Some folks say you should never buy food from a gas station. I gladly broke that hard-and-fast rule when I drove to the Shell gas station on Buford Highway just south of Clairmont Road to fuel up at Taquería La Costeñita.
La Costeñita has been open for a little over a month, serving tacos, tortas and other Mexican handhelds out of a counter inside the gas station. It doesn’t dish out mind-blowing Mexican food, but there are plenty of fun quirks about this place. The meat is 100% halal. It’s affordable and open practically 24 hours. Take a seat in one of the two booths or at the counter with a view of the pumps, and you’ll be served on real plates, with real utensils.
At Costeñita, owners Kevin Servin and Lesly Cisnero pooled family recipes (his parents hail from Mexico City; hers are from San Marcos, 20 miles inland from Acapulco on the Pacific coast), and incorporated halal into their concept with hopes of attracting diners who seek Islamic-approved meat with Mexican flavors. Currently, Latinos are the predominant group placing orders at the counter, and I didn’t meddle about anyone’s religious convictions. We’re all just minding our own business as we wait for $2 tacos sans pork fillings.
Those tacos come in hand-pressed corn tortillas that are often prepared by Servin’s grandmother. They’re not always perfectly circular, but the thickness is perfect for cradling generous portions of carne asada, cecina (carne asada’s drier, more seasoned cousin), pescado (usually grilled tilapia), shrimp with a sauteed mix of onions, tomatoes and peppers, or — my favorite — tender, slow-cooked shredded barbacoa.
Tortas are a go-to here, as well. The barbacoa is too wet for this sandwich, but the asada stands up to the soft telera bread. Stand around long enough and you’ll hear many a customer place an order for the Milanesa de Res (breaded skirt steak) slapped between slices and served with a side of fries.
You can get quesadillas, but instead, try the empanadas and sincronizadas. The former feature a thick tortilla (as opposed to flaky pastry dough) stuffed with sauteed nopal (cactus), flor de calabaza (squash blossoms) or huitlacoche (corn smut) along with cheese, folded in half, and grilled on the flat top. The latter sees those same fillings, or more familiar ones like chicken or carne asada sandwiched between thin tortillas, grilled, cut into quarters and served with a side of crema. Accompanied by Mexican rice, frijoles and a lettuce salad, these make for a filling meal all for about $7.50. For an open-faced rendition, try the huarache with whatever protein pleases you. If you really want to carb-load, order the torta de tamal, a sandwich made by stuffing a tamal inside the telera roll.
La Costeñita has a separate breakfast menu, available daily until 11 a.m. It was surprising to see at least nine of us piled into the dinky space on a Sunday morning. The ranchero breakfast burrito is a fill-‘er-up number, but it wasn’t high octane enough. (It was the one menu item that needed a wake-up from one of the house-made salsas — green and red are both thick, viscous and laden with heat — or a shake from one of the bottles of Cholula scattered around the place.) The Desayuno Centro Americano is a south of the border ploughman’s morning platter that comes with scrambled eggs, frijoles, fried plantains, a couple of wedges of firm cotija cheese and a side of tortillas. This desayuno is special in its simplicity.
Specials are something that the restaurant is experimenting with. I happened to show up the first day that La Costeñita was testing a ceviche. With only tilapia among proteins, it was bland, but also dry, offering none of the pot liquor-like leche de tigre liquid that makes finishing off a bowl of ceviche so satisfying. The weekends-only supersize bowl of menudo satisfies, especially if you like a heaping amount of tripe and a nuanced, sinus-clearing broth flavored with red chile peppers.
The signage out front reads: La Costeñita Taquería & Wings. The wings section of the menu is one you can bat away. If you must give alitas, as they are known in Spanish, a try, ask for them with “Valentina,” tossed in a mix of the house salsa roja, habanero sauce and Valentina brand Mexican hot sauce.
That will require a swig of something.
The restaurant could just as well stock bottled drinks or direct you to the beverage coolers on the Shell side of the building, but instead, you’ll find freshly pressed pineapple juice, house-made horchata and hibiscus-flavored agua fresca.
Buford Highway is always a great place to explore cuisines from around the world. Come to find out, even a gas station on BuHi is worth a culinary pit stop. Just don’t come looking to fuel up on pork.
TAQUERIA LA COSTEÑITA
5 a.m.-1 a.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 5 a.m.-3 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays. 3799 Buford Highway, Brookhaven. 404-957-8038. Facebook: Taqueria La Costeñita.
Recommended: Shrimp Taco. Barbacoa Taco. Empanada or Quesadilla with Nopal (Cactus) or Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossoms). Menudo (weekends only). Sincronizada (with Jamon y Queso). Jugo de Pina (fresh-squeezed pineapple juice).
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