If you’re lucky, you’ve got a neighborhood joint close to home. It’s locally owned and one-of-a-kind and probably a little quirky.
Maybe you love it because the food is phenomenal, but it’s just as likely you adore it because you can always count on running into a friend there. Or the owner is a real character who always donates to block parties and school auctions. Maybe you love it simply because it’s yours.
The first time I went to lunch at Oak Grove’s Taqueria El Vecino, I thought it was a funky little cult favorite where the food was sometimes funky, but not in a good way. Rather than a flavor explosion, the charred pork chunks for our pastor taco were dry and bland. A brisket taco was equally forgettable. The charros beans tasted tinny and a not-so-tender tenderloin special was blanketed in a gritty, bitter sauce.
But there was also this priceless housemade salsa bar with sneeze guards and somewhat threatening, taped-on labels. The caption for the jewel green and “HOT!” salsa aquacate was, “This is NOT Guacamole!” The Salsa Dos Chiles was rightfully labelled “VERY HOT” and “NOT Vegetarian.”
There also were crisp-edged, aromatic cilantro corn cakes that made me feel nostalgic. Only later did I realize they were the same corn cakes I used to love at Crescent Moon, the iconic Decatur diner. El Vecino’s owner, Rob Atherholt, was also the man behind Crescent Moon. He lives just down the street from El Vecino, which he launched in 2008 “because I just saw a need in the neighborhood.”
And, finally, there was our server, Stefanie Butler, who charmed us with a wit drier than our taco’s pork nubbins.
“You been here before?” she asked.
When we admitted we were newbies, she said, “I thought so. You had that look about you.”
Later, we told Butler that we liked the cozy pozole soup topped with a biting heap of greens and radishes, but she noted that many of our other plates were left half-full. She apologized for the sub-par grub, citing cooks-in-training in the kitchen that day. Then she knocked 15 percent off our bill.
When I went back to El Vecino on a weeknight, I wanted another crack at that poetically grouchy salsa bar. I wanted a margarita. And I wanted to get out of cooking dinner for my family. On this night, our dinner was so delicious — every single dish — that I believe my lunch at El Vecino simply happened on an off day.
Start with the element that makes this place stand out — wood-smoked Georgia barbecue and a lot of it. Smoked pork butt and belly, chicken and brisket are woven throughout the menu and, most days, the smoke wafts through the air outside, too.
“I used to have a smoker and grill out front,” Atherholt told me. “I would smoke meats a little at a time and people used to dig it. So, I started rolling it into burritos and tacos and it became wildly popular. Now, we have a custom-made smoker out back that holds 400 pounds of meat.”
Anybody who’s had tacos with turnip greens at a certain local chain knows that the Southern-Mexican connection isn’t completely new. But it feels fresh here, particularly in a taco of pork belly that was basted with a tequila-cantaloupe glaze. While delicious smokiness overpowers any notes of melon or tequila in the meat, that glaze surely deserves credit for the belly’s super succulence.
The smoked pork butt burrito is also a stunner, even if it looks like a lonely torpedo on its plate, plunked in the middle without a speck on the side. One bite in, you won’t care. This house-smoked pig has that ripple-effect flavor that I’d hoped for from my lunchtime pastor. The bulging burrito also features chipotle barbecue sauce, fried pickled jalapenos and mashed sweet potatoes. There’s heat and unctuousness and smoke and sweet and a tiny bit of crunch in every addictive bite.
The mole bathing a pulled chicken enchilada is also remarkable for its silky texture, pleasantly spicy burn and subtle hints of coffee and chocolate.
Have these luxurious lovelies with a very cold beer. Vecino’s margarita is lime-packed, but is way too sweet, and the sangria tastes like fruity wine, rather than the booze-layered sunburst that sangria ought to be. However, the ever-changing beer list is impressively crowded with crisp and clever local brews, like Red Brick’s Hoplanta, Fu Manbrew Gose from Monday Night Brewing, and Jekyll Hop Dang Diggity, among many others.
You also should have the breaded and fried avocado app, which sounds like it would be umami overkill, but is actually a summery, crunchy, mayo-drizzled delight. And, if you’re a longtime Atlantan, you should go back on a Sunday morning, as I intend to, for Vecino’s “homage to Crescent Moon” brunch.
But, most of all, you should enjoy the easy hominess of this place. It’s got little in the way of looks, save a cute, skeleton-populated wall mural. And it’s definitely got quirks, like pumpkin flan in the dessert case at the onset of summer and horchata on the menu that never seems to be in stock.
But, that’s part of Atherholt’s lasting magic. The vibe at El Vecino feels much like the one at a backyard barbecue. Even when the food is imperfect, there’s still no place the neighbors would rather be.