I say hot dogs, you say Mexican…

A couple of Saturdays ago, my daughter’s mercurial teenage weirdness reared its ugly head. In the afternoon, we had gone to Chamblee for pizza, since she enjoys pizza so much, only to have her order a salad instead. In the evening, I asked Marie what she’d like for dinner. Marie suggested hot dogs, or possibly Mexican. I leaned toward the former; on Thursday, I had gone out for lunch at Taxco, the venerable Tex-Mex palace on Roswell Road, right where the Atlanta and Sandy Springs city limits crash together, and didn’t enjoy it very much. Continue reading “I say hot dogs, you say Mexican…”

Jalisco, Atlanta GA

In January, I wrote about the popular Nuevo Laredo Cantina, and noted then that every three or four months, I get a little peckish for El-This-Los-That Atlanta-styled “Mexican” food. The story goes that the red sauce-and-cheese style of Mexican food – the sort of place where, in the late 1980s, we all gorged on cheese dip – was brought to Atlanta by the founder of the local chain of Monterrey restaurants around 1974. Continue reading “Jalisco, Atlanta GA”

Nuevo Laredo Cantina, Atlanta GA

Meredith Ford’s name is still on the front window of Nuevo Laredo, still barred from entering. Four years ago, the former AJC critic penned a quite mild criticism of the restaurant for the newspaper and war was declared. At the time, only a handful of blogs were active, and this was an early-to-our-hobby example of something that all food writers, bloggers and amateur critics have since come to know: conveying the gentlest of disappointments can be, in the eyes of the faithful (or the owners), a blight upon God’s eye. Continue reading “Nuevo Laredo Cantina, Atlanta GA”

Papa’s & Beer, Asheville NC

Not every restaurant in Asheville is a farm-to-table, low-footprint indie, although quite a few of the places in the city’s wonderful downtown are. As you get away from the downtown area and into the sprawl, you’ll find the fern bars and the chains, although there are actually a couple of decent places to eat alongside the Olive Gardens and Red Lobsters on Tunnel Road. One of these had been Fiddlin Pig Bluegrass and Blues, which had shared a parking lot with an Outback Steakhouse or something. Marie and I had eaten here on our honeymoon and we were looking forward to a return visit, but were disappointed to find that the business had closed quite some time earlier and nobody had yet updated Urbanspoon with the news. Then again, it was on Tunnel Road, and most restaurant hobbyists are not interested in what happens on Tunnel Road. Continue reading “Papa’s & Beer, Asheville NC”

Pork Tamales from Zocalo

Last month, I shared how our trip to Mississippi found me looking, unsuccessfully, for tamales in the wrong part of the state. The tamales that I did find, at Petty’s BBQ in Starkville, were not at all like what I was expecting. Obviously, regional and family recipes are going to vary, and that’s a great thing, but I was sort of hoping for something in particular – thick, starchy cornmeal boiled in a corn husk – and did not get it. I resolved that at some point, I’d make sure that the road took me back to the Mississippi Delta and I could hunt around for other takes on the dish.

So I was quite surprised when, just a few weeks later, I found homemade tamales for sale at the Marietta Square Farmers Market. They’ve actually been right under my nose for ages at the Zocalo stand. I’m such a chump. I’ve been shopping at the farmer’s market with Marie for all this time and occasionally snuck a few samples of chips-n-salsa and it never even occurred to me to look twice at what these good folks offer. They sell tamales, prepared the night before, in bags of a half-dozen for $15.

Zocalo opened its first restaurant in 1995. I’ve never visited, but evidently, I should. It appears to be one of the first Mexican restaurants in Atlanta to make the strong claim of being traditional. For many years, they didn’t even serve chips-n-salsa, as that is an American tradition. The restaurant slowly grew from its location on 10th Street into two other stores. Sadly, the recession hit it pretty hard and the stores in Decatur and Grant Park shuttered. The owners, brothers Marco and Luis Martinez, needed a new revenue stream, and fast. They’d already capitulated on the chips-n-salsa issue, and began looking into placing a small variety of pre-packaged salsas in grocery stores.

