After his backyard birria business took off, Cruz saved and bought a food truck, which appealed to customers leery of indoor dining. Then, at the beginning of March, Cruz and his business partner, Carlos Bickers, reopened Bickers’ restaurant, Isabella’s Pizza and Wings, as Chef Smokeys ATL.
Now, you can find patrons standing in line for tacos, nachos, quesadillas, burritos, taquitos, chimichangas, fries, tortas and rice bowls — all with birria. There’s even a birria-smothered burger and a birria pizza that Cruz said outsells the pepperoni.
The birria pizza at Chef Smokeys ATL marries an Italian-style pie with the dish for which Mauro Cruz is known. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Credit: Wendell Brock
Credit: Wendell Brock
In case you missed it, a birria trend has swept Atlanta, and Cruz claims to be the guy behind the local craze. “I started the whole hype in Georgia. You can ask anybody,” said the self-proclaimed king of birria. “Now, you see it everywhere. There were restaurants that never had birria before, and now they got it.”
While people in the Mexican state of Jalisco know birria as goat stew eaten from a bowl, much like pozole, another preparation — known as birria de res (beef), which started in Tijuana and traveled to California — is used in tacos. To make the type of birria tacos now in demand, stewed meat is stuffed into a soft tortilla with cheese, dipped in the oily gravy, and fried on the griddle. A small cup of consommé is served on the side, for dipping.
On Wednesday night, I pulled into the Chef Smokeys parking lot, and joined a line of people waiting outside the brick building with red trim, which has a crystal chandelier dangling over the entrance. Cruz has had so much trouble finding staffers that he offers only to-go food some nights.
Mauro Cruz, known as Chef Smokey, started making birria to support his family: daughter Isabella (with glasses), daughter Yareli, wife Jaqueline and Mauro Jr. — aka Lil Smokey. Courtesy of Alexis Garcia
Credit: Alexis Garcia
Credit: Alexis Garcia
Some customers grab their food and eat it perched on the back of their pickups. Rather than trek back to the city, I followed suit. I spread my order — a birria taco plate, rice bowl (with chicken birria) and pizza (with chicken birria and chorizo) — out on a sidewalk bench.
The rice bowl, topped with cilantro, onion and queso, was quite tasty, and filling. The thin-crust pizza was a solid effort. I recommend this pie, although, next time, I’d get it with beef.
The beef birria tacos, dipped in consommé, are remarkable. Though it’s hard (for me) not to like a grease bomb such as this, it’s the long-simmered, deeply flavorful, bright-red dip that elevates the dish into something extraordinary. I poured the gravy over the rice bowl. I wanted to eat it on everything.
Cruz, who was born in Atlanta but later lived in Guerrero with his dad, said the birria of that region of Mexico is cooked by wrapping chunks of meat in foil and braising it for hours. In Jalisco, the birria often is cooked in a pit in the ground. His method was to dispense with the foil, and the pits, and instead cook the dish over a wood fire. (Hence, his nickname.)
Though Cruz cannot replicate that technique in a restaurant, he’s still cooks a mean pot of birria. In many ways, he does it because he has to. In a time of economic uncertainty, birria is what saved this father of three.
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CHEF SMOKEYS ATL
Menu: Mexican, wings and burgers; birria is the star
What I ordered: birria taco plate (beef); pizza with chicken birria and chorizo; rice bowl with chicken birria; Mexican Coke. I ordered in person, and the food came out quickly. Now, I understand the birria taco phenomenon; Mauro Cruz’s cooking makes this humble former pizza parlor a destination
Service options: order by phone or in person; technically, the restaurant offers dine-in, but a staffing shortage sometimes necessitates to-go only; no delivery
Outdoor dining: two tables
Mask policy: yes, for staff and patrons, though I did observe some unmasked customers in the carryout line
Address, phone: 2805 Veterans Memorial Highway SW, Austell; 770-485-7457
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 4 p.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; 12-6 p.m. Sundays
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