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Why your neighborhood Mexican restaurant is the taste of home

Taqueria del Sol (AJC Staff)

Taqueria del Sol (AJC Staff)

I recently found myself on the horn with a friend who was spending a few days in my old hometown of Denver. She loved how clean and friendly the city was, and she had a fine meal at Euclid Hall — a gastropub in a prominent historical building that gets good word of mouth. We talked about a couple of the region’s other top restaurants that she might put on her to-chew list.

“More than anything else, you really, really need to get some green chile, ” I said before we hung up.

Mexican restaurants in Denver hang their reputations on their green chile, which you can get by the bowlful, ladled over a combination plate or smothering an unforgettable pile of yumminess called a “Mexican hamburger.” You haven’t been to Denver until you can feel the green chile coursing through your veins.

The best part about it is that the most dubious green chile in the sketchiest little joint is still pretty good. You don’t have to study one of the many published guides to green chile around Denver and trek from here to there to indulge. In fact, you should walk into the first Mexican restaurant you see, wipe the tortilla crumbs from the seat and get some enchiladas smothered green. This is almost preferred. When the green chile looks like thin, pale sludge and offers only two or three smaller-than-sugar-cube chunks of pork and a few flecks of tomato, you have the baseline taste of Denver’s Mexican restaurant comfort. It is the taste of place, as certain as terroir in wine.

As you smear the enchiladas around in the sauce, your inner eye will clearly observe how that flavor grounds you on a day that turns from windy and snowy-cold to shockingly bright and cheerful, the way things often go in Denver’s thin atmosphere. Simple Mexican restaurants tread this territory — comfort, sense of place — better than almost any other kind. When my daughter comes home from college, she eats so frequently at the Taqueria del Sol in Decatur with all her high school friends and with us that it has become something of a joke. But Taqueria is the first thing she craves; it’s the flavor of home.

This restaurant’s nontraditional menu features a number of items that seem as much Southern as Mexican, including spicy turnip greens, fried chicken tacos and barbecued pork tacos. My kids grew up eating this food — a family fave for those times when we didn’t want to cook and didn’t want to spend a lot of money.

So it’s little wonder my daughter wants to get her cheese dip and fish taco fix when she comes home. Rich, spicy, soul-satisfying food.

But I have to think it’s more than just the eats. A big part of the draw is sitting on the patio under whirring fans and enjoying the respite from the sweltering heat. It’s crunching ice cubes between bites of food, and giving up on the dregs of the chip basket when the cheese dip congeals, and bumping into friends and neighbors.

Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom at Chuy's

Chicka-Chicka Boom-Boom at Chuy's

I thought of this special quality of Mexican restaurants again when I visited Chuy’s in Dunwoody. This first Georgia branch of a big Austin, Texas, chain is, at first glance, one of those scarily over-the-top franchises that line suburban byways. It’s all ersatz diner tack: plastic palm trees, garlands of Christmas lights, multicolored chrome booths, an Elvis shrine, acres of pink tile.

But the food immediately took me to Texas. There was something about the creaminess of the guacamole, and the way it was presented atop iceberg lettuce shreds. The thinness of the chips. The frank pow of heat in some of the smothering sauces, including a wickedly delicious cheese-and-chile iteration called “boom boom” sauce. In Texas, the more homegrown versions of this restaurant are sprawling places that grew and grew by serving generous platters of Mexican food.

I can see how homesick Texans will be happy with the presence of Chuy’s. Through all its artifice, it has that sense of place unique to Mexican restaurants.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

32 comments Add your comment

Edward

February 6th, 2012
10:39 am

Though my palate has matured and has become more inclined to refined tastes, I do still miss the old San Jose Mexican restaurant at Ansley Square. As a youngster just moved to Atlanta, I found that place to be comforting, not only from the food but the atmosphere. Nowhere else in Atlanta, for sure, could you see couples of same or mixed gender enjoying lunch or dinner of Mexican food prepared by a Pakistani family and served by drag queens.

