- By Wendell Brock For the AJC
I’ve been eating a lot of tacos lately, and I have a few observations about the explosive taco scene in Atlanta.
There are no great fish tacos in town. I know, I know. Taqueria del Sol’s are famous, and they are delicious: strips of crispy fried tilapia drizzled with poblano tartar sauce and tucked into a flour tortilla. Chef Eddie Hernandez’s 18-year-old chain has a cult following, and this is one reason why. But where are the fat, over-stuffed Baja fish tacos, dripping with a mess of shredded cabbage, pico de gallo and creamy white sauce, a lime wedge on the side? For that matter, where are the fried oyster tacos?
Chefs are losing their minds with trendy trimmings and toppings. Focus on the meat, guys! The classic street tacos of Mexico — al pastor, barbacoa, lengua, tinga, carnitas, carne asado — are rarely garnished with any more than chopped white onion and cilantro.
A good tortilla is hard to find. Many restaurants sling tacos at a brisk volume. If they craft tortillas by hand, they’re going to have a bunch of mad, hungry people waiting for their food to come out. Thankfully, some chefs have found suppliers who can mass-produce tortillas so good you would think they were made on the spot. Others serve tacos in gummy, grocery-store-quality flour wraps. No thanks.
Flour or corn? If you get flummoxed trying to decide, a couple of tips: Corn is gluten-free, traditional and tastes so much better to me. Flour tortillas seem to work well with seafood. If you ever find a good fried fish taco, remember that. And call me!
The good news, for all my quibbles, is that there are some darn tasty tacos around. Here’s a look at what’s new:
Strange Taco Bar
Braised lamb with cucumber, cilantro-cream and pickled red onion. Fried clams with horseradish, onions and cilantro. Scrambled eggs with pepper jack, pico and crispy tortilla strips. Such are the so-called “nontraditional American tacos” offered in this old gas station in downtown Lawrenceville. Sliding into this fast-casual joint on a busy Saturday night, not knowing quite what to expect, we were energized by the dynamic flavor combos. Open since August, Strange Taco Bar is the handiwork of the partners behind Local Republic, the name a riff on Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove.” Margaritas come in 16-ounce plastic cups. The service is friendly and helpful in navigating the 19-taco menu. And there are lots of wonderful options, including a fantastic braised duck with red cabbage and wasabi aioli. If good tacos are an antidote to the strange times we live in, take shelter here. 225 W. Crogan St., Lawrenceville. 678-869-5220, Facebook: Strange Taco Bar.
Taco Cantina O4W
Zipping down Boulevard, it’s easy to speed past chef Adolfo Gonzalez’s new Old Fourth Ward taqueria. But once you spy it (in Tribute Lofts next to Condesa Coffee), perch yourself at the bar and order a couple of tacos, you’ll want to stay a while. A native of Zacatlan, Mexico, Gonzalez opened the original Taco Cantina in Smyrna with his wife, Brianna, in 2015. For the second location, Gonzalez and sous chef Victor Nino offer a solid menu of classic Mexican street-food fillings, some of which can be had spread over crispy tostados or tucked into tortas.
You’ll want to start with tacos on corn tortillas. Among the best are the barbacoa, chorizo, tinga and the vegan portobello-cauliflower confit. I love the tang of pickled red onions against the fatty richness of the braised, guajillo-sauced brisket barbecue (barbacoa), the way a sprinkling of queso fresco balances the chipotle-flavored tinga, and the cubed potatoes that temper the oil and heat of chorizo. A good way to sample the cooking is to order a taco combo, which comes with solid black beans, plain white rice and a Jarritos soda. (Try the guava.) Alas, the rice and beans come in separate dishes, plopped cafeteria style on a tray with the tacos, so it’s hard to mix them together. If you are looking to have cocktails and a more copious spread, start with a house rita and bowl of warm gooey queso. 480 John Wesley Dobbs Ave., Atlanta. 404-963-2146, mytacocantinao4w.com.
Before opening his swanky Golden Eagle lounge in the same building, Ladybird Grove & Mess Hall owner Michael Lennox debuted this breakfast and lunch spot, where executive chef Jason Simpson serves some really fine tacos on excellent house-made tortillas, the best I tried in the course of researching this story. You can get fancy toast (ricotta and jam, avocado, smoked salmon), grain and poke bowls, wonderful coffee and pastries here. But my idea of a fine lunch is a set of Muchacho tacos and a can of beer, followed by a nap. I was really happy with my chorizo and egg breakfast taco; the sweet, zingy short rib barbacoa; and the rajas (poblano strips with veggies). A classic al pastor, zippy with chiles and sweetened with pineapple, is another regular option on the simple, four-taco list. 904 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta. 404-748-9254, muchachoatl.com.
Yes, I know this story is about tacos, but first let me tell you about the queso. Cabo’s is the only version I know that can be had with flaky crab. Stir in the luxurious fresh crabmeat, and it cools the dip just enough for it to thicken and adhere to a chip. It’s a divine way to start a taco tasting, maybe with a super-cold draft Modelo Especial or a margarita, and it’s a good bit lighter than queso mixed with, say, chorizo. Partner Laurend Abraham took over Cabo about a year ago and hired chef Carlos Hernandez.
They bring a much-needed south-of-the-border flair to Buckhead: craft cocktails, ceviche and salads, gourmet burritos and enchiladas, and, yes, tacos. I like the blackened shark catfish taco with jalapeno aioli and pineapple salsa, and the cheese-steak-y texture of the short rib, with sauteed onions, peppers and melted pepper jack. The place has a neighborhood vibe and a menu worth exploring. 264 Pharr Road, Atlanta. 404-917-2620, cabocantinaga.com.
Lean Draft House
After chowing down on a tray of tacos at this beer parlor beside the Beltline’s Westside Trail, I had to message owner Leo Inestroza to ask if the tortillas were made in house. Nope. But coulda fooled me. I was impressed with Lean Draft House when I reviewed it last fall.After a revisit, I’m happy to report the tacos are even better. A great time to try some is on Taco Tuesday, the one day of the week the restaurant offers its menu of $2 “cantina tacos,” on 4-inch tortillas versus the normal 6-inch. Carnitas, served with cilantro, onion and avocado salsa, are close to traditional, and quite delicious. So are the barbacoa (tender brisket with a touch of spicy chile de arbol salsa, plus onions and cilantro) and the fried grouper (lightly breaded fish on a flour tortilla with cabbage, mayo, chipotle tartar and pico). Blackened grouper is good, too. There’s always a $2 lager on tap, which means you can get a trio of tacos and a pint for $10 plus change. And some of the best tacos in town, at that. 600 Hopkins St. SW, Atlanta. 404-254-0987, Facebook: Lean Draft House.
At the pricier end of the pool is this late-night lair from the partners behind the Pinewood in Decatur and the Mercury at Ponce City Market. Tacos are all $4. Of the three I tried, I really liked the tender, unctuous carnitas. Buttermilk fried mahi-mahi was dressed like a Baja taco but not especially memorable. And the “ground beef gringo,” a riff on the time-honored filling familiar to the taco-kit generation, was bland and flavorless. The grated cheddar glowed brighter and oranger as the room’s mood lighting turned blue and the DJ cranked up the volume for the dance crowd. Disco tacos, anyone? Loved the music; didn’t care for grainy queso or the sweetly forgettable house margarita. 621 North Ave. NE, Atlanta. 470-823-3102, 10apart.com/deep-end.