If the best taco of your life came off a truck in L.A. or you’ve never forgotten the tamale you had in that west Chicago hole-in-the-wall, you know what I know: The most memorable Mexican food you’re ever going to eat comes out of a dive.
And El Mexicano — with its chipped Formica tables, mottled concrete floor and landfill view across Moreland Avenue — feels like a dive, delightfully so.
Another true badge of this joint’s divey honor? Here’s what my friends who live nearby and flock to El Mexicano have to say about it: “Don’t tell anyone about El Mexicano!”
Sorry, pals. I have to spill. If you live in southeast Atlanta, El Mexicano deserves your regular devotion. If you don’t, it’s worth the drive.
But, here’s another secret about this obscure, two-year-old gem, something I didn’t realize until we were well into our raucous and delicious dinner there — this place isn’t a dive, not wholly anyway.
Yes, El Mexicano slings $2 “street tacos” and kid-friendly queso dip sticky enough to coat the inside of your mouth. But it also dishes up surprising elegance.
A real dive, for instance, doesn’t assemble a plump, perfectly cooked shrimp cocktail in a massive goblet of gazpacho with components so fresh that eating it feels like walking through a fragrant garden.
Dives also don’t traffic in margaritas laced with cilantro, jalapeno and house-made cucumber agua fresca. Or dramatic molcajetes — stone bowls of sizzling stuff that range from arrachera steak to a whole fried fish.
Speaking of that sizzling stuff, know this if you’re a vegetarian: Carnivores take the prize at El Mexicano.
The carnitas, just to name one dish, were ridiculously good. The texture was impossibly tender, yet scattered with caramelized bits that gave it an essential, sweet crunch. The flavor was explosive.
The grilled steak and chicken in our house molcajete also were exceptional. The petite filets must be marinated for days to achieve such juicy, savory, smoky goodness, and they were made even better by their pairings — sweet grilled scallions, a few luxurious pork rinds and an unmolested wedge of avocado.
Such intense flavor means you don’t need to splash these proteins with the free salsa that begins your meal. You should, however, put it on everything else. Equal parts smoky heat and cool tomatoey freshness, the salsa is uncommon stuff. Use it to dress up the underspiced and overchilled guacamole or try it on the fish tacos, which were perfectly fine but felt understated next to the flavor-saturated meats.
Or skip the fish for those street tacos, which are required eating here. The double layer of rustic, very corny tortillas (for 50 cents you can “upgrade” to a flour tortilla, but I don’t know why you would) cradled a toss of bright cilantro and red onions, a splash of fresh green salsa and the meat — oh, the meat. Alpastor (marinated pork) was the no-brainer first choice, but the steak was devastating, too. Even the safe ground that I usually tread as a last resort, shredded chicken, was satisfying enough to make for a fabulous lunch.
Chase your tacos with the icy rice-pudding-in-a-glass that is the horchata. Not only was it a whole lot better than the dessert of dry, chewy churros, it had that priceless divey spirit that I expected when I first walked into El Mexicano.
Then again, the generous wedge of burnt sugar-scented, very creamy flan was pretty great and would have felt right at home in a more posh place.
So, which is El Mexicano? Downscale taco stop or schmancy date night destination? You could say it’s both, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter — not when the food is this good.