I should digress here, especially since I’ve mentioned Mexican-style places in this blog several times this month, and explain that while I do feel strongly about traditions being upheld and want to applaud restaurants that do it the original, right way, I personally used to really, really love the pleasure of absolutely gorging myself stupid on chips-n-salsa. Times and tastes change, and red salsas no longer hold the attraction that they once did. I still keep a bag of Golden Flake brand Maizetos in the pantry, and usually eat them with Zapatas brand medium green salsa verde. The typical red ketchupy salsa usually found on tables at all the El-This-Los-That places around Atlanta, well, that’s not what I’m looking to eat anymore. Michael, a buddy of mine in California, once explained, “that stuff’s not salsa, it’s Marinara sauce.” I still sample with a smile, but the days of keeping the server at hard work constantly refreshing me are long, long gone.

So anyway, the fellows at Zocalo decided to try out a line of salsas at the farmers market on Peachtree Road. They found they were definitely onto a winner, but perhaps not necessarily one that can be packaged and shipped away quite just yet. Instead, they keep their kitchens open all night from Friday to Saturday morning, making tamales and, I believe, seven fresh varieties of salsa, and then send sales teams to something like thirty different farmers markets in Georgia, Florida and in Chattanooga selling salsa that’s just a few hours old. This has proved to be a really good idea. According to a profile in Atlanta Magazine in March, they sold 54,000 units last year and are hoping to hit 70,000 in 2011.

After all this discussion, I hope I’m not hitting too sour a note when I say that the tamales were really just okay. We enjoyed some for supper the night that we bought them, along with some astonishingly good brandywine tomatoes and guacamole that Marie made from avocados that she bought that morning. We couldn’t quite get the tamales to heat evenly through, although the pork, spiced with adobo salsa, really was quite tasty.

Clearly, what is still needed is a trip to the Delta and a tamale straight from a boiler, with none of this business of packing in ice and reheating. But that’s okay; I am certainly grateful of Zocalo giving me the chance to try the real thing, and I made sure they knew of my appreciation. The following week, I asked Marie to bring me home a container of their amazing arbol salsa to eat at home with Maizetos. It’s the least I could do.

Pure Taqueria, Woodstock GA

So there’s this burrito place in Kennesaw that has been defying my efforts to eat there for years. I went there once and learned they were closed on Sundays. I went again and they were on vacation. I’m guessing that they take off every July 4th, because it was probably a year before Marie suggested burritos and I remembered the place and we drove that way and found them closed again. That’s three times that one place has stymied my plans. They win this round.

So we went back to Woodstock for the second time that day. For lunch, we had gone to Bub-Ba-Q, an area favorite, and enjoyed their appetizer portion of burnt ends for the first time. Since I was hoping for someplace new to our blog for supper, we followed that up with a visit to Pure Taqueria in the small city’s charming downtown. It’s located right across the plaza from Canyons Burger Company, and next door to what had been The Right Wing Tavern, a popular local place that unexpectedly closed quite suddenly a week or so before. This wasn’t a place that I was in any hurry to ever enter, but it was very surprising to learn that the restaurant that really drove that downtown’s resurgence shut down so abruptly.

When I was working in Alpharetta a few years back, the original Pure – named because the small building was once the home of a Pure Oil gas station – was one of the region’s foodie faves of the hour, always drawing huge crowds of all ages. The Woodstock location is one of two additional Atlanta sites. They have also opened in Matthews, NC and a fourth Atlanta store, in Duluth, is scheduled for a September opening.

Pure is one of those very rare places where we can’t fault anything specific, but it’s just far, far too loud and hot for us old-timers and a baby looking for a nice family dinner. The food was really quite good, and our server was incredibly awesome. Committing the giant volume of nightly specials to memory isn’t the work of novices. Marie enjoyed her burrito, and I quite liked my meatballs, called albondigas, which were served in a chipotle tomato sauce. My daughter had the chicken taquitos and said that she really enjoyed those, too.

By the time our entrees were served, however, we were already sweating buckets and tired of yelling at each other to be heard over the music. Honestly, this just isn’t a summertime place for us, certainly not on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, the restaurant’s design, evoking an old garage with the huge doors and high ceilings, does not lend itself to really good air conditioning. My daughter finally gave up and went outside, where a light breeze made the high nineties feel more livable. I’d like to revisit Pure on a weekday evening in the fall, and maybe sit on the upstairs patio when it’s cooler. If the food is consistently this good, I think that we’d all enjoy that experience a good deal more.


