Ten favorite taquerias and cantinas

Ten favorite taquerias and cantinas

Me gusta Mexican. My mother must have eaten a ton of tortillas (corn please, not flour) when she was pregnant with me. Since she's from East Texas, that's entirely possible. Perhaps it's her mother's enchiladas that hooked me. Whatever the reason, I love this food, from tacos to tamales. We're lucky in Atlanta to have lots of authentic taquerias, with food as good as what you might find in Mexico, and gringo cantinas that mix fun with flautas. And maybe it's just me, but this is the kind of stuff to eat once the weather warms. Maybe it's the fact that it's avocado and tomato season. Maybe it's the margaritas. Either way, these are 10 of my favorite taquerias and cantinas.

AUTHENTIC TAQUERIAS

La Oaxaquena Taqueria Three stars
605 Mount Zion Road, Jonesboro. 770-960-3010

I get asked a lot what my favorite restaurant is in the area, and my answer is always this real deal in Jonesboro. No place serves up the mystery that is masa as well as this restaurant. The owners moved last December to a new location with lots more room, but fear not: This is still soul food, Mexican-style — as good as any I've had in Mexico. Tacos? Si. Plus tamales, either wrapped in cornhusks or encased in banana leaves Oaxacan-style, then stuffed with masa and shredded chicken and served with spicy red sauce or piquant salsa verde. Don't speak Spanish? Don't worry, just point to what you want. Gorditas, thick tortillas rich with corn flavor and topped with shredded barbecued goat's meat or beef are second only to tlayudas — thin, griddled, oversized tortillas smothered in shredded lettuce, gobs of beans and spicy Mexican chorizo, fresh, ripe tomatoes, avocado, and string cheese from Oaxaca called quesillo. They're a big, messy, pizza-shaped street food that's just right for sharing. Maybe.

El Ray del Taco (not rated)
5288 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-986-0032 (another location at 575 Pike Street, Lawrenceville, 770-277-9905)

Tacos always get me through the door of this popular spot on Buford Highway, but they're not the only things I order. Sure, the champinones are jam-full of the most umami-laden foodstuffs on the planet: corn and mushrooms, plus the sautéed onions that always accompany a plate of the flavorful wraps. Suadero, a skirt steak-stuffed taco, is a meaty counterpoint to mushrooms, as is the spicy chorizo. But don't miss the caldo de langostinos, no matter the month: even when it's hot outside this soup, laden with a rich, red, flavorful broth laced with chilies and cilantro is heartwarming and hearty. There's so much flavor you hardly need the langoustines, but they're fun to eat anyway.

San Pancho (not rated)
4880 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker, Suite 9, 770-493-9844

This little strip of Lawrenceville Highway is a foodie haven – just a few doors down is L'Thai, one of my favorite Thai spots in the area. There's little more to this real-deal taqueria than the storefront and a few small tables, a TV switched on to "Manana es para Siempre" and the counter, where the most important thing here occurs: ordering. These are some of the best tacos in the area, and one of the only authentic spots that serves tacos dorados — hard, crispy tacos. Soft or hard, they can be filled with chorizo or lengua (tongue), but the best is al pastor —marinated, spicy meat Mexico-City style — or fish tacos, made with bits of fish and dressed with cilantro and spicy mixed salsas. Tortas are sloppy and fun, filled with chicken, cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce. Add a tiny salsa bar and some sweet habiscus juice or a pineapple-flavored Jarritos soda and it's a party.

Taqueria el Vecino (not rated)
2743 La Vista Road, Decatur, 404-929-0301

In between the lime green walls of this small storefront is a tiny taqueria with a big heart. Owned and operated by Rob Atherholt of Crescent Moon fame, the draw here is what's wrapped: tamales enrobed Mexico City-style in corn husks and stuffed with jalapenos and queso, mole con pollo and the best — puerco con salsa verde, a pulled pork in mild salsa made with tomatillos. An excellently seasoned and scrumptious carne asada taco is worth a taste, too, from chef Javier Romero, who also serves up something I hadn't tried on other area menus: a relleno taco made with a small, roasted poblano filled with Chihauhua cheese, then batter fried and wrapped inside a soft corn tortilla. It is a lesson in smoky good flavor, and a menu highlight. The salsa bar rocks, and the menu sports bebidas para los mayores. Yes — drinks for adults containing alcohol. Which is always fun when chomping on a taco.

HAPPY CANTINAS

Pure Taqueria Three stars
103 Roswell St., Alpharetta. 678-240-0023

Chris and Michele Sedgwick are no strangers to successful restaurants: their growing family includes Bistro VG, Aspens, Theo's Brother's Bakery and Vinny's. Pure is the couple's best, probably because it sports their fondness for Mexican culture and food. Eating here is relaxed, open and breezy, just like a day at the beach. And don't think this is just gringo grub: the short list of Mexican favorites includes excellent salsas and warm chips, genuine queso fundido with chorizo and jalapenos, Baja-style fish tacos, plus ceviche and mean margaritas. The din of the crowd makes it almost impossible to hear yourself chew, but hey, the craziness is all part of the fun. More Pure's are opening, too, since the couple has franchised the concept. Next up: Woodstock and Inman Park.

