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Far From the Heart of Texas: Enchiladas, Orange Queso, Frozen Margaritas

Mi Cocina's bright interior (all photos by Becky Stein unless otherwise noted)

Mi Cocina's bright interior (all photos by Becky Stein unless otherwise noted)

If you’re not with the queso you love, can you love the queso you’re with?

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

AJC Chief Dining Critic John Kessler writes about all cuisines.

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?

Queso Compuesto at Chuy's

Queso Compuesto at Chuy's

“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.”

Light garlands and plastic trees at Chuy's

Light garlands and plastic trees at Chuy's

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:

Mi Cocina

The Deluxe 57 at Mi Cocina

The Deluxe 57 at Mi Cocina

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 $-$$

Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food

The Swirl (credit: John Kessler)

The Swirl (credit: John Kessler)

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 $$

Pappasito’s Cantina

Pappasito's Cantina (credit: AJC Staff)

Pappasito's Cantina (credit: AJC Staff)

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 $$-$$$

Chuy’s

Tortilla soup at Chuy's

Tortilla soup at Chuy's

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 $$

31 comments Add your comment

Lachacha

December 20th, 2012
8:15 am

Thanks for the insight, John. We’re always looking for a good Tex-Mex restaurant. I’m a bit confused about your numbering system. Clearly you prefer the food at #4 Chuey’s over #1 Mi Cocina.

Bhorsoft

December 20th, 2012
9:14 am

Agree with you on Papasito’s but I hope you tried their table side guacamole. I find it better than most of the guac around town.

Robert Dallas

December 20th, 2012
9:44 am

First- to Lachacha, Yes, I was confused too. I think he is just numbering the restaurants, not saying that was the order of their rating. I know they are further out, but many of us live out here. Have you been to Taqueria Los Hermanos? They apparently have four out there now. The only one I can speak to is the original one in Tucker. In your article you mentioned Nuevo Larado Cantina. I had always thought it was the best in town by far, but Los Hermanos is amazing. It seems to me to be very authentic. If you go get one of the full meals like a fish special. I can’t believe no one has copied them downtown. They are head and shoulders above almost anything else out there.

Lizzy

December 20th, 2012
9:54 am

John, your comprehensive review was excellent reading – I must imbibe on the lauded Swirl at Uncle Julio’s – sounds heavenly! Per your Papasito’s Cantina comment, mantequilla is Spanish for butter so the restaurant is describing it authenticly, not “calling” it. (I’m married to a Mexicano hence my limitted knowledge of Spanish) Lachacha, I took the numerical listing as simply that- not in order of preference which is pretty obvious upon completion of reading. Bhorsoft, I haven’t tried Papasito’s, per the comment about their guac, but fyi, some completely killer guac is on Buford Hwy. (of course!) at El Rey del Taco – an authentic taqueria – not Tex/Mex…..I haven’t been in awhile (they stopped serving ‘ritas – just beer-ouch!), but hopefully it’s still as killer as ever….chunky, slightly spicy, pure and freshly made – incredibly inexpensive (another of course!)…..it’s run by Hispanics and the hand made tortillas (no machine – an elderly lady making them endlessly) and many other items almost as delicious as my mother-in-law’s cooking. I don’t have any affiliation, BTW, just know about it because of my spouse taking me there.

zeke

December 20th, 2012
9:54 am

What became of the U S BAR y GRILL? Best ever!

Art

December 20th, 2012
9:57 am

Finding authentic Tex-Mex is almost as hard as finding authentic Mexican. While there are several places around town, even a couple of chains, that get part of it right, I have never found one place that truly nails the food, drinks and the experience. That’s why once or twice a year I get on a big metal bird and fly to Austin or San Antone.

Edward

December 20th, 2012
10:12 am

As soon as someone says, “you can’t get good ________ here”, I immediately tune out anything else they say. It is a subjective thing and while some people who grew up with that melted Velveeta stuff might think the only “true” queso is yellow and greasy, some of us prefer the “cheese dip” that happens to be white because the real cheese it is made with is white. Of the listed restaurants, I’ve been to Uncle Julio’s (the south Buckhead location). Once. That was enough for me. The food wasn’t bad, just wasn’t memorable. Portions were tiny and the prices high for what we got. I’ve had much better food at one of the little dives on Buford Hwy at 1/4 the price. But, there is that patio where it is important to be seen among the Glitterati of Atlanta. Ugh. For what I consider great “Tex-Mex”, I would go to Bonegarden or the afore-mentioned Nuevo Laredo.

Art

December 20th, 2012
10:17 am

@Edward, your restaurant recommendations go towards proving my point and ultimate frustration. Bone Garden even advertises itself as “Authentic Mexican Food” not Tex-Mex; there’s a difference.

FM Fats

December 20th, 2012
10:20 am

Is there anyplace in town that serves migas for breakfast?

