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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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 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