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Perfect chicharrones at Taqueria El Sori 

Plus a visit to the Mercantile

I was beside myself. The woman behind the counter at Taqueria El Sori inside Fiesta Foods (2839-2863 Buford Highway) extended me a little Styrofoam cup, repeating the words “rico, rico.”

I took the cup and speared a piece of the meat with my fork. The outer layer of skin was slightly springy and covered with a relatively thick layer of fat that melted in my mouth as I chewed. But there was also a bit of meat clinging to the morsel. It was moist with peppery broth and slightly chewy, flooding my mouth with the taste of fresh pork. I speared a chunk of green chile in the broth in which the meat was cooked. It was mildly hot and almost sweet.

The woman looked at me expectantly and I told her, in Spanish, that I hadn’t eaten such perfect chicharrones in years. I handed the cup to my lunch companion, food photographer and blogger Broderick Smylie, and he was equally enthused.

A chicharron is technically fried pork skin to which a bit of meat may be attached. But, when served in a taco, chicharrones have usually been stewed, most often in a green sauce in my experience. They pop up now and then at taquerias along Buford Highway in this form. El Molino, the defunct taqueria on Cheshire Bridge, used to prepare them fairly often as a lunch special. And Lucero Martinez-Obregon, the chef/co-owner of Zocalo, used to cook them for her kitchen staff and would give me a taste.

I’ve been ranting about chicharrones for years. While lots of Anglos find them disgusting in the sloppy stewed form (but love them in their redneck fried form as “pork rinds”), they are an icon of nostalgia for me from my days in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Houston back in the ‘80s.

As is usually the case around town, they weren’t mentioned on the handwritten menu board but came up in brief conversation with the cook when Broderick and I took our seats at the bar. Besides insisting I sample the chicharrones, she asked if I liked tongue, to which I replied, “Now and then… not really.” Although I love kosher tongue, I’ve found most tongue in taquerias gamy tasting.

“No?” she said. “You must try the tongue.”

“No…really…”

I was soon eating tender, juicy tongue rolled in a small corn tortilla with cilantro and a dab of avocado-based green sauce I ladled from the huge molcajete directly in front of me.

“It’s great,” I said, “but I want a huarache with chicharrones, a taco with carne asada and another taco with chicharrones.” Broderick ordered the same huarache, plus asada and carnitas tacos. I’d tried the carnitas the day before and loved them. They were juicy and slightly crisp, perfect with another green sauce made with only fresh hot chilies, stored in another molcajete on the bar.

The huarache was tasty but I preferred the chicharrones rolled in a taco. A huarache takes its name from a type of sandal popular in Mexico. It’s a big, sole-shaped corn-flour cake that is fried. (It’s similar to the smaller sopes, also available most of the time at El Sori.)

Huaraches tend to be kind of greasy, not an effect I want with chicharrones, although El Sori’s chicharrones really do have more actual meat than the usual. But I also don’t like the huarache’s inevitable pile of chopped iceberg lettuce, along with queso fresco. After dribbling the entire thing with green sauce, though, I ate every bite.

My taco of carne asada was better than average but, honestly, I’d order the tongue or carnitas before trying it. I did sample the smoky red sauce with the asada and, although it was sharp and hot, I still prefer the tangy greens.

During my first visit, another customer insisted I order a taco made with cabeza de res. That’s “head of the cow.” I’ve been a bit squeamish about this ever since visiting a place in Mexico that specialized in cabeza. I was offered a choice of sesos (brains) and oreja (ear), along with tongue and the more generic meat pulled from the steamed head of the cow.

Happily, brains weren’t on my cabeza taco at El Sori. What I did get was amazingly tender beef that seemed texturally perfect for the restaurant’s delicate, doubled corn tortillas from El Milagro.

Is there anything especially avoidable? I did order an al pastor taco during my first visit and it did not make the grade. There’s no al pastor machine in sight. The meat was minced, tasting like it had simply been mixed with some al pastor seasoning. Skip it.

Fiesta Foods, the taqueria’s landlord, also contains a festively painted juice bar called Lindo Michoacan. Being on the verge of immobility both times I left El Sori, I haven’t tried one of the juice drinks, but there’s a tempting array of flavors.

(Warning: Speak Spanish or have a lot of patience when you visit El Sori.)

The Mercantile

I’m not sure how I’ve missed the Mercantile (1660 DeKalb Ave., 404-378-0096), a gourmet market in Candler Park that serves designer sandwiches and a few hot entrees. I visited last week.

It’s got a strong foodie vibe, selling organic produce, good bread, all kinds of condiments and “mother sauces,” like béchamel, made by the kitchen there. There are a few tables for eating on the premises but most of the prepared dishes are for takeout.

I haven’t tried the sandwiches but did order last Monday’s two specials — a masaman chicken curry and a fried chicken breast with mashed potatoes and green beans. I give the food a B. The fried chicken was quite dry, but the potatoes and beans were terrific — super-fresh-tasting, which is weirdly rare for mashed potatoes in this city. I have no idea why.

The masaman chicken was as fragrantly spicy as you find in the average Thai restaurant around town. It was full of cashews and bits of ripe avocado, as well as generous pieces of boned chicken, served over brown rice. (It was also available with tofu instead of chicken.)

We also tried some deviled eggs whose stuffing was heavily spiked with mustard. And we ordered slices of the Jim Nabor’s cake. It was sort of like a hummingbird cake and featured cream-cheese icing. I was all prepared to shout “Shazam!” but I’m sorry to say that the cake was quite dry. Not that I didn’t eat every crumb. Still, it could be better.

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