Kristen

February 6th, 2012
10:50 am

Well, having spent 25 years in Texas, I feel can say this with a bit of authority – while some of Chuy’s dishes and sauces draw on Tex-Mex, I would argue that most of Chuy’s food is more New Mexico-Mex. It even makes this connection on their website, but “New Mexico-Mex” isn’t a real catchy phase, and most people here in GA aren’t going to know the difference, so Tex-Mex it is. Is Chuy’s good? Sure, if you like that Americanized Tex-Mex food with a kitschy atmosphere.

What this former Texas dweller misses is real, honest-to-goodness Mexican food – minus the Tex, Cali, or New Mexico. I have had a hard time finding anything in GA that resembles real Mexican food, save for a little place down in Cordele run by Mexicans who refuse to Americanize their menu. And which I won’t name, because it’s my little secret. :-)

Reds

February 6th, 2012
11:55 am

I like mexican food, whether it be real mexican, tex-mex, cali, new mexican, georgian. I love it all. There’s just something about the spices that I love.

Chuy's rocks

February 6th, 2012
12:16 pm

I went to Chuy’s for the first time in December and was overwhelmed and almost left due to the decor. I thought there was no way that place would be serving good food. I am SO GLAD I stayed, the food was awesome. I felt like I needed to wear sunglasses inside from the awful bright decorations, but the food is terrific and well worth it.

Not Alton Brown

February 6th, 2012
2:13 pm

Your daughter is not alone. The TDS addiction is very live and well. Eddie and I have discuss exactly this same topic and why the obsession at TDS for constant and predictable quality. Even when we travel we always strive to find TDS equivalent but are always are disappointed and can’t wait to return for some Eddies’ home cooking

FoodFan

February 6th, 2012
2:19 pm

As anyone that has grown up in Sandy Springs can attest to, there is just something about our dumpy Taxco that can not be matched. White cheese dip, chicken enchiladas, the soup, everyone has their own favorite thing there. It’s just something that can’t be replicated anywhere else – like meatloaf, everyone’s mom’s (or in this case, the Mexican restaurant they grew up going to) is the best!

I live in DEC, and don't get why people like T.D.S...

February 6th, 2012
2:24 pm

I live in DEC and don’t like TDS because I don’t like waiting in line to order my food. I also think it’s a bit of a “rip off” for the amount of food one gets for the $$$. They give the illusion of being so busy etc. because the line is always out the door. I’d rather eat any where else in town.

new mexican green chile

February 6th, 2012
3:05 pm

You forgot to mention that you should find a restaurant that serves “New Mexico” or “Hatch” Green chiles as they are by far the most interesting and flavorful of all green chiles ;) .

wayne

February 6th, 2012
3:35 pm

I agree with the waiting in line thing at Taqueria. It’s annoying you sit there waiting in line while staring at all of the empty tables. It stresses me out. Same with Antico Pizza love the pizza but I always end up at varasanos instead much more relaxng atmoshpere.

Grasshopper

February 6th, 2012
3:52 pm

Taqueria del Sol is OK. But there is no way I would wait in that line so long for a taco. It is not worth it. If I cannot get there by 11:15 for an early lunch – forget it.

But they must be doing something right to keep all those poor fools in line for 20 minutes just to order a taco!

I Love Tacos

February 6th, 2012
4:04 pm

Jalisco’s at Peachtree Battle has been my neighborhood fave for 25 years. Something about the cheese they use there–it’s better than any other Mexican restaurant. Oh, and the chicken soup is just what the doctor ordered when you are feeling run down.

I second the complaint about the line at Taqueria. It is very frustrating to wait when there are plenty of tables free. I personally believe they are forcing a long line to attract the attention of those passing by. It works. Also, the second you take your last bite, the staff is hovering over you to turn over the table. What gives?

foodblogger

February 6th, 2012
4:18 pm

I went to high school in New Mexico, and can honestly tell you that Square Pub in Decatur has the best authentic New Mexican food in town. Those guys actually drive to Hatch to get their green chile!

