The first time I flipped through the pages of “Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Rux Martin Books, $30), the new cookbook by Eddie Hernandez and Susan Puckett, I had a sudden deja vu-like sensation of visiting with some old friends.
Hernandez is the executive chef of Atlanta-based Taqueria del Sol, a pioneering fast-casual concept that had its roots in Sundown Cafe, a full-service Atlanta restaurant he opened with business partner Mike Klank in 1991.
Between those two places, I’ve been savoring the elegantly deceiving simplicity of chef Eddie’s cooking for over 25 years — dipping warm tortilla chips into ultra-fresh salsas and chunky guacamole, scarfing down confit-like pork carnitas tacos, and slurping up quirky creations like shrimp corn chowder.
During part of that time, Puckett was the food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was the first person to give me a chance to write about restaurants and cooking.
A few weeks ago, I met Hernandez and Puckett on the patio of Taqueria del Sol in Decatur to talk about “Turnip Greens & Tortillas.” I reminded them of that history, and told them there was no way I could be objective about the book. But then how could any number of people who have known and loved Eddie’s dishes, and have clamored for his recipes?
“Obviously, I go to a lot of restaurants,” Puckett said. “And I like to go to a lot of different places. But my husband and I were trying to calculate how many times we’ve been here together. We calculated well over 300 or 400 times. One year, I kept all my receipts and I had over 50.”
So what is the secret, seemingly subliminal attraction of the food at Taqueria del Sol? Somehow I think it manages to simultaneously touch on the two main reasons for dining out: novelty and comfort.
There are always specials. Some as left field as the recent Ball Park taco, described on the menu as “A flour tortilla filled with grilled all-beef hot dog, beef red chili, jalapeno coleslaw and mustard.”
And there are always the assurances of off-menu favorites for those in the know. The George, named for one of Taqueria’s longtime employees, is an addictive mashup of three perennial sides: Mexican rice, turnip greens, and charros beans.
But the bottom line is that there are very few restaurants that can deliver quality so quickly at such low prices.
“Mike and I created a concept that worked to minimize costs, and we could do a really big volume at a time when volume wasn’t really appreciated,” Hernandez said. “In 2000, we were doing $1.99 tacos, and people loved them. It’s 18 years later, and our tacos are still only $2.49, and people still love them.”
Even if you’ve never eaten at Taqueria del Sol, “Turnip Greens & Tortillas” will make an impression as a fascinating document of Hernandez’s life and times, captured with Puckett, who helped him tell his story and present his dishes in recipes that home cooks will easily take to.
What you’ll learn in the first person narrative that serves to introduce Hernandez is that he grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where he spent time in the kitchen with his grandmother, who owned several restaurants and bars there.
“Being a chef was never in my plans,” he once told me. And for many years, he worked day jobs while touring as a drummer in a popular Latin band.
Ultimately, though, Hernandez decided that wasn’t the best life for him, and a trip to visit a friend in Atlanta set him on a course that eventually changed his mind and forever changed the food scene in the city.
Most importantly, as a self-made chef, Hernandez epitomizes the intersections of Mexican, Southwestern and Southern foodways, constantly inventing while crossing cuisines, much like a musician riffing on an old standard tune.
And he’s never been afraid to try something new or go against the grain of what he calls “food correct.”
“In Mexico we eat what we like and don’t worry about what is authentic to this cuisine or that,” he declares in “Turnip Greens & Tortillas.”
“We take shortcuts. We improvise. We adapt to whatever is around us.”
These recipes and introductions from “Turnip Greens & Tortillas,” the new cookbook by chef Eddie Hernandez, the executive chef of Taqueria del Sol in Atlanta, intersect Mexican, Southwestern and Southern cuisine with elegantly deceiving simplicity.
Chunky Mexican-Style Guacamole
For our house guacamole, we use only Hass avocados — the almost-black, pebbly-skinned variety prized for its smooth, buttery flesh. Hass avocados are delicious on their own but even better when mixed with some finely chopped tomato, onion, cilantro, and chile, along with a dash of salt and citrus. (I prefer the less acidic taste of lemon rather than lime juice.) We fry the jalapeño first to mellow its flavor. In addition to being perfect for dipping chips into, this guacamole is also great paired with slices of grilled steak in a taco.
Chicken-Green Chile Potpie in Puffy Tortilla Shells
Many customers have told me this is the best potpie they’ve ever tried. The creamy chicken and vegetable filling, punched up with sour cream, fresh thyme, and jalapeños, is hard to beat. But what really makes it memorable is the presentation. Instead of a traditional crust, I drop flour tortillas one at a time into hot oil for just a minute, long enough for them to puff up and turn golden brown. Then I carefully crack the tops open and spoon the filling in. I recommend using La Banderita tortillas, as they are a little thicker than other brands and puff up better. If you don’t want to mess with the hot oil, you can substitute baked puff pastry shells or even hot biscuits for the tortillas.
I like sauce and gravy — and lots of it. You can thicken sauces and gravies with a paste of flour (or cornstarch) and cold water, or make a beurre manié the way the French do, by blending softened butter and flour with your fingers or a spoon, and stirring in bits at the end of the cooking. You have to be very careful with the methods, though, because if you don’t cook the sauce long enough, it will have a raw flour taste. But you will never have this problem if you make a blond, or white, roux, as cooks do in Louisiana. In a blond roux, the butter and flour mixture is cooked, and it thickens without imparting much flavor and with little risk of lumps forming. Unlike the more time-consuming dark roux used for gumbo, this cream-colored roux is hard to mess up and takes only a few minutes to make.
Other than the oranges offered from big wooden bowls on the table, Taqueria del Sol has one dessert, which you will not see on the menu: natilla. It’s a creamy, refreshing vanilla pudding infused with cinnamon, which is popular throughout Mexico. I like to eat it warm, straight out of the pan, on a cold day. But most people like it chilled, and that is how we serve it. Traditionally it’s thickened with egg yolks, but years ago I wanted to create a lighter version and switched to cornstarch. It was very popular at our previous restaurant, Sundown Café. I started making pans of it at Taqueria del Sol for customers who remembered it from our earlier restaurant and begged us to put it on the menu. Now it’s available every day — but you have to know to ask for it.
Taqueria del Sol Jalapeno-Cheese Dip
Taqueria del Sol’s Jalapeno-Cheese Dip has long been a crowd-pleaser. So much so that chef-partner Eddie Hernandez includes it in his cookbook “Turnip Greens & Tortillas” (Rux Martin, $30), written with former AJC food editor Susan Puckett, to be released this April. “People love our velvety cheese dip and are always asking for the secret to how we make it,” writes Hernandez. “The key is using the right cheese, and here is where it can get a little tricky. We use Land O Lakes Extra Melt White American Cheese, the product most respectable Tex-Mex restaurants choose for achieving this smooth texture that’s just the right consistency for dipping a chip into. Unfortunately it’s hard to find retail, but other white pasteurized process American cheeses from the deli case can come very close, such as Boar’s Head.” Hernandez cautions against Velveeta for this recipe due to the minimal ingredients. “There’s nothing to mask those artificial flavors that keep it shelf stable.” He also discourages using a more expensive, natural cheese. “The sharper the cheese, the grainier it will be,” he says. His final tip: Grate the cheese yourself, just prior to using it so that the cheese does not dry out.
Recipes excerpted from “Turnip Greens & Tortillas,” © 2018 by Eddie Hernandez & Susan Puckett. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Rux Martin Books. All rights reserved.