is broken,” says Arvind. Kelly chimes in that it doesn’t matter if it’s a problem with a cooler, sink or toilet … Agustin is there to help.

They also consistently send customers to the other’s restaurants, which are only a few minutes apart. Barely a week goes by that Agustin and his wife, Rosie Carrasco, don’t dine out at Bombay Bistro, and Kelly and Arvind reciprocate by frequenting El Cazador.

All agree that there are actually similarities between Mexican and Indian cuisines. The use of spices, hot peppers and vegetables, for starters. Also, think flour tortillas and naan, the traditional Indian flat bread. Both cultures like to “wrap” their food.

The most important thing, says Agustin, is for local business owners to stick together – particularly in these times of coronavirus. He says Fayetteville is such a place.