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Mexican in Atlanta: A history

Raising and lowering the bar over the past 20 years

This is the first of several columns about Mexican cuisine in Atlanta. This week, I recount highlights of the last 20 years.

I moved to Houston in 1985 to edit a magazine there. I instantly detested the city's climate and appearance, a good example of the hideous result of rapid development unregulated by zoning. In fact, after two weeks, I told my boss I had made a terrible mistake and wanted to return to Atlanta.

She insisted we go to lunch. She drove us to a tiny restaurant that, like everything else in the city, I found instantly unappealing. "I don't like Mexican food," I whined. "It's sickening."

"Shut up, Cliff," she said. "I eat Mexican food every day."

Fifteen minutes later, I was happier than I'd been in two weeks. I don't remember what I ate that day – it was nothing fancy – but the food was nothing like the Mexican fare I had encountered in my Southern upbringing. Some of the food was hot and spicy, but complex because of the use of chilies I'd never encountered. There was real meat – not ground beef! The tortillas were soft and made of corn flour! I didn't get sick to my stomach!

My boss explained to me that we were eating "authentic" interior Mexican cooking – not Tex-Mex, although even that hybrid cuisine was a zillion times better in Houston than in Atlanta. That lunch precipitated a passion for Mexican food that was the convincing factor in leading me to live the better part of a year in San Miguel de Allende, then a kind of refuge for North American bohemian types that was later overtaken by rich international vagrants.

When I returned to Atlanta a few years later and resumed editing Creative Loafing, I began writing this column and complained constantly about the lack of good Mexican food here. You couldn't even find a decent green sauce or pico de gallo in those years. Honestly, outside the dubious Jalisco, there wasn't even any decent Tex-Mex that I recall.

Then Atlanta was hit by a tidal wave of immigration and Buford Highway was transformed into a long strip of taquerias (and Asian restaurants). At long last, I could get a decent taco, but – and this has not changed much – there was plenty that was ordinary even in Houston that I couldn't get here. Tacos made with chicharrones remain rare and carnitas are still only a weekend specialty at many taquerias.

I don't remember the exact order of things, but, slowly, things got a bit more sophisticated. Chance Evans opened Nuevo Laredo Cantina in 1992 and it has continued to garner "best Mexican" awards from various publications. Some of the food is pure Mexican, like the perfect chicken mole, but most of it is actually border cuisine. I hesitate to call it Tex-Mex because of the negative connotations of that label, but, insofar as that goes, it's definitely the best in the city. The restaurant's decor is campy, rather than kitschy: It's tastefully tasteless. I love it.

Taquerias continued to open on Buford Highway and later in the Smyrna area, followed by the airport area. With their untranslated menus and bowls of tripe soup, many intimidated gringos. It wasn't until the opening of Nava, Sundown Café, Agave and Zocalo that mainstream Atlanta got some tastes of "authentic" tacos and some gourmet Mexican food. Actually, Sundown, which has since closed, served mainly Southwestern-style cooking, as do Nava and Agave. But Sundown's chef, Eddie Hernandez, brilliantly designed fusion dishes that echoed the influence of New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and the South.

Meanwhile Lucero Martinez-Obregon and her brothers Marco and Luis opened Zocalo on 10th Street in Midtown. This restaurant, more than any other, exposed Atlantans to dishes from Mexico's interior. But the siblings early on encountered – and continue to encounter – the city's relatively unadventurous taste. They seemed to ricochet between a menu of straightforward tacos and gourmet entrees. Eventually, they opened a full-service gourmet restaurant, Oh....Maria! in Buckhead, about 10 years ago. It quickly crashed, being light years ahead of the city's tastes.

Then they opened Zocalo in Decatur, since closed, and (the delicious) Zocalo Taqueria in Grant Park. Meanwhile, Sundown Café had opened two subsidiaries called Taqueria del Sol. Eventually Sundown itself closed and turned into a Taqueria del Sol, too, dramatically reducing its menu of interesting, gourmet dishes.

Two restaurants emerged to fill the gourmet Mexican niche – Sala: Sabor de Mexico and Rosa Mexicano. The latter is part of a chain that originated in New York. While it does indeed offer some interesting food – like a special chocolate menu not too long ago – you need only compare its regular Atlanta menu to its New York Lincoln Center menu to see how culinarily dumbed-down we are.

Sala is the only ambitious outpost of Mexican cooking these days – and I'm not sure how long that will last. The restaurant, opened by the same people who operate South City Kitchen and La Tavola, hired Jeff Smedstad, a brilliant chef from Phoenix, a year ago and he debuted a menu that was by far the best our city has seen since the closing of Oh...Maria! – and that includes Rosa Mexicano.

Unfortunately, Smedstad departed quickly. The restaurant was then sold to the same people who operate nearby Vine, and they hired a new chef. I visited last week and found the menu unchanged. To test things, we ordered the same entrees we had a year ago. Mine, the pork with a tomatillo-cascabel sauce, garnished with radishes and melted Oaxacan cheese, was as good as I recollected. Wood-roasted fish – snapper, I believe – was still good, too, bathed in a chili-spiked tomato broth with olives and capers.

An appetizer of elote, grilled corn shaved from the cob and blended with spicy mayo, was addictive. Taquitos, filled with adobada-rubbed duck, were a bit bland and a dessert, the corn cake we ordered a year ago, seemed less impressive than we remembered.

With the tentative exception of Sala and the highly commercial Rosa Mexicano, Atlanta just can't seem to support creative, gourmet Mexican cooking. The bar is raised and lowered, raised and lowered and, right now, it's at a low point.

Next week, I'll compare two taquerias – one appealing to Mexicans and one appealing to gringos.



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