Saddle Up: A Review of Salty Cowboy Taqueria
Mason-jar margaritas and gourmet street tacos work their rugged magic in Zionsville.
Opening a tequila bar in the gingerbread-trimmed village of Zionsville sounds like the kind of business plan one might draw up after too many shots of Patron. And yet there, in that brick-paved neighborhood of boutiques and galleries, hangs a shingle for Salty Cowboy Tequileria. Even more surprising than this place’s existence is the fact that it is packed—on a Tuesday night—with a rowdy, mescal-swilling crowd. Bartenders can hardly keep up with the orders for coconut margaritas, Palomas made with tequila and grapefruit Jarritos, and potent Jalapeño Stings that get their heat from muddled peppers lurking at the bottom of the glass. It’s hard to tell who is having more fun, the little clique of manicured ladies singing over the house music or the servers ducking and diving around each other behind the bar, joking about how they must look just like the bartenders in Coyote Ugly.
The dry-rubbed Lone Star Wings also spend some time in the hickory smoker, enough to give the skin a crisp burnish.
This is the kind of scene owner Shari Jenkins imagined four years ago, when she incorporated the name “Salty Cowboy” and set out to find the perfect location for a tacos-and-tequila restaurant in her Boone County hometown. “We have some good Mexican restaurants here, but no one was doing the fresh, Baja California–style food,” says the former teacher, who also owns Noah Grant’s Grill House & Oyster Bar, another popular Zionsville spot.
Jenkins spent nearly a year renovating a 2,200-square-foot, turn-of-the-century frame house (the former site of Le Dolce Vita Patisserie, which Jenkins remembers as a balloon store when she was growing up), exposing rough ceiling beams and connecting it to an adjacent building so the back of the house could serve as a 21-and-over area while the front dining room drew more of a family crowd—the restaurant version of a mullet. Her casual Tex-Mex menu focuses on 15 mix-and-match street tacos, in combinations such as carne asada with sauteed poblanos and onions; shredded chicken cooked down in Corona with pickled jalapeños, slaw, and habanero-pineapple salsa; and a surprisingly robust meatless taco called Big Rikki, which adds the acidity of sweet-and-spicy slaw and pickled onions to the starchy bulk of verde rice, just-mashed guacamole, and that corn-and-bean party classic, Texas Caviar. Thanks to Jenkins’s seafood connections at Noah Grant’s, fans of the fried-fish taco can enjoy the Pescado, with cabbage and cilantro crema. It’s usually stuffed with fat, flaky portions of battered cod (though it did come disappointingly
paltry and chewy on one visit).
Three tacos make a perfect meal—unless you go straight to the burgers. And if you do, I suggest the Wild Bubba, which has an additional layer of meat: pulled pork doused in agave-beer barbecue sauce. The pork, as well as the pulled chicken, beef brisket, and caramelized beef ribs, is smoked every night onsite. The dry-rubbed Lone Star Wings also spend some time in the hickory smoker, enough to give the skin a crisp burnish. Served as an appetizer, the four whole sauced wings nearly span the basket. They’re sticky and meticulous to eat, but worth the effort. It’s good, manual-labor dining befitting a restaurant that works corrugated metal walls, exposed wood, and a sugar-skull motif into its decor.
As with every great old house, this one has a resident ghost. Jenkins has heard tales from local historians of a woman named Hazel who once lived in the residence and was known for sneaking out the front door at night and then getting arrested for walking around Zionsville drunk. A previous owner had problems with the front door mysteriously opening at midnight, triggering the burglar alarm and numerous police runs. And the first few weeks Salty Cowboy was in business, Jenkins did notice the front door was sometimes open when she arrived in the morning. “But I’m not sure that it wasn’t one of my managers forgetting to lock the door at night,” she says with a laugh. Still, when she found dozens of turn-of-the-century gin bottles buried in the crawl space during the renovation, Jenkins decided to leave them down there. Her reason? “We need to keep a little bit of Hazel in this house.”
If she sticks around, she might have to switch to tequila.