If you’re not with the queso you love, can you love the queso you’re with?
That is the question transplanted Texans ask themselves every day when they search out the Mexican food from home. They certainly will have no trouble finding hundreds of restaurants that sling tacos, enchiladas and burritos. But does any of this food taste like Texas?
“I was basically told by CNNers here from Texas that you couldn’t find any good Tex-Mex, anywhere in Atlanta,” says Travis Nichols, a news producer for the cable network who has lived here for five years. He recalls a first experience at a now-shuttered Midtown Latin restaurant where he ordered chorizo and queso and was served pepperoni and mozzarella.
But Nichols has since learned that most of the Mexican food in Atlanta isn’t that bad, and some it is actually acceptable to his band of Lone Star expats who often dine together.
“With this kind of food, it doesn’t matter if it comes from the chains or from the greasy spoon down the road. Here, I’ve found the chains can kind of push it out.” Nichols cites Chuy’s, an Austin-based chain with an outlet in Dunwoody, as a restaurant that gets things right.
So what does he look for?
“The first thing my friends and order is the queso,” Nichols says. “Is it white or is it yellow? If it’s yellow that’s a good indication.” Nichols also notes the fajitas should come sizzling on a platter and the frozen margaritas should not be Slurpee-sweet but bracingly tangy. As for proper Tex-Mex enchiladas, Nichols says he “takes the Potter Stewart route — you know it when you taste it.”
“So many places here get the enchiladas wrong,” agrees Shongretta Williams, a digital media planner who moved from Austin to Atlanta six years ago. “You don’t just roll up the tortilla with a filling and put some sauce on it.”
Williams says true Tex-Mex enchiladas start by dipping the corn tortillas in the red chile sauce, then filling and baking them with more sauce and cheese until all the flavors meld. Somewhere in that amalgam of masa, cheese and chile lies the flavor of Texas.
For her part, Williams says the Atlanta restaurants closest to those she loved in Texas are Nuevo Laredo Cantina on Chattahoochee Avenue and the Inman Park branch of Pure Taqueria. “The margaritas at Pure taste like they’re right out of El Paso. It’s that perfect blend of tequila and whatever.”
Lately, Texans have been descending in droves to check out the new Midtown restaurant Mi Cocina, a new branch of a small Dallas-based chain. That got me thinking we’ve got at least four outlets of boisterous, Texas-based Tex-Mex chains in Atlanta now. In addition to Chuy’s and Mi Cocina, there are two local branches of Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food, a Dallas-based company with locations in five states, and one branch of Pappasito’s Cantina, a restaurant from a large Houston firm (the same group behind Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen) that has nearly two dozen branches throughout Texas. The Marietta location is the only one out of state.
So I decided to spend one very chips-and-salsa-intensive week exploring them all.
Full disclosure: I have been to Texas a couple of times but am in no way a Texan, so I know my opinions don’t matter a hill of beans (which Texans say do not belong in chili con carne). But I did walk away from this fajita-thon with some very clear favorites:
Nestled into a soaring two-story space in the curvaceous 12th & Midtown building, Mi Cocina puts to rest any preconceptions you might have about what a taco joint should look like. Sleek white leather booths offset vibrant, colorful frescos and murals from the Mexican artist Luis Sottil. If you have a choice of seating, opt for an upstairs table or, better yet, one of the glamorous half-moon booths.
And deal with the food, which — at this early stage in Mi Cocina’s life — doesn’t quite hit the good-enough marks you expect from a Tex-Mex restaurant. Not only do the fajitas not sizzle, but they come garnished with slices of fried potato that are hard to distinguish from the desiccated chicken strips. The house frozen margarita — called the “Mambo Taxi” and featuring a splash of sangria — is sweet enough to qualify as dessert. I did like the crispy chicken enchiladas verdes, a tone poem of crunch and sogginess. And the orange queso goosed with a spoonful of piccadillo beef made for easy eating. But too many other dishes — unseasoned guacamole made with stringy avocado, pallid tortilla soup — kept me from feeling that Tex-Mex high. After a couple of visits, I’d give the food a C. When it seems like it’s heading toward a B-, I’d be happy to go for a third time. This part of town needs a decent Mexican restaurant.
Mi Cocina, 1080 Peachtree St., Midtown, 404-872-8801, micocinarestaurants.com $-$$
Of its two Atlanta locations, the one just south of Buckhead feels grander but the Perimeter restaurant comes as more of a respite from the steel-and-concrete world that surrounds it. The lavish decor suggests a grand hacienda, with arched doorways, carved masonry, walls painted warm colors and framed artwork.
Service at the Sandy Springs Uncle Julio’s seems the most professional of all the restaurants I visited, and the food more or less hits its mark. The Swirl, a striped concoction of alternating frozen margarita and frozen sangria, looks like the ultimate girlie drink, but tastes brisk and refreshing without a syrupy aftertaste. A combo plate with a cheese-and-onion enchilada squeaks by with a B-; the tortilla wasn’t coated well with sauce but was squishily soft with crunchy bits of red onion. Better to go with the lean beef brisket tacos served with cojita cheese and crunchy slaw on the side. The guacamole might be too smooth and bland for some, but if you alternate bites with the great house salsa fresca, that Swirl goes down nice and smooth.
Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food, 1850 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, 404-350-6767; and 1140 Hammond Drive, Sandy Springs, 678-736-8260. unclejulios.com $$
A little like eating in a Texan mess hall, this brassy, frenetically busy restaurant dishes up a big slice of Texas daily. People in groups of eight or 10 drink margaritas in every hue while fajitas sizzle here, there and everywhere. Off to one side, a staffer perpetually feeds balls of dough into a tortilla machine that looks like it came right off the Wonka factory floor.
This place may be a serious hash house, churning out meals by the thousands, but the quality shines. A platter of chicken and beef fajitas arrives hissing like a tabby cat on a superheated iron platter with all kinds of goodies, not the least of which are those fresh tortillas. Cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo salsa will find their way into your wraps, along with terrific caramelized onions, fresh cilantro, seared jalapeño and a frothy garlic-wine butter the restaurant calls “mantequilla.” Yumsville.
But veer away from those fajitas, and your options get chancier. The queso is like orange latex, and the cheese enchilada has a weirdly tough, springy texture. The frozen margarita will give you a sugar rush.
Pappasito’s Cantina, 2788 Windy Hill Road, Marietta, 770-541-6100, pappasitos.com $$-$$$
I’m not a huge fan of the echt-schlock decor at Chuy’s. It’s not just the Elvis shrine or the vintage car hood filled with chips or the garlands of lights strung around fake trees. It’s the way your eyes keep pulsating with pink and lime green paint long after you leave, making you wonder if you’re suffering a grand mal seizure.
I am a fan of the food, which tastes fresher — more like real food from a real place — than that at any of the other restaurants. Just try the tortilla soup, an honest and chickeny broth in which bob hunks of chicken, ripe avocado and clusters of roasted corn cut right off the cob. On the side come house-made tortillas that are rolled out rather than pressed, so you feel a little powdery flour on your fingertips when you unwrap them.
These good tortillas also figure into tasty, griddle-crisped quesadillas you pry open to dress with salsa. On my most recent visit, in the name of research, I plowed through a bowl of ruddy orange queso, textured with bits of tomato and dusky with spices. I didn’t stop the waiter when he replenished the chips; I could feel the Texas coursing through my veins.
Chuy’s, 118 Perimeter Center West, Dunwoody, 404-351-7777, chuys.com $$