Cuerna-Vaca Supermarket 

Mexican soul food in Sandy Springs

Markets like Cuerna-Vaca Supermarket (5000 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 404-236-0022) are a meeting place for Mexicans who want a taste of real home-cooked food minus the fluff. The storefront, tucked into a tiny strip mall on Roswell Road, barely looks like a store, let alone a restaurant. But make your way past the checkout counter and down through the warren of grocery shelves and you'll find a few tables and a menu on the wall of Mexican specialties.

Egg dishes are available all day and the huevos rancheros will knock your socks off. Two pristine fried eggs are smothered in a fresh – and incredibly spicy – green sauce and flanked with creamy refried beans and fluffy tomato-tinged Mexican rice. A warm basket of El Milagro tortillas accompanies the dish, but it's hard to venture away from the eggs once you've shoveled a forkful of silky orange yolks bathed in salsa into your mouth.

Each tamale is unwrapped and placed rather unceremoniously onto a plate with a fork, but don't let the Spartan presentation fool you. Shreds of chicken swathed in the spicy green salsa spill out from the tamale's interior once it's broken in two. The corn version tastes like a dense corn pudding. There are no corn kernels, but the bursts of sweet corn still permeate each bite.

Hulking platters of chicken enchiladas are served with mole (made with ubiquitous Dona Maria paste) or green salsa. The chicken-stuffed tortillas are draped in salsa and covered with shredded iceberg lettuce, Cotija cheese, and copious drizzles of crema Mexicana. A massive serving of flautas – tightly rolled tortillas filled with shredded chicken and deep-fried to a golden crisp – are also covered with a blanket of lettuce and cream.

Soft sandwich buns house the tortas, which come in a variety of versions. The Milanesa is one mean meat sandwich. Steaks are pounded as thin as a magazine, breaded and fried, then stuffed into the bun with lettuce, thick slices of crumbly Cotija cheese, and creamy avocado. The sandwich is wrapped in foil and sliced in two for easy consumption. Drizzle one of the exceptional salsas – either the smoky red or fantastic green – into the sandwich and enjoy with one of the chilly half-liter bottles of Mexican Coke made with cane sugar.

One of the big draws at Cuerna-Vaca is the meat counter because you can buy various cuts by the pound. Some, like the tender and crispy carnitas, are prepared ahead of time so you can heat them at home for a lazy-night supper. You can also eat the carnitas and other meats, like the smoky barbacoa de res, in the "restaurant" as a taco filling.

Cuerna-Vaca is one of those places that feels so much like Mexico, it's no wonder ex-pats find comfort in the feel and flavors of the place. But you don't have to be a native to enjoy platter after platter of ridiculously enchanting Mexican soul food churned out by a talented cook in a remarkably tiny kitchen.


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