In his new cookbook, “Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods From Both Sides of the Border” (Potter, $29.99), chef, restaurateur and Texas transplant Ford Fry describes chicken al carbon as “a beautiful and delicious dish.”
On Monday, Fry opened a new “super-casual” Tex-Mex restaurant called Little Rey in the Piedmont Heights neighborhood.
The menu there, created with fellow Texas chef Kevin Maxey, is primarily focused on that aromatic, campfire-flavored Tex-Mex delicacy — whole chickens smoked and grilled with oak and mesquite, and served family-style with handmade tortillas, smoked onions and jalapeños, ranch beans and cilantro rice.
Since landing in Atlanta in 2007, with the Southern-inspired JCT Kitchen, Fry has opened a string of diverse concepts around the city, including No. 246, the Optimist, King + Duke, St. Cecilia, Marcel and BeetleCat.
But with help from Maxey, in 2014 Fry debuted the El Felix, which he has called “a neighborhood Tex-Mex joint.” The next year, with the opening of another Tex-Mex restaurant, Superica, he started digging even deeper into his Houston roots, and the history and culture of the food he and Maxey grew up with.
Described as “a favorite cousin to Superica,” Little Rey is located in a former tattoo parlor at the corner of Piedmont Avenue and Piedmont Circle. Smith Hanes Studio partnered with Fry to create a space that evokes the kind of lively, freewheeling place you might find around Austin.
Little Rey’s dine-in or takeout menu includes Texas-style migas breakfast tacos, plus the likes of “Little Superica” hotcakes, and Huevos Rancheros. Snacks for sharing include salsa, guacamole and queso with chips, queso fries with charred jalapeños and bacon, and smoked chicken wings with salsa macha, deep-fried peanuts and chiles, and jalapeño ranch dressing.
There’s also a La Superica salad, pozole rojo, arroz con pollo, and a crispy chicken sandwich with smashed avocado, spicy slaw, and pickled jalapeño. Of course, there are more than just breakfast tacos on offer, including chicken or steak al carbon, carne asada, and brisket slow-smoked with tomatillo and cascabel chiles.
The Little Rey drinks menu from beverage director Eduardo Porto Carreiro and beverage manager Jen Chan is described as “simple and nostalgic.” Look for margaritas served frozen or on the rocks, house-made agua frescas, draft and packaged Mexican lagers and local craft beers, wine in cans or bottles, and assorted Mexican soft drinks.
Late last week, Maxey, who has the title of vice president of Tex-Mex at Ford Fry Restaurants, sat down at Little Rey to talk about the concept and how it evolved.
“Growing up in Texas, Tex-Mex was just normal dinner,” Maxey said. “I grew up in Dallas. Ford grew up in Houston. We had very similar styles of Tex-Mex, but different enough to have regional variations. We opened a bunch of restaurants together, including King + Duke, St. Cecilia, Beetlecat, and some other stuff. But we kept joking around about just opening something Tex-Mex.
“Then, one day, Ford said, ‘Let’s just do it.’ That space in Krog Street Market came up, and he said, ‘I think this is our spot.’ Sure enough, we both thought it (Superica) would be great in that neighborhood. The idea was not to just re-create the genre. Tex-Mex food sort of is what it is. We wanted to be real respectful of that and open a restaurant that is the flavor memory of the Tex-Mex we grew up with, which is quite a bit different than you see nowadays, even in Texas. Simple grilled meats on really good tortillas was a lot of the driving force behind Superica.”
Talking about how Little Rey grew out of Superica, Maxey pointed to the two most popular cuisines in Texas.
“In Texas, barbecue and Tex-Mex are kissing cousins,” he said. “And they’ve been fused together for a long time. You substitute tortillas for buns, and you’ve got a taco instead of a barbecue sandwich. The chicken al carbon, that was it. Let’s open a restaurant that celebrates a brined, marinated, smoked, wood-fire grilled chicken. The star of the show is a half chicken with homemade tortillas and all the fixings to make your own tacos.
“But the menu works a bunch of different ways, and that was important. You can come in and have a handful of tacos and a couple of sides, then a whole chicken for the table, and everybody gets to try a little bit of everything. But the other thing we want to celebrate is breakfast with the migas tacos. It’s basically just eggs and tortillas and salsa. But somehow the sum is greater than the parts. And we start with beans and cheese, then you can embellish with bacon or chorizo or steak.”
1878 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 770-796-0207, littlerey.com.
Scroll down for more images from a First Look at Little Rey in Piedmont Heights
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