Read this cookbook: “Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen” by Eddie Hernandez and Susan Puckett (A Rux Martin Book: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)
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By Wendell Brock
Eddie Hernandez didn’t invent the fish taco -- just Atlanta’s most popular fish taco.
It all started in 1987, when a down-and-out rock-and-roll drummer from Monterrey, Mexico, stumbled into a Tex-Mex dive on the south side and applied for a server’s job, and in short order persuaded the manager to let him run the kitchen.
Hernandez’s boss was Mike Klank. Together they are the partners behind the beloved Taqueria del Sol restaurant empire: a fast-casual concept where Hernandez’s pioneering Mexico-meets-Texas-meets-Southwest-meets-American-South style of cooking has won him a cult following.
Now along with co-author Susan Puckett, a former AJC food editor, Hernandez has written a cookbook that brings together the Taqueria del Sol classics (spicy turnip greens, poblano corn chowder with shrimp, Memphis pork barbecue tacos, margaritas) -- plus a good many more recipes from the chef’s cross-sampling culinary repertoire.
Hernandez may be known for tacos, but he’s also a master of the blue-plate special. In his case, he injects diner-friendly comfort food with palate-tickling heat and downhome technique.
Behold his drool-worthy Meatloaf with Tomato-Habanero Gravy; Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Green Chile-Horseradish Sauce; Texas Chicken-Fried Steak With Tabasco Cream Gravy; Shrimp and Grits; and his piece de resistance: Chicken-Green Chile Potpie in Puffy Tortilla Shells.
As for that last dish, it’s a little-known trick that flour tortillas fried in oil will puff up like pin cushions; Hernandez’s clever ploy is to crack them open and ladle them full of rich, creamy pot-pie filling. Don’t be intimidated by frying the tortillas; it’s easier than rolling a piecrust. It’s also a heavenly dish.
I love the way this renegade chef re-masters iconic Southern food his way: Instead of fried-green tomatoes, Hernandez makes Fried Green Tomatillos with Peach-Habanero Sauce. He dresses up fried-oyster tacos like New Orleans po’boys. He adds peanut butter to pork and black-bean chili. He mixes black-eyed pea salad with cooked rice and calls it Hoppin’ Juan. He zips up pecan pralines with ancho chile powder.
But here’s the thing: Week in and week out, I come across chef-driven cookbooks filled with fabulous recipes and photographs and not a speck of soul. Often, it seems the publisher expects the author’s celebrity alone to sell the book. It gets tedious.
What makes “Turnip Greens & Tortillas” stand out is Hernandez’s story: how he lost his father when he was young; was molded by strong matriarchs; came to America determined to be a rock star; and discovered that feeding people was his calling. Before the triumph, there were false starts and struggles.
Sometimes a taco is just a taco. But with Eddie Hernandez, it’s a collision of history, geography, culture, pride and culinary magic. It’s Monterrey. It’s Waco. It’s Memphis. It’s Nashville. It’s New Orleans. It’s Atlanta. “Tacos,” he writes in the book, “are my way of making sense of where I am and how I got here.”
Southerners can be notoriously tough on outsiders who tamper with their time-honored culinary traditions. But the second Eddie Hernandez folded fried fish and tartar sauce into a soft flour tortilla, it was love at first bite.
It’s about time the rest of the world discovered this one-of-a-kind local hero.
6-7 p.m. April 10. Free. Avid Book Shop, 1662 South Lumpkin St., Athens. avidbookshop.com
11 a.m.-2 p.m. April 13. Free. Taqueria del Sol, 5001 Peachtree Boulevard, Suite 910, Chamblee.
5:30-9 p.m. April 13. Free. Taqueria del Sol, 1200-B Howell Mill Road, Atlanta.
12-3 p.m. April 14. Free. Taqueria del Sol, 359 West Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur.
5:30-9 p.m. April 14. Free. Taqueria del Sol, 2165 Cheshire Bridge Road NE, Atlanta. taqueriadelsol.com
Hernandez will join chefs Hugh Acheson, Todd Richards and Virginia Willis for SECRETS OF THE SOUTHERN TABLE: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South as part of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta's Book Festival, which will examine the culinary heritage of the American South.
A Q & A, book signing and dessert reception, featuring desserts from all four cookbooks, will follow the author talk. Books will be available for purchase from the official bookseller of the Book Festival of the MJCCA, A Cappella Books.
7:30 p.m. May 2. $24. Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. Purchase tickets here
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock) .