Lime Taqueria Three stars
4600 W. Village Place, Smyrna. 678-309-1113

Lime doesn't look like a taqueria, and the menu is clearly one that goes beyond small tacos. The digs, including giant ceramic slices of limes lining the partition that separates the bar from the dining room, give a funky romper room feel — definitely not a typical taqueria. Candlelit tables are flanked with a couple of palm trees, and walls are bathed in bright green and yellow. Here, servers bring big, salty margaritas sloshing around in beautiful Mexican glassware, and they remove flatware with each course. Okay, this is most certainly not a taqueria. The menu over-reaches in spots, but Lime tries hard, and its smaller portions — an array of tacos, tamales and rarely seen goodies such as asado de panela (a grilled cheese without the bread, served here with sweet, smoky, roasted poblanos) — prove out. It's in little snacks like fancy gorditas of thick masa cakes stacked with savory beef, tomatoes, queso cotijo and a splendidly smoky roasted tomatillo salsa surrounded by squiggles of cilantro "pesto" — where big flavor bursts through.

Original El Taco Three stars
1186 N. Highland Ave., Virginia-Highland, 404-873-4656

Fifth Group got an idea after it bought Sala, spruced it up, then closed it again: Why not hire a popular and respected local chef to design a casual menu, hire a talented sous chef to pull it off and goof up the surroundings enough to make Sala a lost memory? Dang if that's not just what they did. The menu, from Shaun Doty of Shaun's in Inman Park, offers a tad of authenticity and lots of approachability, while Savannah College of Art and Design students lent an artistic hand to a mural on the back wall that sports the life-sized face of Frida Kahlo (those eyebrows will get to you).It's a mishmash of Mexican dishes, with an emphasis on tacos and Mexican "pizza" — a gringo take on tlayudas. Things seem a little dumbed-down to be truly authentic, but the margaritas are the best in the city, and it's as much fun as you can have without getting into trouble.

Taqueria Del Sol Three stars
1200 Howell Mill Road N.W., #B, Atlanta. 404-352-5811 , www.taqueriadelsol.com (other locations at 359 West Ponce De Leon Avenue, Decatur, 404-377-7688; 2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, Atlanta, 404-321-1118; 334 Prince Avenue, Athens, 706-353-3890)

Combine Memphis style and Mexican sensibility and what do you get? This sunny, Baja-bathed taco joint that's so popular the line streams out the door. The attitude can be brusque, though, and sometimes it's hard not to grab the counter guy by the lapels and remind him there are things in life besides beef brisket tacos and chunky guacamole. But the fish tacos are the perfect mix of Mexico and Memphis, with poblano-studded tartar sauce and big chunks of deep-fried fish. The richly seasoned beans, chile-laced turnip greens and frosty, frozen margaritas are all reasons to get in line.

Teela Taqueria (not rated)
227 Sandy Springs Place, Suite 506, Sandy Springs, 404-459-0477

Eros and Fishmonger founder "Nik" Panagopoulos, has said adios to both those concepts and hola to Teela Taqueria in Sandy Springs' swanky City Walk. He's partnered with sis Arte Antoniades, who opened the original Fishmonger with him back in 1999. The two have opened a strip mall spot that looks like any other, but with a few secrets: first, a patio in the back that makes for easy, breezy eating. Second, most of the tacos and enchiladas are worth crowing about: the bang bang shrimp — a signature from Fishmonger — has a spicy, smoky flavor from chili aioli. Dressed with lettuce and tomato, it tastes like a shrimp BLT without the B. I had to ask for corn tortillas, but that seemed to be no problem. Cheese enchiladas are bright, breezy and lip smacking, with fresh salsa verde brimming with big tomatillo flavor.

Verde (not rated)
1426 Dresden Drive, Atlanta, 404-254-5319

Definitely more gringo than honest-to-God authentic, this happy spot in Brookhaven is drawing lots of crowds, from first dates to families. The tacos, made with flour tortillas, are not my style, but even so fish tacos and a signature fried chicken taco made with chunks of deep-fried chicken, bacon, lettuce and tomato (plus chipotle mayo) is like a picnic in a tortilla. And what a surprise to find some of the city's best fried calamari – tender tendrils dusted with cornmeal, then deep-fried. Skip the chipotle mayo on the side: all it needs is a squirt of lemon juice and you're good to go.

KEY TO RATINGS
Five stars Outstanding: Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
Four stars Excellent: One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Three stars Very good: Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
Two stars Good: A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
One star Fair: The food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.

PRICING CODE: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. (The price code represents a meal for one that includes appetizer, entree and dessert without including tax, tip and cocktails.)

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