John Kessler

December 20th, 2012
10:21 am

Hey, there, and thanks for reading. Lachacha — Why don’t I get rid of the numbers? They weren’t meant as an ordering of preference. Lizzy — Yes, I got that. Just figured to use the word “called” because they don’t call it “salsa mantequilla” or something more elaborate. One staffer told me she gets a side of it with whatever she eats for lunch. I would likely do the same. :) And I envy your mother in law! Mine is Canadian, so I get great butter tarts at Xmas, but no fresh tortillas.

Wendy

December 20th, 2012
10:29 am

I agree 100% with your assessment of Mi Cocina. Having lived in Texas most of my life, Chuy’s, Nuevo Larado and No Mas actually come the closest to real Tex-Mex. The street queso at INC Street Food is also really good – but they brand themselves as more Mexican vs Tex Mex.

Joy

December 20th, 2012
10:40 am

@FM Fats: I wish! Every time I go to Austin I load up on migas since Ga. has nothing like it yet. Chuy’s is far and away the best Tex Mex option in ATL. The food is fresh and the new mexican martinis are the best.

RK

December 20th, 2012
11:36 am

Alma Cocina is my best bet for Mexican flavor, but no one in this town can get tacos al pastor just like they do in DF. Zocalo has had them close.

All of these other pretenders are just the same old thing, except that I agree that Chuy’s does seem a little fresher. At least they try different sauces.

Papasito’s is a bit more expensive that those other places, but their fajitas — made with delicious skirt steak — are fantastic. Unfortunately, it’s loud, and you come out smelling like you were cooking over that grill.

PJ

December 20th, 2012
11:47 am

Having lived in Dallas, TX for several years, I am constantly on a quest for good Tex-Mex in Atlanta. Nuevo Laredo is definitely a favorite – the enchiladas there are spot-on. Of the Tex-Mex chains, Mi Cocina was the “upscale” one we went to occasionally, but not often. Maybe because the nearest location to us was in Highland Park Village, where my hair, boobs & bank account were all far smaller than most of those around me. Chuy’s was always my fav chain and I was super excited when it opened in Atlanta. I still love watching the tortilla makers and sitting in the hub-cap room. Uncle Julio’s is so-so and I have never been a fan of Pappasito’s. That said, we rarely went to the big chains when we lived in Dallas. My Dallas favorites are Mariano’s (said to be the inventors of the frozen margarita, though I know this claim has been made by many in TX), Desperado’s and Matt’s Rancho Martinez.

bongostella

December 20th, 2012
12:01 pm

I finally ate at Taqueria Los Hermanos the other day. Best Mexican I’ve had in fifty years of
living in Atlanta. Nuevo Laredo is a pain in the butt. Parking, crowded and so-so food. Save
it for the hipsters. Uncle Julio’s? What a joke.

BrianFellows

December 20th, 2012
12:15 pm

Unfortunately, even our sub-par Tex-Mex has not convinced the Texans to leave Atlanta. Too bad.

Robert

December 20th, 2012
1:39 pm

Now that was funny, Brian!

ChicagoSalsa

December 20th, 2012
1:48 pm

The main issue here is that in order to get Great Foor (and not good food) is to frequent the Mom & Pop locations that still exist. Unfortunately, the standard here is that everyone wants to go to places where they can be seen and not where they can truly delight their palates with what is Great Mexican food as well as Tex-Mex. Chains for the most part are usually a disapointment. Therefore, it is up to you to truly choose if you want to be seen or you want to eat Great Food? My vote goes to great food. Remember, with today’s economy people are choosing more smartly (at least I am). If I am spending money to eat sub-par food in most of these chains, then what is the purpose of eating out?

nsk

December 20th, 2012
2:28 pm

ChicagoSalsa wrote: “everyone wants to go to places where they can be seen and not where they can truly delight their palates.”

As someone under 30, I assure you there is nothing cool about “being seen” at a chain restaurant. Atlantans frequent chain restaurants because they’re easy to drive to and park at, menus are recognizable, service is reliable, food is generally passable, and prices are reasonable. Atlantans tend to avoid surprise and change.

chris

December 20th, 2012
3:13 pm

As a man who’s been to Texas a lot and married a San Antonian, I can say Uncle Julio’s is the best in town in terms of Tex Mex. My wife and I agree good tex mex starts with fresh home made flour tortillas and has great cuts of steak. Which Uncle J’s does. Nuevo La Raedo has good steak but the store bought tortillas that they charge you an arm and a leg for are terrible.

Mi Cocina is very good, at least in Texas, and am super pumped they’re hear now.

Paul J

December 20th, 2012
4:19 pm

It’s great post! It doesn’t matter at all if which restaurant offered the best TEX MEX. It matter is who offered such kind of food near us. There’s no such food chain here near us can really get the real taste of TEX MEX food, it’s Mexicans original. And only Mexicans can cook such food with the same taste that we are all looking for.

Baltisraul.....

December 20th, 2012
4:28 pm

zeke……I agree with you 100%, US Bar & Grill was the best this city ever had. I have no idea what happened to it or when. Just loved the goat on the spit in the front window. It as the first resturant I ever ordered goat.

