This place has it all.
Spanish is the official language of La Imperial. I brought a Brazilian friend who got by just fine with his Portuñol. I also brought an English speaker who ordered in English with limited success. My advice to non-Spanish speakers: point, nod and say “sí” (yes) to everything. The upside is that ordering is over the counter; you don’t have to decipher something more technical than a taco menu because you can scan the hot dishes on the cafeteria line to see what’s available.
The tamales, advertised on a sign near the road, are what prompted me to pull over in the first place. The menu board above the counter lists seven options. Raja, a filling of jalapenos, cheese and onions, was short on filling and flavor. The pork tamales with green or red salsa would be my repeat order, at least until I can weigh in on a sweet (dulce) version filled with raisins, strawberry or pineapple, because it wasn’t available on any visit. More impressive, though, was the masa itself. Unwrap a tamale and you’ll see how an edge of the flattened masa is sealed to the corn husk like the flap of an envelope, forming a tight lip. These are some finely rolled, tidily wrapped, moist tamales that hold their shape under heat.
There are nearly a dozen taco choices. You can order them on small or large corn tortillas (maíz chica or maíz grande) or flour tortillas (harina). Make at least one the al pastor. Chorizo brought every bit of the satisfaction — a bright seasoning of paprika, a crumbly, soft texture — that I enjoy about this kind of pork sausage. Chicken (pollo) was disappointingly dry.
What’s notable about the tacos I did eat was the substantive filling. As with most every dish here, portions are generous. A good amount of meat, diced onions and cilantro blanketed the double layer of corn tortillas, spilling onto the red plastic serving basket. And there are no quibbles when the price tag is $1.25. Also notable were the tortillas themselves. As La Imperial’s full name announces, tortillas are made in-house. Corn tortillas, in particular, are as fresh as you would hope, and, compared to some tortillas that disintegrate when hit with hot meat or wet salsa, these are sturdy vessels for transporting food to face.
La Imperial is a back-to-basics place in the best of ways. Take the refried beans (frijoles refritos), which accompany the combination plates (“platillo de” FILL IN THE BLANK) and daily specials (especial del día). I don’t think there’s a can opener in use here. These start as dried pinto beans, cooked to a tenderness, then cooked again with lard, all the while mashed to a smooth, runny creaminess. They are the kind of refried beans that make dull-sounding “beans and rice” a pleasure to consume.
The frijoles were also my favorite filling for the pupusas, stuffed corn tortillas. More typical of Salvadoran cuisine than Mexican, the round, slightly blistered disks came with a tiny serving of pickled cabbage slaw called curtido and a tomato sauce that gave new meaning to tomato sauce. This warm, cooked salsa de tomate was thin and holding moderate heat from jalapenos. It’s intended as a sauce for the pupusa, but I preferred it to the still serviceable house-made salsa roja and salsa verde that sit in squeeze bottles on the tables.
An empanada stuffed with squash blossoms was another revelation. The stewy sauteed flowers were filled to overflowing inside a crispy, half-moon shell the size of a calzone. It became a beast of a dish when topped with a smear of (delights of delights!) frijoles, plus a flourish of shaved lettuce ribbons, crumbled cotija cheese and a drizzle of crema.
Mexican restaurants that cater to American palates make it seem as if that nation’s produce is limited to tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and shredded iceberg lettuce. Name even one that offers squash blossom empanadas. Standing in front of the hot buffet at La Imperial was a reminder of the limitations of gringofied food.
Some dishes were not notable. The shredded smoked lamb (borrego) on a combination plate was too salty for my taste, but not for one dining partner. I can vouch for its tenderness, and satisfying mix of lean and fatty bits that, at times, tasted more like beef brisket than lamb. Stewed nopales (cactus) that smothered a plate of pork ribs was superior to the meat underneath. But they serve as yet another reminder that burritos, fajitas and chimichangas are a small makeup of the Mexican culinary lexicon.
Though the sweets case is stocked with pastries, they look better than they taste. (Translation: dry). But I look forward to taking a seat again in the dining room at La Imperial. More so, I’d love to get in that kitchen and learn from seasoned hands how to properly roll tamales, concoct such a subtle salsa de tomate or stuff an empanada with baby squash blossoms worthy of an emperor.
You won’t find emperors here. Much of the clientele seems to be Latino day laborers. But they eat like kings and swill on some fine jugo de fruta.
LA IMPERIAL TORTILLERIA Y ROSTISERIA
6 a.m-9 p.m. daily. 6316 Buford Highway, Norcross. 770-449-0727, Facebook: La Imperial Tortilleria y Rostiseria.
Recommended dishes: Empanadas. Taco al pastor. Pork tamale. Frijoles refritos. Pupusas.
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