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Holy Taco dining review, East Atlanta Village

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When I vetoed the cheese dip, my family looked ready to kill me. Here we were past our normal dinner hour on a school night in a Mexican restaurant, sniping from hunger. That’s precisely the situation cheese dip is made for, right? You sit down, and within seconds you’re mindlessly dipping crunchy chips into pacifying goo.

Review by John Kessler

Review by John Kessler

And, yes, there was a version of cheese dip on the menu at Holy Taco. But there were also so many dishes begging to be mindfully eaten. How about an apple salad, or a roasted onion soup, or a plate of lamb sausages? This taco business was but a jumping-off point for a far more interesting agenda.

Chef Robert Phalen and his business partners opened Holy Taco three years ago in East Atlanta Village – the former Iris location – with a straightforward neighborhood taqueria menu. Everyone likes a good taco (or a bad taco), a margarita and a seat on a pretty patio, right? Right. The neighbors came, they crunched, and they drank margaritas by the plastic pitcher.

But Phalen, a nervy and inventive cook who used to work under chef Shaun Doty, kept changing it up. He added items, tested the waters, saw what people would eat if it didn’t cost too much.

Goat, chicken heart and vegan tacos (Photos by Becky Stein)

Goat, chicken heart and vegan tacos (Photos by Becky Stein)

Today he serves one of the coolest menus in town – approachable enough to sate you with rib-sticking quesadillas and enchiladas, challenging enough to make room for not one but two kinds of animal heart (chicken and veal). It doesn’t all work, but there’s such a friendly spirit to this food that you’re happy anyway.

Choosing is the hard part. I highly recommend taking some time to peruse the menu with a Rosalinda margarita ($9.25) in hand. Reposado tequila, mellowed from its barrel age, combines with grapefruit and lime juices and rosemary syrup that gives it a perfect herbal top note, not a mouthful of Pine Sol.

The ideal bite with that? Green apple salad ($5), formed of tiny cubes of apple blended with identical cubes of Drunken Goat cheese, pine nuts and fennel fronds. My kids gave up on their chips and salsa when this started circling the table.

Merguez sausages with romesco sauce and warm almond salad

Merguez sausages with romesco sauce and warm almond salad

It was the first of many small plates we ordered – the best way to get a feel for Phalen’s cooking. Hot links of spicy lamb merguez sausage ($7) come with thick romesco sauce (roasted pepper and almond are the main ingredients) and a warm almond salad. A crab cake ($8), all lump meat, with creamy mustard sauce is just as good as the $20 crab cake you’d order in a top seafood restaurant, but half the size. How smart is this?

Phalen gets just how flavors need to pop in a salad. A simple toss of local organic greens ($7) takes avocado, radish, pickled shallot and manchego cheese along for the ride. It’s infinitely inhaleable, because each bite is different – creamy, or sharp, or clean.

He tries the same trick with onion soup ($6) – a thick, sweet purée a waiter pours over an arrangement of serrano ham, slips of manchego cheese and dollops of onion chutney in a soup plate. It all kind of ends up as chunky sludge, but I do appreciate the very fact that a waiter is doing tableside service in a taco joint with cinderblock walls.

kessler.0218The space – a service station rehab – feels harder and more industrial than it did as Iris. But this low-key vibe makes the food more surprising.

I could make a meal of the small plates and some of the vegetable sides, and call it a day. Roasted cauliflower ($5) arrives heaped on a plate with slips of date and green olive for sweet-savory contrast. The ever-popular roasted organic corn on the cob ($3) comes like it does in a Mexican street stall, pocked black from the fire, gobbed with mayo and showered with queso fresco.

But I wouldn’t miss the tacos, particularly if you’re game for one heaped with buttermilk-fried chicken hearts ($3), which are springy in texture and suave-tasting against pickled red onion slivers. Stewed, shredded goat ($3.50) dripping with spicy braising juices brings an easy and inexpensive introduction to this tasty meat. The goat-averse shouldn’t miss a vegan taco ($3) bursting with beans, rice, avocado and radish.

The Mexican-style entrees I’ve tried, however, seem a little stodgy to me. A stacked chicken and mole enchilada ($11) is a huge affair, with a crest of greens on top like an Easter bonnet. But it’s tiresome and gluey by bite two. Same for a short rib torta ($8): the thick slab of meat in this sandwich gets no help from its garnish of pickled turnip and creamy sauce. It needs to brighten up. A fried squid quesadilla ($7.50) seems like so much fun until that first funky bite or two turns to rubber bands encased in hardening cheese in your mouth. Charitably, I’d call this stoner food manqué.

Best is a chimichanga ($10). You break open its fried tortilla shell to a steaming center of long-roasted pork that kind of spills out. But the message I got from both meals is this: stick to the small plates, and order as many of them as you can.

Oh, and don’t forget the churros ($5) for dessert. You get a huge platter of these fried dough sticks with a thick chocolate for dipping. It makes people who didn’t get their cheese dip very happy.

HOLY TACO
1314 Glenwood Ave., Atlanta, 404-230-6177
3stars5
Food: Mexican neighborhood taqueria, but far from your standard cheese-dip pit
Service: Generally fine, but casual enough for gaffes that might annoy some
Best dishes: Lettuce salad, chicken heart tacos, grilled corn on the cob, pork chimichanga, apple salad, churros
Vegetarian selections: Quite a few; consider this joint veg-friendly
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Thursday-Saturday
Children: Fine for kids, and there are usually a few around
Parking: Small lot and street parking
Reservations: Only for parties of 10 or more
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: On the patio
Noise level: Moderate
Patio: No
Takeout: Yes
RatingsKey_3

22 comments Add your comment

Dave

February 18th, 2011
9:09 am

This place rules.

