Located in the center of a strip mall on the corner of Oakwood Road and Route 22, Sergio’s Fresh Mexican Grill can be easy to miss. On the west end of the mall is the familiar green-bordered sign of a , and on the east end is , one of the more familiar pizza parlors to Lake Zurich residents. There are several other restaurants in the mall, but Sergio’s is the place to go for some of the freshest, best-prepared Mexican food to be found in the area, or, for that matter, anywhere.
There is a variety of delectable, well-prepared classics on the menu. Owner Sergio Briceno says that his burritos are the restaurant’s biggest sellers. They come with the expected fillings, including chicken, ground beef and steak. Al pastor is also available, and it’s delicious. Described on the menu as “barbecue pork” it’s more of a Mexican version of gyros; browned on the outside, the crunchy exterior gives way to a tender, succulent interior.
The lengua, or beef tongue burrito, is a perfect balance of wrapped meat with assorted condiments, including refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and sour cream. The problem for those who are unfamiliar with it is to get past the idea of eating cow’s tongue.
“There are a lot of people who don’t really know about lengua,” said Sergio. “It’s something that a person who knows more about traditional Mexican food might order.”
Lengua is boiled for three to four hours with onions and garlic. It's then cubed and browned on the griddle before being tucked into a burrito. The combination of flavor and texture is superb, a tasty departure from the more standard-issue burrito fillings. Silky, tender Lengua a la Mexicano is another beef-tongue entree. Topped with ranchero sauce made with tomatoes, chiles and onions, Lengua a la Mexicano offers a pleasant contrast in flavors.
Sergio’s would be an inexpensive destination just for its succulent, amply-portioned burritos, plump tacos and classic Mexican standouts like steak fajitas and enchiladas suizas — enchiladas topped with melted cheese. But then there are the fish tacos, one of the most singularly delectable items on any menu anywhere.
“I have family in Corona, Calif., that I visit, which is in southern California,” said Sergio. “I spent a lot of time trying different fish tacos out there because they’re very popular in that area.”
Sergio’s fish tacos are made with breaded and fried tilapia. The fish has a perfect amount of crunch, the breading yielding to the soft, slightly sweet flakiness of the fish. Tilapia has a relatively mild flavor; it’s often said that it’s the perfect fish to serve to someone who doesn’t really like eating critters of the finned persuasion.
The clean, aromatic flavor of the tilapia is a great start, but it’s what adorns it that makes this taco the culinary item you would most desire if stranded on a deserted island. Sergio spoons on a chipotle-based sauce, shredded purple cabbage and homemade pico de gallo, a traditional Mexican salsa consisting of diced tomatoes, onions, chopped cilantro, garlic and a squeeze of lime juice.
The perfect symphony of textures and flavors — the crunch and sweetness of the tilapia and cabbage, the slight smokiness of the chipotle sauce and the tartness of the pico de gallo — make this an addictive food after just one bite, and something that easily could be consumed in large quantities seven days a week. It’s that good.
“I put fish tacos on the menu during Lent several years ago. Then I took it off the menu when Lent was over,” explains Sergio. “Customers kept asking about it, so I decided to put it back on the menu as a regular item.”
Sergio has been in the restaurant business for most of his life, as has much of his immediate and extended family. A resident of Wauconda for 32 years, one of his brothers runs another restaurant, Burrito Express, in that town.
Sergio and his brother went on to open another, more upscale restaurant, Dos Hermanos, in McHenry. His late brother, Raul, also ran a Burrito Express in that town. In March, 2001, his brother was killed during a botched robbery at the McHenry Burrito Express. Four assailants held up the restaurant, and when one of them brandished a gun at Raul, a struggle ensued; he was shot and killed.
Although the four eventually were apprehended and sentenced, there has been one retrial and the possibility of yet another for the murderer.
Sergio decided to close Dos Hermanos a few years ago. “It was becoming too big of an operation to keep going — music on the weekends, a lot of different things going on,” he said.
Besides running his several restaurants, Sergio also caters. He’s been known to bring several grills to catering events for some on-site barbecuing. Besides preparing the items on his menu, he is also open to special requests.
Sergio is especially proud of the quality of his food. “My carne asada is skirt steak that is very lean and tender — high-end restaurant quality. Other Mexican restaurants will charge $14 or $15.” All of his salsas are made at the restaurant using fresh ingredients.
“Our tamales are homemade — made with pork,” says Sergio. “Sometimes we also serve rajas con queso tamales, which are made with strips of pepper and cheese.”
Like many Mexican restaurants, Sergio’s is truly a family business. His wife, Alicia, works with him, and other family members are employed at the restaurants as well.
There are other assorted items on Sergio’s menu that are worthy of trying, including tortas, Mexican sandwiches made with a type of bread that resembles a flat and very soft roll. Torta de Milanesa features a breaded chicken cutlet, and torta chile rellenos is made with the classic Mexican standby — poblano peppers stuffed with cheese that are then batter-dipped and deep-fried. Sergio’s rendition is especially good, not greasy or gloppy as it can be at other venues. It's also available in burrito or taco form. Tortas are also dressed with refried beans, lettuce and slices tomatoes.
For hardier appetites, there's also the torta loca. This gut-buster consists of pork, steak, chorizo and a hot dog.
There are also several other high-end offerings including camarones con raja, shrimp grilled with poblano peppers and onions and topped with melted cheese. This dish can also be had with skirt steak instead of shrimp.
Gorditas, a sort of Mexican pita made from masa, a finely-ground corn meal, can be ordered with any of the fillings that are available for tacos or burritos. Sopes, similar to gorditas but shaped like a patty, are also available.
Sergio’s also serves Mexican breakfasts, including chorizo con huevos (scrambled eggs with Mexican sausage), huevos a la Mexicano (scrambled eggs with tomatoes, onions and jalapeno) and chilaquiles (scrambled eggs with tortilla chips and chorizo topped with melted cheese). Featuring the bold flavors typical of Mexican cuisine, Sergio’s breakfasts are a pleasant change from the typical American eggs-and-hash-browns breakfast fare.
Sergio’s doesn’t have the décor of a restaurant where you might indulge in an extended meal, but many of the entrees are what you would expect at a more upscale Mexican eatery with higher price points. At Sergio’s, those items are available at a much lower cost.
While the décor may not be conducive to lingering, the hospitality of Sergio, his wife Alicia and others employed at the restaurant will make you feel more than welcome. And if the seats aren’t as plush as one finds at higher-end Mexican restaurants, the food — especially the fish tacos — is a more than generous trade-off.
Sergio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
660 Route 22, Lake Zurich
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Monday-Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sundays.