When I’m going to a cube-shaped cafe (or to be precise, cocina/taqueria) in a suburban shopping center, I don’t expect to be swept off my feet. I brace myself for a functional, fluorescent-lit box, for dropped ceiling tiles and a single wall of windows. I know I’ll easily overlook this unavoidable tableau if the food is fabulous and the staffers are lovely.
So I was truly shocked to be so charmed the moment I walked into Sandy Springs’ CT Cocina & Taqueria. The entry is crowded with coolers full of glass-bottled fizz — Technicolor Jarritos and chic Topo Chico Agua Mineral — and jars stuffed with 25-cent Mexican candies.
And then there was the Latin music playing at exactly the right volume to both allow conversation and demand head-bobbing in your seat. The rustic banner above the open kitchen advertising TACOS, QUESADILLAS, SOPES like a street food stand. The bar, sumptuously stocked, and the dusky lighting that’s chillaxing on a Sunday afternoon and sexy after-hours.
I was delighted.
Until — the food.
In many cases, it was the least lively thing about this place. Some of it was beyond bland, like the chicken tortilla soup that tasted like a can of Progresso with a few chips tossed on top, or the not-fried chicken “enchiladas” plunked loosely into a thin pool of fruity, mild tomato-ish sauce.
I will say that the plain chicken-stuffed corn tortillas were liberally mounded with crisply fresh lettuce, avocado slices, and queso and crema. I appreciated this healthy alternative to the cheesy, oily pool of decadence that enchiladas can be. But you know what else is healthy? Lime juice. Salsa. Cilantro. There are countless ways to make freshness taste fresh and zippy. This dish employed none of them.
I glanced longingly at those neon-bright Jarritos bottles and felt like I’d been baited and switched.
However! There is doctoring that can be done here. And I’m not just talking about adding alcohol, though the “CT Texas” margarita we chose from a list of graduating quality (this one featured Cimarron Reposado tequila, fresh lime and a splash of Grand Marnier) was deliciously tart and smooth, even if it was perplexing to get a $10 margarita in a flimsy plastic cup.
I’m talking about doctoring with hot sauce. Not the blah, one-note free salsa that our very nice server brought with a basket of warm, though saltless, chips. This hot sauce I had to request. Make a similar ask unless you’re a very young child or have a medical condition that prohibits spicy food — in which case, this is the Mexican joint for you!
The sauces arrived in a trio of little square pots. One was sunny and green and mildly kicky. The next was a bright red acid blast. Finally, we got a deeper red, and delicious, tongue-incinerator. All three sauces were impressively nuanced and very tasty.
They utterly transformed these dishes that were fine but needed a kick in the pants. Add to this list a skirt steak taco in which the meat was properly pink and juicy and there were heaps of sweet, caramelized onions but not a ton of flavor. Its house-made tortilla, which had a nice corny aroma but was a little too thickly substantial, overpowered its underseasoned innards.
The same could be said for the pork belly taco, stuffed with belly that was fine but not as meltingly, porkily luxurious as it needed to be. The taco got some crunch and salt from little flecks of chicharron, but in the end, the dominant flavor came from the tortilla.
And the hot sauce, once I dabbed it on.
There were dishes that came with zip. A cabbage-and-jicama-crunchy fish tempura taco was spiced up by chipotle mayo. But it was ruined by its funky, too-firm fish. There was some funkiness to the pastor taco as well. Its tiny pork bits were greasy and its pineapple too syrupy sweet.
But a pulled roasted pork shoulder rice bowl, while not at all spicy, featured moist meat with a definite and pleasant tang. Also in the mix were flavorfully saucy black beans, sweet, soft plantains and tasty, toothsome rice. On top was perched the addendum that can save almost anything — a fried egg with yolk just runny enough to glaze the whole business.
My favorite dish was the spiciest — an esquites app. It came in a little skillet and was filled with fun contradictions — sweet, charred corn laced with very spicy chili, creamy mayo thinned by heat and tarted up with lime. It was perfect.
So was the dessert flan, lightly spiced with cinnamon and dipped, rather than drenched, in a thin burnt-sugar sauce.
Our hot sauce stores well-depleted, we now felt lazily contented as we carved creamy spoonfuls out of our custard, watching every kid in the cocina swarm around the candy jars the minute their meals ended. I loved that scene, just as I got a kick out of the paleta freezer, empty now but ready to be filled by “a local Mexican guy” when the weather turns, says co-owner Jorge Flores.
Which is to say, there is kicky fun to be had at CT Cocina & Taqueria, even if it’s not always found in the food.
All it takes is a little hot sauce to complete the picture.
CT Cocina & Taqueria. 6631 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Sundays. 404-334-0574, ctrestaurantsandyspringsga.com.