PapaDoc

February 6th, 2012
5:12 pm

I think your point was that food has the ability to link us to a connection with the past, namely home. It really doesn’t matter what style of food if it brings us to a level of comfort by smell, taste, and eye. and it’s not so much that we choose the food but it chooses us. I happen to like TDS and don’t mind the wait for good food. And it is a mixed bag of Southern/Mex which is probably why I like it.

art

February 6th, 2012
7:36 pm

I’ve spent a lot of time in Arizona over the years… Chuy’s has always been a “destination restaurant”. I’m glad that they’ve made their way to ATL. I enjoyed your post JK. Those of us who “live to eat” can think of many “food memories” that evoke even more memories of our lives. I’m currently in search of the Brunswick Stew that my “Grandma” made….

Billy

February 6th, 2012
10:15 pm

I LOVE the chicka chicka boom boom enchildas from Chuy’s. Thanks for posting. I could not agree more.

jan brady

February 7th, 2012
12:08 am

Chonas Mexican Grill is a small, family-run restaurant located in a strip mall adjacent to Discover Mills. It’s been one of my tried and true neighborhood standbys for a quick, decent bite before or after a movie at the mall. They’ve recently added several new menu items including Molcajete. One of the cute waiters talked me into trying it, telling me that he just ate it on his break and it was so good. It comes with your choice of meat or combination and is served piping hot in a huge pot. I mean, this thing was huge. It had a layer of spanish rice in the bottom, next it was layered with whole pan-roasted peppers (hot and sweet), steak, shrimp, chicken, pork, roasted spring onions, cactus and topped with queso fresco. It came with a bowl of tasty charros beans, tortillas and all the fixins. My friends and I were amazed. Three of us shared the main dish, cheese dip and a pitcher of potent margaritas. We were full and content, all for around $40. Sweet!

Colleen Amman

February 7th, 2012
9:00 am

While I thoroughly enjoyed your article and am always excited to try new restaurants, especially Mexican restaraunts, I need to clarify something. I am a native Coloradoan, more specifically from Pueblo, and the information you posted regarding green chile hailing from Denver is inaccurate. Green Chile is a Pueblo creation and has made it’s way to other regions of Colorado. I am sure that the green chile in Denver tastes wonderful for the most part. Whenever I venture to Denver or Colorado Springs I am reluctant to order green chile simply because I am worried that I will be disappointed. The best green chile is made from Mirasol and Anaheim chiles. The Mirasols, also known as Pueblos, are grown in Pueblo and southern Colorado. When you order green chile in Pueblo you have the option of ordering hot, mild or half and half. And yes, we put green chile on everything….burritos, enchiladas, tamales, and cheeseburgers. “Mexican hamburgers” are actually called Sloppers and originated in Pueblo as well. Food Wars highlighted two Pueblo establishments that offer Sloppers, Coors Tavern and The Sunset Inn. Coors Tavern should have won as they have better Sloppers. You can also find delicious sloppers at The Broadway Inn and The Klamm Shell, although you can get Sloppers at just about any Mexican restaurant you go to. Our famous sausage grinders are now being offered smothered as well. Thank you for highlighting the fabulous green chile that hails from Colorado. We Puebloans take pride in our chile and want the credit that is due.

Colleen Amman

February 7th, 2012
9:51 am

I totally agree with the remainder of your article regarding wanting the familiar. Every time I go home to Pueblo, I eat and drink my way through town. There are so many foods specific to Pueblo that it’s difficult to get them all in on a short visit. I ate green chile at about seven different restaurants. Tomato beer is also a huge Pueblo tradition. The best part of my trip home is going to Coors Tavern and having a Slopper and a schooner of Coors with tomato juice spiced up like a bloody mary.

annie from houston

February 7th, 2012
10:32 am

There’s a Chuy’s in metro ATL now? I know my dinner plans for one day this week. Yes, it’s tackily decorated (I’m familiar with the one in Houston on Westheimer) but their food is amazing and during happy hour they have $2.75 house margaritas. Need I say more?

annie from houston

February 7th, 2012
10:41 am

Aw, it looks like they’re $4 here… I suppose I can deal with it.

