Border cuisine

Three Atlanta taquerias have very different approaches

Lucero Martinez-Obregon is among the best Mexican cooks catering to gringos in our city. Also an artist who worked for Paul Luna, our city's mad culinary genius of the last decade, Lucero and her two brothers own Zocalo on 10th Street in Midtown and Zocalo Taqueria (465 Boulevard, 404-535-9930) in Grant Park.

On a recent weeknight at the taqueria, we were chatting about the city's fondness for Mexican food – as long as it's not too authentic. Lucero said there's no shortage of restaurant owners and chefs who would like to cook authentic Mexican food. The problem is that the public prefers Tex-Mex cooking.

In fact, the owner of the most popular Tex-Mex restaurant in the city used to come into Zocalo and order dozens of tacos to go, she said. "We weren't sure what he was doing with them, but we knew we were supposed to pretend like we didn't know who he was." Recently, she said, the owner of a new taqueria came in and "anonymously" ordered one of everything on the menu. "I guess he was doing research," she said, shrugging.

Zocalo Taqueria's closeness to my home makes it my most frequent destination for tacos. I have to admit the quality has not been very consistent until recently; Lucero seems to be spending more time in the kitchen there. My favorite taco is the arrachera, a blend of marinated beef, chorizo and chicharrónes with salsa verde. And I also like the chili relleno taco and the quesadilla made with al pastor. Like every other mainstream Mexican restaurant, Zocalo also sells Americanized dishes such as oversized burritos and tacos filled with ground beef and lettuce (appropriately named the "Gringo Loco").

I asked Lucero where she liked to eat tacos herself and she said one of her favorite destinations is El Rey del Taco (5288 Buford Highway, 770-986-0032). I actually went there for Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago and found the restaurant's fare a bit overwhelming. Wayne and I both ordered gigantic mixed grills of meat – your choice of everything from goat and tripe to al pastor and carnitas – that were served covered in melted cheese with avocado and jalapeños. Each pan made plenty of tacos for two.

Lucero told me to pay closer attention to taco and quesadilla specials but she warned that they weren't always available. I visited on a Sunday and was excited to discover, on an English menu, pumpkin-flower ("flor de calabaza") quesadillas. Unlike the quesadillas gringos are most accustomed to, El Rey's are made of large corn tortillas folded in half with a filling. They more resemble oversized tacos. The tortillas themselves make a trip to the restaurant worthwhile. They are big, fluffy, hot and redolent of corn. The pumpkin-flower filling was light and earthy, completely unique to me.

I also ordered an entree – a poblano chili stuffed with shrimp, drowning in a red sauce. Don't bother. The chili itself was overcooked and the filling was tasteless baby shrimp. The bowl of frijoles charros was the best thing about the $12 dish.

Recalling Lucero's advice, I had asked the server on arriving – in English and Spanish – if there were any specials. "Only on weekdays," she replied. I was surprised, since specials – like menudo or pozole – are usually available only on weekends in most Mexican cafes around town.

So I returned a few days later, hoping to try something special. "Are there any specialties today?" I asked the server.

"Only on Saturday and Sunday," she replied.

D'oh! I scoured the Spanish menu and indeed found, buried on one page a list of quesadillas featuring, besides pumpkin flowers, nopales (cactus), huitlacoche (delicious corn fungus), rajas (strips of roasted poblanos) and more.

I contented myself with the usual tacos – al pastor, carnitas and suadero – made with the billowy corn tortillas. The suadero was my favorite. (In fact, I ended up having two.) If you haven't had suadero before, it's a very smooth, almost creamy meat from the cow's rib. The tacos were served with a fiery, thick green sauce and a pink sauce I could not identify, but it had so many layers of flavor, I wanted to steal the container of it.

I also sampled the restaurant's homemade, dense, sweet flan.

As a contrast, I also visited the new Holy Taco (1314 Glenwood Ave., 404-230-6177) recently. This is the latest tenant to occupy the building originally converted to restaurant use by Iris. I'm mystified why East Atlanta Village would get another Mexican spot, with La Casita and the Blue Frog Cantina nearby.

I expected another usual Mexican-for-gringos menu and I was mainly right, but there were some pleasant surprises. The main one was an appetizer of elote – roasted corn on the cobb drizzled with an aiolilike mayo and white cheese. I also found the chili relleno, prepared traditionally in a light batter with a cheese filling, excellent – better, in fact, than El Rey del Taco's.

But tacos of pork and brisket were subpar. Fillings were bland and the things were impossible to pick up. They were made with small, single-layer corn tortillas that were soggy and falling apart. (Diners at a neighboring table complained about the same thing.) The tacos were not served with a drop of salsa. Apparently you have to buy salsa separately, which is a novelty.

A shrimp quesadilla was ludicrous. Its "grilled shrimp" had been cut into pieces and scattered so sparsely, they were barely noticeable. It wasn't worth half its $3.25 cost.

The restaurant is not limited to Mexican dishes. An entree of grilled Peruvian chicken, for example, was simple and savory. It was served all by its lonesome, without so much as a garnish, so you might want to ask for a side of rice and beans if you order it.

A dessert of sopapillas with honey was retro fun.

These three restaurants exhibit stark menu differences, even though all are working basically in the taqueria style. None of them lacks talent in the kitchen, despite the occasional glitch. The big difference in the three seems to be the palates of their customers. I guess that's a necessary consideration for any restaurant that wants to stay in business, but, believe me, things could be so much better.

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