Since opening JCT Kitchen in 2007, Ford Fry has gone on to build a formidable restaurant empire. His Rocket Farm Restaurants group now operates a dozen concepts across three states — soon to be four, with the upcoming opening of Superica in Nashville, followed by three others in Music City.
His latest Atlanta venture is Little Rey, a super casual, counter-order Tex-Mex spot in Piedmont Heights. It holds all the markers of a Ford Fry restaurant: a highly trafficked location (the intersection of Piedmont Road, Piedmont Circle and Cheshire Bridge Road); a striking design with attention to every detail (down to the succulent plants nestled in repurposed metal food cans at each table) that sets the vibe (the not-too-serious gringo) and gives the place (once a bank, then a tattoo parlor) a sense of identity; and a menu of interesting, approachable dishes.
Like sister restaurants Superica and El Felix, Little Rey is inspired and informed by Fry’s Texas roots, ones that the Houston native shares in his recently published “Tex-Mex” cookbook. “It’s Tex-Mex that makes me feel most at home,” he writes.
The premise for Little Rey is brined, marinated, smoked, wood-fire grilled chicken, yet the tortilla plays an integral part. Little Rey makes its flour tortillas in-house, and Fry’s is a fine recipe (one of a handful used at Little Rey that also make an appearance in Fry’s new book) for a handheld that doesn’t tear or disintegrate when loaded with grilled chicken or strips of beef fajita. While corn tortillas aren’t pressed here, they are enhanced here — two disks are fused together when crisped using beef fat rendered from slow-smoked brisket (vegetarians, take note) — and likewise make a sturdy vessel for tacos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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