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First Look: Pure Taqueria and El Toro 

What's with all the sub-par Tex-Mex border cuisine in Atlanta?

Isn't assimilation a wonderful thing? America wouldn't be America if we didn't invite immigrants to jump into our melting pot (unless they happen to look like terrorists, have really dark skin, or expect to do anything but pick our lettuce).

More than half a million Hispanics have settled in Georgia. The state's Hispanic population increased more than 200 percent between 1980 and 2000 - the third-largest increase in the nation. The 2010 census is likely to report the same kind of growth.

I mention this because a large percentage of the Hispanic population here is Mexican and that poses a perennial question to me: Why is so much Mexican food in our city repulsively malo? I'm not talking about the mami-y-papi taquerias on Buford Highway that cater mainly to Mexicans. I'm talking about the restaurants that attract mainly gringos. Why, no matter the ethnicity of their owners and cooks, do they almost all serve bad Tex-Mex border cuisine?

I hit three Mexican restaurants last week. Two, Pure Taqueria in Inman Park and El Toro in Grant Park, are new. The third, Grant Park's Mi Barrio, has been around a few years.

Pure Taqueria (300 N. Highland Ave., 404-522-7873) is part of a franchise that started in Alpharetta. I've never been to the restaurant there, but it's received almost universally positive reviews since it opened in 2007. Much like Taqueria del Sol, the restaurant features authentic flavors but nothing exotic (like the tongue served at the new Lupe).

The new restaurant has a party-hearty vibe. It was open only about a week when we visited on a Tuesday night, but it was already packed. We waited 20 minutes for a table. Let me warn you. This is not a place to have a conversation that requires sentences of more than a few words. The clatter and the chatter are high-decibel enough, but really loud music (mercifully not mariachi) is played, too. I said "What?" at least 20 times.

The restaurant takes its name from the Pure Oil Company and, to some degree, this location duplicates the original's service-station look with big glass garage doors. There's a large bar where you can eat as well as swill tequila. There's a staff of young servers so good-looking you'll just smile and shrug when they bring out your entrée before your starter, as they did in our case.

Wayne and I sampled mainly classics, starting with the usual queso fundido - melted Chihuahua cheese with bits of chorizo and poblano peppers. You spread the gooey, spicy stuff on flour tortillas, of which you are given the usual odd number of three.

Wayne ordered three tacos - fish, shrimp and carne asada. I have to admit, the dish looked unappetizing to me when it arrived. The three overloaded tacos filled the plate. The usual rice and frijoles refritos were on the side.  Then I tasted the fish taco - crispy chunks of fried tilapia with poblano slaw, chipotle aioli and a bit of tomatillo salsa. Sabroso! Ditto for the other two, especially the carne asada with guajillo salsa.

I ordered the chicken enchiladas with mole. I braced myself for something that tasted as prosaic as it looked, but was happily surprised by the juicy chicken and smooth, playfully rich mole. More of the ubiquitous beans and rice were on the side. The rice was better than the average orange stuff that typically tastes like it was made three days ago. Still, I could do without it.

For dessert, we ordered tres leches. Pure's version features coconut and toasted almonds along with vanilla rum. It's a wonderful riff on the classic.

Two in Grant Park

Believe it or not, there was a time when authentic Mexican food was rare even on Buford Highway. The closest thing was El Toro, located in front of a shady motel. It was literally the only place in the city where I could find carnitas when I returned from my two years in Houston in the late '80s.

That restaurant - the original in this now expansive, family owned chain -is long gone, but the menu is about the same at the newest El Toro (687 Memorial Drive, 404-688-8111) in the space vacated by Redfish. The huge menu is still mainly Tex-Mex. We tried to suss out a few more authentic dishes - chicken mole for me and a whole fried fish for Wayne.

¡Ay Dios mio! That's Spanish for "Oy." Wayne's gigantic tilapia was weirdly, strongly fishy-tasting, which is unusual for a fish that usually has no flavor (in my opinion). The exterior was greasy. Just don't order it. But don't order the mole, either. While the chicken itself was flavorful, the mole was ... well ... it was not - ¿Cómo se dice...? - edible. Honestly, I don't know where it came from or what was in it, but I never want to taste it again.

This place, which was empty except for one other couple, is a complete anachronism with its gigantic menu and grim ingredients. Anyone wanting really good spicy flavors should cross the street and go to Agave.

It's been well over a year since we visited Mi Barrio (571 Memorial Drive, 404-223-9279). This place has mediocre food but it's a fun experience. It's dark, has a low ceiling and is over-decorated with kitsch. When we visited last week, there seemed to be a large staff on hand but only one or two guys actually waiting on tables. It was crowded.

This is a restaurant owned by a Mexican cook but has a mainly Tex-Mex menu, too. You'll find less usual things such as a shrimp cocktail to which you can add pulpo (octopus), but mistranslated on the menu as squid. We asked twice if it was squid or octopus and finally gave up.

I ordered a tongue taco, which was tasty, although it never occurred to our server to bring any salsas to the table. (The apparent manager finally did.) I also ordered a chile relleno, which was good. Let me warn you, since my server did not warn me: The chile's melted cheese hides three toothpicks. They create interesting mouthfeel.

Wayne ordered the world's largest chicken chimichanga and could eat only a third of it. Of course, he'd already eaten a gordita with carne asada and a tamale with pork. The latter two were probably the best things we ordered.

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