In penning his field notes for the Parts Unknown exploration of Mexico, the late Anthony Bourdain remarks (in characteristically acerbic fashion) that while Americans love Mexican food, our interpretation—“melted cheese over tortilla chips”—often shortchanges the ancestral know-how that has been the lifeblood of every Latin kitchen for generations.
“People’s perception of Mexican food is different than what Mexican food actually is because it’s been so Americanized,” says Robert Berry, one-half of the ownership team of Greenville’s newest cantina-style eatery, el Thrifty. “Mexico is just like this giant melting pot with so many different cultures and bright, vibrant flavors you don’t typically get to experience at the restaurants here.”
Berry and business developer Reid Olsen decided to funnel their similar interests into a joint venture. The pair eyed several spots in Charlotte and Savannah before landing on el Thrifty’s current locale along Greenville’s popular Prisma Swamp Rabbit Trail. Fourteen months later, el Thrifty opened the doors to its 10,000-square-foot space.
Outfitted with contemporary seating, a blend of folk-style and modern Mexican artwork, and the near-360-degree bar that offers panoramic views of the surrounding green space through roll-up windows, Berry says the vividly colored interior conjures a sense of vibrancy that is “a little bit upscale, but not too fancy.” The addition of a gaming lounge stocked with hands-on activities for a small fee, like shuffleboard, ping pong, and billiards, was intentionally curated to encourage guests to step outside of their comfort zone (a.k.a. the enticing glow of a cell-phone screen) and get social at, well, a social club.
“We wanted to create a situation where people could really communicate with each other,” Berry explains. The restaurant, he goes on, is not just a place to drink and digest. “Single-handedly, we want you to check out what’s going on around you, and spend the day having a good, fun experience with your friends.”
As a chef in 1990s’ New York City, Berry’s fifteen-hour shifts were often spent in the company of a largely Mexican kitchen staff, a camaraderie that eventually gave way to the exchange of meals, recipes, and cooking techniques. Berry dove headfirst into the culinary culture, studying its history and traveling to Oaxaca, Baja, and Mexico City, where the explosive array of diverse regional flavors turned the chef’s classically trained palate on its head.
Along with executive chef Justin Serwetz, Berry has dialed that same essence into crafting el Thrifty’s menu—what he refers to as the “greatest hits of Mexico.” Designed to be innovative yet approachable, el Thrifty’s bill of fare offers familiar plates adapted to mirror authentic Mexican cuisine: Oaxaca cheese, chipotle mayo, and spicy slaw spilling out from hefty torta sandwiches; roast chicken doused in traditional, chile-pepper-infused mole sauce; and Berry’s personal favorite, beef-stuffed tamales roasted in corn husks.
A majority of the restaurant’s edible components are either made from scratch in-house or sourced locally (Berry is a frequent patron of the La Unica markets on White Horse Road), and will continue to feature both staple items and specialties built around the seasonal “garden of Greenville.”
Similarly, the el Thrifty cocktail lineup is also constantly evolving. Much like the handpicked fruit stands that line many of Mexico’s streets, Berry hopes to mix a rotating selection of fresh juices into the bar’s standing roster of expertly paired libations. Sure, you can order a classic margarita, but the real centerpiece here is el Thrifty’s extensive list of those agave-based alcohols—tequila and mezcal—poured up for some solo sampling at prices muy bien for any wallet.
As for the future, Berry is looking forward to spring on the trail. “That’s going to be the real unveiling of the whole concept,” Berry says. “When we can roll up all the bar windows, and people can be outside on the lawn playing badminton and bocce ball or just swinging in the hammocks. Kind of like a mini vacation.”
el Thrifty, 25 Delano Dr, Greenville.
(864) 232-2053, elthrifty.com. Closed Mondays.