The fillings, though generous in portion, aren’t as impressive as the tortillas in which they are cradled. Griddled Oaxaca cheese overpowers the poblano-mushroom mix in the Oaxaca taco. Meats — carne asada, brisket — aren’t succulent. The best of the bunch is the chicken al carbon — the king of proteins at Little Rey — but only when ordered “rico style,” which adds grilled jalapeno and a spoonful of oozy, chile-spiked queso to chunks of chicken and smoked onions for a $1 upcharge.
If you get Little Rey’s chicken al carbon tacos, shown as they arrive regularly, consider taking things up a notch and ordering them “rico style.” CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
Though cooked on a hybrid grill-smoker, the bird doesn’t have that much flavor and doesn’t come close to juicy, which is disappointing if you plunk down $32 for a whole bird when you order the Pollo “Al Carbon” family pack. Reach for salsas to doctor things up. A smoky red and a cilantro-heavy verde (my favorite) both carry medium heat; the thicker roasted garlic-jalapeno and arbol chile versions bring more fire.
Besides the bird, the family-style Pollo “Al Carbon” brings rings of smoked onions, whole jalapenos, a side of chips and salsa, and pints of rancho beans and cilantro-flecked rice topped with a dab of pico de gallo. The surprising star on the tray were the charro beans, nicely tender, slightly soupy, and deeply flavorful with notes of bacon and onion.
Less exceptional among sides was the esquites. This Mexican street corn in a cup is traditionally creamy, but the kernels were drowning in a creaminess and cheesiness too rich to savor more than a few bites. Flavors clashed in vegetarian offerings like the prettily arranged Esqueleto grain bowl and the Chalupa con Hongos.
Oh, but the pozole rojo brings a harmony of flavors! Each spoonful nets chunks of smoked chicken and hominy in a bright red guajillo chile broth that approaches chili in its consistency.
Chicken finds its way onto every section of the menu (steer away from tough, smoked chicken wings). I enjoyed it most crisped up and sandwiched with spicy coleslaw, chile mayo and smashed guacamole on a brioche bun. La Torta is a crave-able, finger-licking, crunchy-creamy number.
At Little Rey, La Torta dresses up a crispy chicken breast with smashed guacamole, spicy slaw, and pickled jalapeno. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Chips and dips are the calorie-laden bites that make a Tex-Mex meal one where you throw diet out the window and just kick back and enjoy. Here, chips are thin, crispy and fresh. Yet they didn’t present the “just one more” situation where you suddenly realize the basket is empty. Why? The guac is monotone, pretty much smashed avocado, albeit very fresh avocado, and a hefty portion, to boot. Yet, lime juice, onion, cilantro, jalapeno — none shine through. The queso has a nice jalapeno pop, but the warm dip is runny, with little body.
Drinks, on the other hand, might call for another round, especially if you finish your first while still standing in the food line during busy weekend nights. The frozen and rocks versions of the house margarita are both solid (the former not sickly sweet, the latter well balanced); the Rio Red grapefruit is a delicious change-up. Little Rey’s beverage menu is playful with canned, bottled and draft beer, unpretentious canned wines, all your favorite Mexican sodas stocked in the reach-in cooler and a seasonal agua fresca (currently a refreshing hibiscus) whirling in a beverage dispenser.
Breakfast offerings from Little Rey include huevos rancheros (center), the mushroom, kale and poblano taco (top right), fruta bowl (bottom right) and café de olla (bottom left). CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
But when it’s morning, shake off your sleep with café de olla, an iced drink combining drip coffee with house-made horchata that offers a pleasant, lingering hint of cinnamon. You’ll find migas tacos on the breakfast menu — a scramble of eggs, tortilla strips, beans and cheese embellished with toppings like potatoes or steak (both lacked seasoning) and bacon (overcooked and dry). A taco with crumbly fried chorizo is where you’ll find spice; Huevos Rancheros is where you’ll fill your stomach. Three sunny-side-up eggs with wobbly, bright yolks cover a ladle of those tasty charro beans, crunchy tostada strips and queso fresco.
Little Rey’s café de olla combines iced coffee with the house horchata. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS
There are plenty of reasons why Fry has found success with his restaurants, both high-end and low. Location, design and menu are key among them. So is a capable, friendly staff, which you’ll find working busily behind the counter or busing tables.
But I think there’s one other element to Fry’s formula, a phrase I’ve heard him say on more than one occasion: He tries to give the people what they want. People will always want tacos, guac and margs. They’ll try them most anywhere. People are certainly giving Little Rey a try. (The restaurant goes through upward of 1,500 flour tortillas on a busy day.) But are people willing to return if it means circling a cramped parking lot and waiting up to 45 minutes in line for a $4.25 pollo al carbon taco that’s average, at best? Some might call that loco.
Overall rating: 1 of 4 stars (good)
Food: fast-casual Tex-Mex
Service: food is expedient once you place an order at the counter, but lines can be long during peak weekend hours
Best dishes: Chicken al carbon "rico style." La Torta. Pozole Rojo. Huevos Rancheros.
Vegetarian selections: Breakfast menu: Mushroom, Kale and Poblano breakfast taco. Breakfast Chalupa. Avocado "Toast"ada. Huevos Rancheros. La Fruta fruit bowl; Lunch/Dinner menu: Various chips with salsa, guacamole or chile con queso. Esqueleto salad. Chalupa con Hongos. The Oaxaca taco (upon request of a corn tortilla cooked without rendered beef fat); various side dishes.
Price range: $$
Credit cards: all major credit cards
Hours: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays (breakfast menu available 8-11 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays)
Parking: free lot parking that fills up fast during peak hours; hit-or-miss parking along nearby side streets
MARTA station: Lindbergh
Wheelchair access: yes
Noise level: moderate
Takeout: yes, including parking spots and walk-up window for takeout orders
Address, phone: 1878 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta. 770-796-0207
Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.