When dining out on Mexican cuisine, the perks are many. It’s hard to beat unlimited chips and salsa, 2-for-1 margaritas, and dishes guaranteed to be covered in cheese. Mexican food, however, isn’t always Mexican food. It could be Tex-Mex, or any one of a number of variations a native of Mexico would not recognize.
Sí Señor’s authentic Mexican recipes come from Guanajuato, or, more accurately, straight from the kitchen of Johnny Mendez’s mother. If you’re eating at this Jacksonville gem tucked away on St. Johns Bluff, you’re experiencing the meals of Mendez’s childhood.
Mendez, who moved here at age 5, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. Unable to afford residency in a dorm while seeking said degree, he lived in an apartment off campus, where he soon realized he’d starve if he didn’t learn how to cook. Enter Mendez’s mother, who visited him on weekends and taught him how to make the meals he’d always enjoyed. Mendez has stuck with those recipes ever since, without a single modification. “If my ancestors didn’t change it, why should I?” he asks.
Mendez describes Sí Señor as a hybrid between a sit-down and a fast-order restaurant. Customers stroll inside, check out the menu above the counter, and order within a few feet from the entrance. This guarantees that by the time diners are seated, their food is already in the works.
And the menu is straightforward.
“I want to keep things simple,” says Mendez, gesturing toward the less-than-20-item menu. The list might seem short, but Mendez believes every customer is born with inalienable customization rights. “If you want something off the menu and if I have the product, why not?” Mendez asks. This means gluten-free eaters can exchange the chimichanga’s flour tortilla for Sí Señor’s premium corn tortilla, and vegetarians can load up on cheese and beans.
On a personal note, I spent much of my college life in Sí Señor’s purple booths, since the restaurant accepts Ozzie Bucks – the standard payment method for a poor UNF student. My favorite meal is No. 1 on the menu: Mexican Tacos ($5.99). No. 1 includes two tacos, but I usually add a third, plus rice and beans for an additional $2.99. Study fuel, OK. For the meat filling, I prefer the al pastor, which is spun on a spit, like the way Lebanese chefs cook shawarma. Mendez says Mexico only recently adopted this cooking style, and that few restaurants cook al pastor this way.
The Mexican Tacos are topped with cilantro and onions and wrapped in a double layer of corn tortillas. It’s a simple taco, and that’ simplicity is what makes it so amazing. The meat is incredibly flavorful and goes well with any of Sí Señor’s six salsas. Add a dollop of guacamole, and the result is creamy, spicy, and borderline heavenly.
I was never a fan of horchata until I tried it at Sí Señor. The restaurant’s rice milk is made from scratch, unlike many powdered horchatas. The drink is sweet, with hints of vanilla and cinnamon. I recommend ordering a large horchata to balance the spiciness of the food. I also recommend ordering horchata whether your food is spicy or not, because it’s delicious.
Johnny Mendez knows he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel in order to put big smiles on the well-fed faces of his customers – all he’s gotta do at his restaurant is just keep doing what his mother taught him all those years ago – cook and serve excelente traditional Mexican fare.
Follow all of Rebecca’s dining adventures and more at somewhereinthecityjax.com.