Pure pleasure 

OTP gets an unexpected hot spot with Alpharetta's Pure Taqueria

Intowners have culinary dervishes like Piebar, Shout and Two Urban Licks to satiate their hankerings for rakish rabble-rousing. The hour-plus waits on weekends? Nothing a groovy, psychotropic drink can't temper.

But folks from the northern suburbs who are weary of schlepping to Midtown for a little scenester action can now trot over to their very own hot spot. Its immense popularity, I suspect, has come as much as a surprise to the owners as it has to the customers.

Pure Taqueria sits on a drowsy Alpharetta street with no other business on the block. The new building emulates the industrial garage look as homage to a Pure Oil gas station. Yet it beckons with a cheering moxie that you glimpse through the restaurant's floor-to-ceiling windows while pulling into the parking lot ... the miniscule parking lot. Aha, that's why so many cars are crammed into that unpaved clearing in the wooded area across the street.

A backbeat of classic rock rumbles across the ceiling -- an inverted bass note to the clamoring treble of the crowd. The wait at 6:50 p.m. on this Saturday night is already 45 minutes. By 7:30 p.m., it'll be almost double that. But hardly anyone who walks into the restaurant and notes the number of unseated loiterers balks at the wait.

In town, people often endure these kinds of delays for the sheer bragging rights of experiencing the latest "it" restaurant. Judging from the slightly older age bracket assembled here and the number of close-knit clusters, the tenacity of Pure's would-be patrons probably stems from more practical reasons: They snagged a baby sitter, they finally coordinated a night all the friends could assemble, and, dammit, they're gonna throw back some beers and margaritas and have themselves a jolly time.

They're in for a gratifying bonus: The food is affordable and soulfully accomplished.

Pure Taqueria comes from the Sedgwick Restaurant Group, which operates Van Gogh's, Vinny's, Aspen Signature Steaks and Theo's Brother's Bakeries. Unlike its other monolithic restaurants, Pure radiates a charming earnestness. The chef, Eddie Garcia-Guzman, is also executive chef at Van Gogh's, but he's purportedly spending most of his time at Pure these days. Whoever's in the kitchen, they're cooking like this is food they love. You can taste the affection for the ingredients.

The concise menu is a close fusion of Mexican tradition and American inclination. If you're a margarita purist, don't veer far beyond the house and Texas variations, lest you end up swigging a concoction reminiscent of the lollipops you used to get as a reward at the doctor's office. Request an order of chunky, limey guacamole right away, along with a bubbling slab of queso fundido covered with poblano peppers and chorizo.

Now consider what else to eat more carefully. Are you in the mood for straight-up, faithfully rendered Mexican, or something with a bit of gourmandizing sass? Garcia-Guzman and his crew can pull off either.

The tacos have solid street cred. If the corn tortillas don't proffer the nutty flavor and appealing density that homemade ones do, they're satisfyingly toothy nonetheless. And the fillings more than adequately compensate. Fried grouper is adorned with poblano slaw and a riff on tartar sauce that tingles with chipotle. Chopped beef cheek tacos (don't think, just chow) have a melding tenderness.

"We pair salsas to our food like wine," quips one server a bit too casually. It sounds like a line embedded in his brain by corporate overseers, but everyone we encounter does makes good recommendations for which salsas go with what tacos. A special of lamb tacos benefited from the subtle warmth of a smooth guajillo salsa. Flourescently green cruda-tomatillo adds a welcome bright note to the grouper. And hunks of robust pork soak up the bluesy smokiness of morita chiles. Even the classic pureed tomato salsa that comes with chips at the beginning of the meal has a kicky complexity.

If I'm having tacos as an entree, I like the contrast of the tres ceviches as an appetizer beforehand. Three glasses are filled with shrimp, grouper and octopus -- each bathed in a gentle combination of lime and orange juices, with a bit of celery, onion and cilantro. The cleansing jolt of celery is particularly astute with the not-too-chewy octopus.

I'm less enamored with the salpicon de camarones that drowns shrimp in a bland slush of tomato sauce. If it's cooked crustaceans you're after, try the marinated shrimp that have been split length-wise and cooked in the shell. Nice thinking: The shell keeps the citrusy shrimp exceptionally moist, and because they're halved you don't have to wrestle with peeling them. They just slip right out of their casing.

Crispy pork gorditas and a turnover twist on quesadillas stuffed with chicken and cheese are admirably authentic, as is a posole stew made with green chile. But you know what really dazzles me? The hamburger.

That's right, the gringo Hamburguesa Sedgwick. A patty of grilled Angus beef is layered with avocado, pickled jalapeños, poblanos, braised onions, bacon and a thin layer of cheese and placed on a fluffy bun. People, it's a sight to behold. Even the staunch vegetarian at the table appraised it and said, "That's the most tempting meat thing I've seen in years." Each bite offers a different nuance of meaty, creamy and punchy -- mecca for non-purists like me who like lots of glop on their burgers.

The unexpected chemistry of giddily conceived food, chummy service and eager patrons makes me cross my fingers that the ambitious Sedgwick Group doesn't attempt to replicate the success of Pure Taqueria all over the 'burbs. I like the feisty independence of this single location. It gives us glutted intowners a rare OTP gem to be jealous of.


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