Imagining a modern gas station as a building of architectural value is difficult since few have any aesthetic appeal. But during the 1920s, innovative and gimmicky designs were plentiful. PURE taqueria started life in an old Pure Oil gas station in Alpharetta, Ga., in 2006 by veteran Atlanta-area restaurateurs Chris and Michele Sedgwick (a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island). Their concept is now franchised. Last October, Michael Ott and James Hipp opened a PURE taqueria in downtown Matthews and have plans to open more in the area.
PURE's original design had been rejected by the Matthews city council and it was not until Ott had their architect create a design incorporating the design features — such as the pitched roof — of a historic (now demolished) gas station which once stood on Trade Street that the plan was approved. Fortunately, the building fits seamlessly into the downtown space while maintaining that gritty feel. In keeping with the gas station theme, the 178-seat dining area is flanked with steel and glass garage doors that frame a community view and, when open, allows diners to contribute to Matthews' charming small-town feel. (Now if only the retail shops would stay open at night.)
With the burgeoning Mexican population of Mecklenburg County, taquerias (taco shops) are as common as fried pickles, and stuffed chilies and mole are not part of the lineup here. Pinning down PURE's cuisine is more problematic. Part of this stems from how we Americans transform most culinary imports into mere shadows. Is PURE Tex-Mex? Cal-Mex? A Georgia variation? In Charlotte, we are already developing what I like to call NoCaMex. Whatever its culinary origins, though, clearly PURE is a hybrid.
A complementary basket of warm tortilla chips with mild salsa arrives quickly. Our first appetizer was a chunky guacamole in need of more garlic and lime. Guacamole is sided with some of the entrées, so be aware of this before ordering. The clutch of conch fritter was texturally crunchy but was hampered by the sweetness of its surrounding sauce.
Since PURE is a taqueria, tacos should be the keystone. The taco roster is filled with the usual suspects: fish, chicken, pork, beef. We hunkered down over the fish taco with poblano slaw, but here the fish is fried and tilapia. I know, fried is hot; after all, Paula Deen is making fried butter popular. I also know tilapia is sustainable and cheap. But fish tacos are better when the fish — preferably mahi — is marinated with lime juice and chilies and then grilled.
The sope con carne asada, though, provided little explosions of concentrated flavors with the thick pinched-sided sope slathered with refried beans with a hefty supply of sliced grilled skirt steak, cream fresca, and pico de gallo. The American chicken burrito is filled with shredded meat with the rice and beans on the plate — not in the burrito.
Much of what is offered at PURE is the popular gooey edge-to-edge dishes. Burgers are available, too. Margaritas are the stars of the drink roster, and of the desserts, the most refreshing is the imported Mexican piña colada popsicle. Expect to see more of these Mexican frozen treats around town as they are a growing national trend.