As Northeast Florida’s food scene sizes ever upward, some constants have remained from day one. Pizza is one, and so is Mexican food. There are so many Mexican restaurants in Florida that we actually need more Mexicans, of course. (You can never have too many Mexicans in your life.) The various places are evenly spaced within our population centers; everyone has their favorites and their least favorites (and sometimes it’s the same place). But almost everyone loves “La Nop.”
La Nopalera holds a special place in our hearts, and I’m not just talking about the arteries. La Nop is tops in several respects: name recognition, market share and the always-important hipster cachet. Be they tourists or touring bands, locals, localized or just loco, La Nop’s fast, consistent service and uniformly good quality has a certain universal appeal to its customers. If you grew up here, in a different culture, these restaurants are basically the gateway drug that leads you down the rabbit hole of Latin cuisine, and that is a journey that never really ends.
Founded in that most epochal year of 1991, La Nopalera began expanding early in its run, and now boasts a number of branches. There are even locations in Richmond Hill and Savannah.
Given the universality of the La Nop experience, it seemed an especially good subject to submit for some reader input—and there was plenty. One thing that comes through, again, is the diversity of the clientele, not just as far as race and gender, but also generations. There were a couple of negative comments, too, but nobody cares.
“Carnitas are on point,” says Chris Stoffregen. “Cheap batch-made margs with a Grande Mariner floater are choice.”
Daniel Ejmali adds, “Don’t forget to mention that for those of us who can handle spicy, they have the best salsa verde.”
Sunny Parker notes, “Can we talk about the one tall dude with a mustache that manages to BE AT EVERY SINGLE LA NOP AT ANY GIVEN TIME? Y’all know who the f*ck I’m talking about.”
Lauren Sauls says, “The one on Atlantic west of Southside is the best. Best Mexican food I’ve had outside of when I was actually in Mexico.”
Jayson Day says, “I haven’t eaten meat in coming up on a decade, but I still crave that California burrito.”
Katie Bruce says, “I don’t know about you, but I would drink that white queso like a beverage. It’s the heroin of cheese dips.”
Ruth Dellinger notes, “I literally work out once per week in the name of LaNop. The Queso and Margaritas are worth the extra costs in both dollas and calories!!!”
Personally, I’ve eaten my weight in La Nop over the past 20-plus years. The first time I went was with Bob and Cindy Maynard, who always gathered a group of friends (Richard Gowen, Lance and Tina Veitch, Eddie Dias, Kim Loach, Daniel Newman, etc.) for big beers (usually Tucher) at E Street on Fridays for a few years in the late ’90s, and we often decamped to the old San Marco location afterward. Other than a single lunch meeting at the new location last year, I don’t think I’ve ever been there sober, and I don’t think I ever will, hopefully.
So, here’s what I do: You go in and immediately order the giant glass of Dos Equis and a margarita. (Yes, order both, because you’re not a child). Order queso with chips; it goes nice on the rice and the beans, which come with most items. Even vegans will find a variety of things to their liking. Order combo platters, split a quesadilla or a burrito, drink more beer. The important thing is that you make sure to eat way too much, because that is really the only proper way to eat Mexican in Florida.
As previously noted, there are lots of Mexican restaurants in Northeast Florida, and most of them are pretty good. (Margaritas Mexican Grill on San Jose and Los Loros on Baymeadows are personal favorites, Campeche Bay is a classic, and of course Pepe’s Hacienda on Dupont Avenue is just one of the most singular experiences to be had in Jacksonville.) The locals’ penchant for bitching about everything under the sun doesn’t detract from what La Nop has accomplished in nearly four decades in business. So, next time you’re there, savor the flavor, and hoist a big ol’ beer for us!