Other blog posts about Pure:

Food Near Snellville (May 31 2009)
Atlanta Restaurant Blog (Nov. 17 2009)
Atlanta Etc. (July 22 2011)
Roots in Alpharetta (Mar. 2 2012)

Taco Cabana, Atlanta GA (CLOSED)

You can’t miss this restaurant at the intersection of Piedmont and Monroe. It’s the place that looks like the two fellows from Miami Vice are about to beat up on the guy bringing in all the cocaine in his DeLorean. Taco Cabana has always been this garish, and that’s part of why they spent about six years in court defending their look.

In the late eighties and early nineties, this spot was occupied by a nearly-identical restaurant called Two Pesos. This was the only Atlanta location of a chain that had started in Houston in 1985. I ate here several times when I was in high school and when I came home during my first year of college. In fact, my very first car – and here’s an odd memory – died for good one night after a meal here. It was a wonderful, gigantic 1979 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and that great beauty would have driven me to Europe and back, had I asked. I was having car trouble all day, and fretted with two friends at Two Pesos what I would do if it couldn’t be repaired. Well, it couldn’t. It cranked twice more, once when I left the restaurant after a horrible, grinding shriek of metal, and once, for the final time, after it conked out again at a traffic light down the road. So Two Pesos was my last meal with that Oldsmobile.

What I didn’t know then was that Two Pesos was already years into a losing battle defending their business. Two Pesos had been started by some businessmen, allied with a former manager of one of San Antonio’s Taco Cabana stores, in 1985. Within a couple of years, Two Pesos had blanketed Texas with locations, and the much slower-growing Taco Cabana found themselves facing competition from a lookalike copycat which had established themselves in cities like Houston and Dallas, flinging locations as far afield as Colorado and Georgia to establish themselves ahead of where Taco Cabana could go.

So Taco Cabana sued Two Pesos for ripping off their look, feel, design, store layout and menu to such a degree that customers were left confused as to which came first. The Supreme Court eventually weighed in Taco Cabana’s favor. Left with a lower court order to completely reconstruct every one of their existing stores, Two Pesos elected instead to sell out to Taco Cabana. The Atlanta store was remade and remodeled into a Taco Cabana over the course of about an afternoon.

I’m not sure why I never popped back by the business, whatever its name, after that fateful evening when my car cranked for the last time. I remember they always had decent food at great prices, but the road just never took me by again. Well, not when I was ready for a meal there, anyway. Years and years passed and I read about the slugfest that the two restaurants had in court and figured that I should stop by again. It might make a readable story, if nothing else. Or something weird might happen.

Now, one thing that I didn’t like about my trip to Taco Cabana is that they don’t have chips, although they offer them. For ninety-nine cents, you get a pair of flour tortillas that you can rip into small pieces and eat with their tasty salsas. Somebody should tell that guy behind the register that those aren’t chips. So I had two tortillas along with a platter of two chicken tacos, rice and beans. I asked for one hard shell and one soft in order to sample some different flavors, and thought that chicken was very good for this sort of food. There was nothing very unusual or weird in my meal, but it was a step or two up from what you’d get at a similar place, and priced right. I liked the layout and the big patio space, which is probably quite fun and relaxing in warmer weather.

So then I went to my car and it would not start. I turned the key and nothing happened. The whole electrical system was not responding.

I know this must be impossible to believe, but twenty-one years after my Oldsmobile sputtered and died after I had a meal in this building, I came here for the first time and the hotdamned restaurant killed my Camry. You want to tell me the odds of that?

Turned out I had one of those very rare car problems that I can actually solve. One of the battery terminals had a loose connection. I avoided a freakout, shook my head in disbelief, popped the hood, jiggled it, bit my lip, tried again, thanked God and drove, nerves wracked, to my brother, who spent a few minutes replacing bits and tightening things and making sure I was roadworthy again.

I figure Taco Cabana is surely the safest restaurant in the city now. My car’s had problems there twice. It’s like Garp buying that house in John Irving’s novel after an airplane crashes into it. There’s just no way in the universe I could possibly have car problems there three times, right?