After an evening clubbing, fast casual dining is so popular in Latin American countries that one sandwich in Cuba is titled medianoche, midnight. Throughout the Caribbean, the late-night partying set has its favorite spots and favorite foods.
In Charlotte, many of the spots open after midnight serve diner or bar food, baked goods, sushi, or a limited menu. Only a few places provide a unique experience. One of these spots is Three Amigos: Mexican Grill and Cantina. The curse of the foreign-named restaurant has been well-documented in this column, so it's not a surprise that when Dalton Espaillat, a native from the Dominican Republic, bought La Casa de las Enchiladas in 2010, he changed the name to a familiar language hybrid: Three Amigos, which also represented the ownership triad. Espaillat is now the sole owner.
Located in a formerly benighted but now reclaimed stretch of Central Avenue, Three Amigos is a humble, randomly decorated 40-seat eatery with a bilingual service team that sings all — yes, all — the words to any song that fills the tiny room. Amigos is the kind of place that looks so quirky, you know the food must be good.
And it is. Chef Alejandra della Cruz makes a mean enchilada, which is what many people go for. The most popular is her Verde, three tortillas stuffed with grilled steak, large slices of avocado, and embraced with a scattering of cheese and peaks of sour cream. Another Mexican-styled enchilada, the poblanas, features a boldly complex, densely flavored, quite delicious mole. A Central American enchilada, actually a tostada, has a fried tortilla base slathered with refried beans, and then layered with pulled chicken, slivered iceberg lettuce (not the traditional cabbage), diced tomatoes, avocado slices, sour cream, white cheese, and a hard-boiled egg. From 2 p.m. until 5 p.m., all tacos are 99 cents each. These are the true small corn tortilla Mexican tacos scattered with bits of grilled pork, steak, chicken, tongue or sausage. Ask for a lime.
The main lure of Amigos is the Dominican fast food offerings. Although available throughout the day upon request, these dishes allow Amigos to take on the persona of a late-night fast food Dominican joint. After 10 p.m., quesadillas, fajitas, and enchiladas sit on the sidelines: now the chimi shines. The chimichurri ($5) has no flavor relationship to the renowned Argentine chimichurri sauce, the parsley-garlic sauce for grilled steak. The Dominican chimi is a burger, with ground beef patty seasoned with oregano and spices, on a grilled bolillo, a torpedo-shaped, crunchy French-styled roll, layered with grilled cabbage, slices of tomato, ketchup, and gobs of mayonnaise.
In fact, mayonnaise is a common ingredient in Dominican fast food. The Dominican hot dog ($3) arrives trapped under an avalanche of ground beef, thinly sliced cabbage, ketchup, and lots of mayonnaise. The Rickis, aka Ricky Taki ($4), is similar to the chimi, but with non-formed ground beef, on a bolillo with slices of tomatoes, raw cabbage, ketchup and mayonnaise.
The closest to American chili cheese fries is the yaroa, a dish layered with French fries, ground beef, ketchup, melted innocuous cheese and mayonnaise. In the DR, this dish is often made with plantains. Recently, the quipe (Lebanese kibbeh) was 86ed, but tacos and fried empanadas, either beef or chicken, are available.
Three Amigos' fanciful version of late night Dominican fast food won't convey you far away, but it is whimsically transporting.
Three Amigos: Mexican Grill and Cantina
2917-A Central Ave. 704-536-1851. Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday. www.threeamigoscharlotte.com.