Many years ago while traveling through Central America, my companions and I stumbled upon a lady selling tacos by the side of the road.
Her hands were stained blue from preparing tortilla dough with blue cornmeal, which she formed into flat discs then slapped onto a comal (griddle) propped over a small fire. Minutes later, she removed the bubbly tortillas, stuffed them with grilled beef and raw onions and distributed them to me and my hungry friends in exchange for a handful of centavos (Guatemalan coin currency). That was the first time I had tacos prepared this way.
Luckily for us, we can find many Latin American establishments here in metro Atlanta offering tacos similar to that cheap, roadside version I sampled years ago.
I culled a shortlist of places scattered around town where you can go get your taco fix and for around a dollar each. However, there is a caveat to the price: All establishments offer these dollar tacos as miniature versions. Two corn tortillas measuring about 3 inches in diameter come topped with your choice of meat, seafood or beans, and sometimes additionally dressed with nothing more than cilantro and onions.
Alvarado’s on Buford Highway sells larger tacos, but they are also pricier. The restaurant does not advertise the miniature versions well, but ask for them; they do exist and are only 99 cents each. And if you are a night owl, you also can make use of Alvarado’s drive-thru, which is open 24 hours a day, every day.
My companions and I sample tacos filled with carne asada (steak), carnitas (marinated pork), fish, bean and lengua (tongue). The crunchy, fried fish taco paired with a mild jalapeno cream sauce stands out as a favorite, as does the soft, tender lengua that dissolves in the mouth (no pun intended). Unfortunately, I have to drown the dry and lackluster carne asada and carnitas tacos in salsa from the restaurant’s salsa bar to urge any flavor out of them.
Things pick up at Smyrna’s Tacos La Villa off Cobb Parkway. The taqueria previously ran in the back of a nearby Hispanic market, Super Mercado La Villa, but it eventually took over a defunct Quiznos a few stores down.
Meat, chorizo sausage and offal tacos ($1) come hot off the griddle and undressed, but Tacos La Villa’s small salsa bar holds a variety of salsas as well as chopped onion and cilantro that you can add on your own. The kitchen also cooks the tortillas on the griddle for a few minutes, which removes more of that raw corn taste and imparts a welcome crispiness to them.
A few bites of the fatty cabeza (beef head) and beef barbacoa (barbecue) reveal deep, lingering flavors and fall-apart texture in both tacos. I particularly like these with just a fresh squirt of lime juice. The carne asada taco contains more char and depth of flavor than Alvarado’s version, and the spicy al pastor (marinated pork) satisfies even though the kitchen prepares it on the griddle as opposed to the customary vertical rotisserie introduced to Latin America by Middle Eastern immigrants.
Head west for about five or six miles and you will stumble on a taco truck, Taco L1000000. The “meals-on-wheels” has been around for years, but as far as I know has never moved from this outpost. The truck dishes a small, cash-only menu of tacos ($1), quesadillas, tortas (sandwiches) and burritos from its cozy accommodations, which diners can enjoy in its attached shelter.
Just like the experience at Tacos La Villa, the savory cabeza and barbacoa tacos drip with juiciness, and the rich, spicy flavors of the carnitas taco meld with the sharp onion, herby cilantro and fresh juice from a wedge of lime. I do find the truck’s staff can be heavy-handed with the salsa, so ask them to leave it off and apply your own amount from the salsa bar inside the shelter.
You can find a pretty satisfying meal in tacos whether you are south of the equator or here in metro Atlanta, and with money you can probably find lurking underneath your sofa cushions.
Dining room: 8 a.m.-midnight Sundays-Thursdays, 8 a.m.-1 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays, drive-thru: 24 hours daily. 5499 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-455-6987. $. Discover, MasterCard, Visa.
Tacos La Villa
10 a.m-9:30 p.m. Mondays-Sundays. 2415 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna. 770-951-0415. $. All major credit cards.
10 a.m-midnight daily. 2084 Favor Road, Marietta. $. Cash only.