The taco, I believe, is on the way to becoming as ubiquitous as the hamburger. In the near future (probably next week), this humble Mexican workhorse, so amenable to allowing proteins, salsas and condiments of all nations to ride in its little tortilla saddle, will be a fixture of the casual American menu.
For better or ill, the taco has become a vehicle for delivering a global pantry of ingredients that reflect who we are as cooks and eaters today.
After Monterrey, Mexico, native Eddie Hernandez moved to Atlanta in 1987, he began to develop his own style, mashing up the food of his ancestors with his new world discoveries. Taqueria del Sol (multiple locations, taqueriadelsol.com) arrived in 2000, and Atlanta soon got hooked on the chef's American South-meets-South of the Border creations: fried fish tacos with poblano tartar; Memphis-style pork 'cue with spicy slaw; fried chicken with lime-jalapeno mayo, iceberg and tomato. Hernandez — whose first cookbook, "Turnip Greens & Tortillas" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Rux Martin Books, $30),is out this week — is an original recipewho still rules that genre, though he has been widely imitated.
Today you can spot Southern-inspired tacos at every turn, the latest being Shaun Doty and Lance Gummere's ATL Taco (3393 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-841-7559, atl-taco.com). Tucked into a quiet Lenox Square cranny, the newcomer offers fried catfish with comeback sauce; a ground-beef and queso "cheeseburger" taco; a hot chicken taco, etc. Like so many taquerias, ATL Taco would be well served to griddle its tortillas before topping them.
Pig and cabbage are two of the most versatile components in the freewheeling, cross-sampling taco universe. You can easily see a link between American barbecue and slaw and the Korean pork and kimchi tacos that have started to border on the banal. (Talking to you, Takorea.) At Heirloom Market BBQ (2243 Akers Mill Road SE, Atlanta. 770-850-1008, heirloommarketbbq.com), chefs Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee make some of Atlanta's best tacos. They hack up their heavenly smoked meats and top them with kimchi, spicy Korean barbecue sauce, cilantro and jalapeño. These generously dressed beauties sit on a double layer of super-soft soft corn tortillas — El Milagro brand but they taste hand-made. The obvious choice here is the gochujang-marinated pork, but I also really dig this taco with Heirloom's intensely smoky brisket. Happily, they let you mix and match.
Yumbii (1927 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta. 404-975-3444, yumbii.com), a purveyor of Mexican-Asian fusion tacos, arrived on the scene in 2010 as a food truck, making it Atlanta's answer to L.A. chef Roy Choi's Kogi. I enjoy stopping by Yumbii's brick-and-mortar, which opened last year, for decent Asian rib-eye and panko-crusted fried tilapia tacos, though I wouldn't mind a lighter touch with the romaine, guys.
Billing itself as a Latin-Asian kitchen, Taqueria Tsunami (multiple locations, taqueriatsunami.com) has 13 tacos on the menu, with influences as disparate as Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Korea and Hawaii. A tsunami, indeed. I like the Baja (tempura-fried fish, Asian slaw, and Sriracha mayo) and the Korean-style short rib, topped with a stack of crisp pickled cucumbers. The Rising Sun is where the metaphors get really mixed. Though the name would seem to be a reference to Japan, the menu specifies Vietnamese pork and Asian slaw. Yet the chopped, smoky 'cue was more the stuff of Southern pig pulls than lemongrass and garlic marinade. That said, Tsunami (which has locations in Atlanta, Roswell, Marietta, Woodstock and Athens) is a solid operation that makes delicious tacos at a good value.
This brings us to Gwinnett's Strange Taco Bar (225 W. Crogan St., Lawrenceville. 678-869-5220, Facebook: Strange Taco Bar), which builds some of the most dazzling fusion tacos I've had. Though the kitchen could stand to tone down some of the seasonings (the "jerk cream" sauce and wasabi aioli, for instance), it uses high-quality ingredients to come up with some real winners — like migas (scrambled egg with pepper jack, pico and tortilla strips); braised lamb (with cucumber, pickled red onion and a cilantro-cream sauce that reads like Middle Eastern yogurt); and ginger-braised duck. Never met a Strange Taco I didn't like.