Marc

December 20th, 2012
4:37 pm

Finding great Tex-Mex food is a breeze depending on where you live. I know of several in the Norcross Tucker area. These aren’t flashy and fit the hole in the wall concept but the food is great. Tongue, tripe, menudo, amazing sauces and cheap. Finding the places isn’t hard you’ll know it as soon as you walk in the door because in most causes your the only gringo there. You order by pointing but you have to know Spanish because that’s the language the menu is printed in.

Edward

December 20th, 2012
7:23 pm

Art, having spent a good deal of time in the DF and Yucatan, I would say Bonegarden is only quasi-authentic. Some items are, some aren’t, but over all the quality and “deliciousness” of Bonegarden is way ahead of a place like Uncle Julio’s. Most “tex-mex” I’ve had, even in Texas, reminds me of how bastardized American Chinese food is compared to authentic Chinese food.

HotlantaHobo

December 20th, 2012
10:31 pm

John, these are certainly good choices for real Tex-Mex, a genre that no less than Waverly Root deemed a cuisine in itself, but what about a round-up of places popular with ethnic Mexicans? A place in Roswell called Mr Taco is very popular with Mexicans and even has two menus, one in Spanish, the other in English. It seems closest to Cal-Mex, the style of southern California with a large salsa bar on ice. I’m sure there are others, but they don’t get much attention.

Mexican food in Atlanta, unlike Texas and the southwest, is a new phenomenon as Georgia had no significant Mexican population until recently. Sometime in the late 1970’s when Mexican restaurants first appeared in this area they came in a odd variation of Tex-Mex with some authentic touches. One clue that you’re in one of these odd SE-Mex places is when the salsa comes out in a carafe. Other clues are finding an ordinary bell pepper masquerading as a chilli relleno and enchiladas made with unseasoned ground beef. Usually the platters are poorly garnished and individual items lie naked on a separate plate. Dozens of combinations are offered, none of which has what you want, but are designed to sell a la carte items like beans and rice that would always be included in Texas or the southwest. Question is how did this awful variation develop and how did it manage to take such a hold on this market? Actually it’s not just in Atlanta, but now all over the eastern states, but these places never are as crowded as the few genuine Texas based chains. And unlike Texas, no local operators work in the authentic Texas style, but almost exclusively in the outlier local aberration.

Certainly Mexican food evolves on the way to California, with changes in New Mexico and again in Arizona, but if we have any representatives of those styles, I don’t know about them. Can you find them? Since there is such a dearth of decent southern restaurants these days, Mexican restaurants would seem to be the most popular dining choice by far and it would be great to have more commentary on and exposure of alternatives to the dreary SE-Mex places that predominate.

oneman'sopinion

December 20th, 2012
11:14 pm

The chain outposts reviewed here all leave a bit to be desired. Mark me down as another vote for Taqueria Los Hermanos. The Tucker and Lilburn locations deliver fantastic food at a great value.

Robert

December 21st, 2012
7:39 am

Baultisraul, if I’m not mistaken the owner of Nuevo Laredo is the same owner who originally opened US Bar y Grill.

AzCat

December 21st, 2012
2:46 pm

Edward is spot-on about TexMex. It ain’t Mexican, it’s Texan, and that’s not a compliment. Been here for twenty years now and I still miss all the great restaurants on the south side of Tucson. AZ-Mex, and NM-Mex for that matter, are far superior to TexMex. HotlantaHobo, I fervently wish there were some AZ or NM places here but they would most likely fail in six to nine months in this market.

George P Burdell

December 22nd, 2012
4:19 am

I spent a lot of time in Austin over the last few years and enjoyed the Tex-Mex options there. Chuy’s is still my favorite but they have a strong Sonoran/New Mexico influence. That’s not to say it is a bad influence. Their tortilla soup is still the best I’ve ever enjoyed. I also believe their tortillas are a big part of the experience. Currently, Lupe Tortilla out of Houston seems to be the fav chain place everyone is raving about in Texas, especially their fajitas.
If your dining at Nuevo Laredo, check the current health rating. They recently had some big issues with that which is a big disappointment.

K-10

December 26th, 2012
11:19 am

I grew up in D/FW/Arlington, raised on Tex-Mex (and Mexican – totally different, to be sure). IMO, even with the chains imported from Texas, they still can’t quite get Tex-Mex right. One place has great salsa, but horrible queso. The next place will have great queso and salsa, but their fajitas are a joke, and there are no sour cream enchiladas on the menu. I’ve given up, and make everything at home now.

@FM Fats, had the migas at Uncle Julio’s once, and there are really no words to describe how terrible they were.

@PJ, Mariano’s was so good, fajitas were phenom…did you ever eat at El Fenix? That’s my Holy Grail, and the first place we head to as soon as we’ve cleared the airport!

Richard

December 26th, 2012
12:16 pm

My sister lived in Houston and now Dallas, and she oft criticizes the lack of quality Tex-Mex in Atlanta. Chuy’s looks promising, perhaps it will quiet her discontent. Though I doubt it, and to no fault of Chuy’s…. I heard mention you had recently diverted from your usual food analysis and had done a form of music review? I’d love to send a CD of a new local ATL bluegrass group about to play Underground’s Peach Drop.