Lori Midson

February 7th, 2012
11:57 am

Oh, we had plenty of green chile — and a chile relleno burrito at El Taco de Mexico. She said you would have been jealous. Ha!

John Kessler

February 7th, 2012
1:05 pm

The chile relleno burrito at El Taco de Mexico was my single favorite thing to eat in Denver. Couldn’t go in the vicinity of Santa Fe Drive without getting one.

Colleen Amman

February 7th, 2012
1:47 pm

Mirasol “Pueblo” chiles are better than Hatch, but if that’s all you can get then that’s good enough. I am going to have to try the place in Decatur, Square Pub. Thanks.

Brazen Unicorn

February 7th, 2012
3:39 pm

@foodblogger, yes the Square Pub does some amazing things with the green chiles. My fave is the burger. Can’t get enough.

I actually really like the food at TDS and that’s about it. Generally, the wait outiside in the cold or extreme heat and the service really bring it down for me. Though I live much closer to the Decatur location, I prefer Cheshire Bridge because the service is so much more friendly. Even when it’s crowded and crazy, I never feel rushed or like I’m in the way as I’m finishing up my food. The Decatur location used to get my business at least 2 times a week, and I’m lucky if I make it there once a month. Those people are not nice at all.

Lorenzo

February 7th, 2012
5:04 pm

The style of Mexican food that I associate with fond memories of home is what I became accustomed to in Southern California, and I nearly broke into tears of disappointment when I tasted my first Mexican-ish food in Atlanta at none other than Taqueria del Sol. Their take on Mexican food was the furthest thing from my own “taste of home” that I could imagine. Fortunately, I soon discovered that I could get a taste of home (Mexican AND Vietnamese!) on Buford Highway.

Marsh

February 8th, 2012
9:05 am

I don’t get the TDS fascination. BBQ taco? Yuck. Fried chicken taco? Eh. The fish taco is ok. These are what I was told I HAD to order because it’s SO GOOD. Worth waiting in line for 20 mins? No.

Same goes for Nuevo Laredo. I was expecting something orgasmic. Instead I got something that I could have gotten at any El Torero in the city. Come on, sheeple.

JimmyZ

February 8th, 2012
1:41 pm

Jon, no mention of Casa Bonita in Denver? ;-)

th

February 8th, 2012
3:24 pm

I like Taqueria Los Hermanos. I stopped going to Taqueria Del Sol when they wouldn’t let my mother sit at a table while I placed her order. She was feeling ill from her recent chemo. That was the final straw for me. Their food isn’t that great to have to suffer their “soup nazi” attitude.

John Kessler

February 8th, 2012
3:53 pm

Casa Bonita! Haha. Inside divers, endless lines to get in, and my then 4-year-old always wanted to go there. Is that joint still up and running?

Betsy

February 9th, 2012
12:52 pm

There’s something about the taste of home, isn’t there? Whenever I mention The Taco Stand on facebook, I get tons and tons of comments. Everyone remembers it, everyone loves it, and it’s one of the first places anyone eats when they go home (to Athens). It’s not the greatest food, but it reminds us all of those high school afternoons wasting time eating cheese dip, and there’s really nothing better.

JeannieMom

February 9th, 2012
11:05 pm

I second dumpy little Taxco! I love that place.

Diego

February 10th, 2012
11:20 am

Atlanta Mexican restaurant’s menus are interchangeable and boring. All of the food is three or four ingredients presented/wrapped differently! Authentic Mexican food in Atlanta, NOT! With so many Hispanics in Atlanta, why not?