Steve

February 18th, 2011
9:27 am

Agree with Dave. This place does indeed rule.

I can’t get enough of the chicken heart tacos which are prerfectly paired with those crunchy pickled onions. Wasn’t sure how well the cauliflower/date combo was going to work, but its really knock your socks off good. And the mexican street corn is a must order.

Glad to see Chef Phalen finally getting some press. He’s definitely one of Atlanta’s best up-and-comers!

[...] here to read the rest: Holy Taco dining review, East Atlanta Village – AJC blogs Uncategorized atlanta, kessler-discuss, merguez-sausage, mustard, phalen, roasted-pepper, [...]

Muffin

February 18th, 2011
11:58 am

Something tells me their patio will be packed this weekend if it was going to be already! I’ve only been here once, but it was exceptionally good. Very friendly as well.

Lorenzo

February 18th, 2011
12:04 pm

I haven’t been there in, oh, about three years–must’ve been shortly after they opened–and felt it was nothing I couldn’t find for less money on Buford Highway. I may need to give them another try.

Greg

February 18th, 2011
12:59 pm

Nice review for a great neighborhood restaurant. Missing from your review is the fish – as you mentioned elsewhere in your review, completely unexpected and gracefully cooked in a taqueria. The sardines and whole roasted trout were both excellent.

Lisa

February 18th, 2011
4:38 pm

I love TDS and James Beard House does as well. But still not a fan of the lining up and ordering concept.
Holy Taco is always great service-wise and always interesting. And beyond “interesting” — good.

Mike

February 18th, 2011
5:53 pm

I went there right after they opened and wasn’t impressed. This review makes me consider going back.

Does your family ever get tired of not being served an actual meal? Again with the “small plates.”

Trout

February 18th, 2011
6:12 pm

I’ve had sort of iffy service here in the past, but when I gave them another shot about two weeks ago the service was just fine. Agree with the apple salad, spectacular, as was chorizo soaked in hard cider. Wasn’t as impressed with the goat due to an overbearing sweet-sour sauce.

Local

February 18th, 2011
7:08 pm

I went there once. The chips were inedible. They were too thick, not crunchy, and dripping in grease. How do you mess up chips?!?

Lorenzo

February 21st, 2011
10:40 am

Local: Although, as I mentioned above, I haven’t been there since shortly after they opened, if you are referring to what I think you may be, then I am floored to discover that Holy Taco might be serving “authentic” chips prepared as they usually are in Mexico! Yes, in Mexico the chips are often thick, greasy (lard?) and, as a result, super-flavorful. The thin, dry chips that we take for granted as a Tex-Mex staple are not as popular south of the border. Now, nobody is saying that YOU need to like them. But if Holy Taco is serving what I suspect they are, then they most certainly did not “mess up” their chips. Another reason I need to give this place another shot.

jennifer

February 21st, 2011
11:38 am

Plus one for Lorenzo. I’ve observed in my travels throughout Mexico that that their chips are thick – actual fried corn tortillas – and not the thin crispy chips we’ve grown up on. I prefer the Americanized version as they’re not so heavy, but HT’s version is authentic.

I really enjoy the gazpacho at Holy Taco, served with half a sliced egg and a touch of serrano ham. It is rich and succulent without being heavy. The corn, though, is the star of the show for me.

kevin

February 21st, 2011
12:34 pm

Like a couple of other commmenters, I first visited Holy Taco right when it opened and found it completely unremarkable. However, about 2 years ago I tried it again and have been going back regularly ever since. Tongue tacos are out of this world–as are the pork.

Andre

February 21st, 2011
3:46 pm

We went there this past weekend and was extrmemely please with the food. The Swordfdish taco was so good I had to order more. The crowd was “entertaining” and the service was decent considering they were very busy. This was our first time going and we definitely be going back.

nom nom nom

February 22nd, 2011
12:09 pm

Their magaritas come in metal pitchers, not plastic. This is not El Azteca. Pass on the cheese dip?!! The cheese dip with onions and japaenos is one of the best in Atlanta. And how on earth did you write this article without mentioning the pork belly torta? It is by far the best thing on the menu!

John Kessler

February 22nd, 2011
12:21 pm

Nom – We definitely got a plastic pitcher. Also, we tried the short rib torta instead of the pork belly. Big menu: hard to try everything…

nom nom nom

February 22nd, 2011
4:11 pm

Touche. I should have revised that…I’ve only had metal pitchers.

Harry

February 23rd, 2011
1:53 pm

The food is exceptional! Service is exceptional!

Paul

February 23rd, 2011
5:29 pm

A staple at Holy Taco is the beets. Beets, it seems, are the new pork belly. Everyone has a variation on their menus. I can honestly say, after trying at least 20+ restaurants with them on the menu, that Holy Taco has the most original and most tasty version. The dish has the beets three ways: pureed, broiled and then as a chip (think Terra Chips). It also has citrus and bacon. Oh man, it’s so good. And this is coming from a late bloomer: I hated beets as a child. Hopefully they aren’t seasonal and they keep it on the menu for years to come.

Nadia

February 23rd, 2011
5:58 pm

I have to agree with Jeff. When they have fish on their menu – I have a difficult time ordering anything else. For a while last summer, they had the most delicious grilled sardines. During this past fall they had fried smelts which were incredible. Can’t wait to go back again!

Sheila Cooper

February 23rd, 2011
7:42 pm

We love holy taco!!! Only wish they’d open up another one closer to us in Buckhead.

[...] the space that was formerly Shaun’s Social Club has been taken over by chef Robert Phalen of East Atlanta’s Holy Taco.  According to the article, Phalen plans for the new concept are “organic sustainable new [...]