It crossed my mind — okay, more than crossed, absorbed — while perched on one of the plush, high banquettes at Lupe Taqueria sipping one of this new Midtown eatery’s super slurpable margaritas, that Lupe is a rather odd name for a restaurant, taqueria or no.
When I spoke with owner Riccardo Ullio about it, he just laughed and said, “El Toro was taken,” a subtle reference to the enormous bull sculpture that once graced the floor of the taqueria’s dining room, when it was still the lovely Spanish restaurant, Cuerno.
To Mexican nationals, Our Lady of Guadalupe is, as the menu notes read, “the symbolic mother of Mexicans everywhere.” Her iconic image is emblazened on the restaurant’s Web site and statues of her rest in almost every window, along with devotional candles.
Taquerias, gourmet burger joints and pizzerias have taken over a town that — after the closing of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead earlier this year — has given its last word on fine dining: We don’t want it.
Rather than take a loss on the space that Lupe occupies on Juniper Street, Ullio very smartly decided to turn the upscale Cuerno into what Atlantans seem to like: a fun taqueria where the price is right.
Where Cuerno suffered from a series of tactical issues, most notably the need for valet parking on a one-way street, Lupe has no problem. Ullio has fought long and hard for the valet service out front — take advantage of it.
He’s also capitalizing not just on the taco’s seemingly unending popularity, but on other strong points, such as challenging his former chef de cuisine at Sotto Sotto, Darvelio Palma, and sister Maria Palma to come up with a menu that is authentic, but definitely gringo friendly. Kitchen manager Jose (Joe) Rego (former chef at now-closed Allegro) is manning the kitchen, making sure the frijoles charros are charred.
Full disclosure: Both Ullio and Rego know me by sight (the former was smart enough to figure out this dining critic’s game a while ago and the latter was a student at Johnson & Wales University when I was a chef instructor at the Providence campus).
But let’s get back to that margarita — remember? Let me put it this way: Get one. Made with anejo tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice and simple syrup, they’re just the right recipe for what I like to call “way-too-easy to keep drinking.”
Traditional goodies like very well made salsa and guacamole with chips are easy to overlook — but inside a salsa and guac are the keys to great Mexican cooking.
Tacos make up the lion’s share of the offerings, from chicken braised with ancho chiles to braised goat with tomatillo and avocado salsa. Ullio smartly has the kitchen double the corn tortillas to wrap around delicacies such as chochinita pivil, Mexico’s famous marinated pork slow-cooked with green corn, tomatillos, poblanos and jalapenos. The sencillo taco, made with strips of smoky-flavored ribeye, is filled with crunchy shredded cabbage and a spicy pico de gallo.
A plato of cheesy enchiladas doesn’t disappoint, either, with an array of cabbage, tomatoes, radishes and avocado all blanketed with cojito and crema cheeses.
Veer from the queso fundido (the Chihuahua cheese-to-chorizo ratio is off, in favor of the chorizo), and don’t bother with the quesadillas unless you’re with timid eaters of the kid kind. Head straight for the spicy sautéed shrimp and garlic with poblano peppers. Or the frijoles charros — a bowl of pinto beans in soupy broth that, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, evoke the savory goodness of Mexico.
Lupe conjures the same, offering equal doses of authenticity and familiarity.
Food: Mexican taqueria
Service: Hard to tell, since I was recognized.
Price range: $$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express
Hours of operation: Open for dinner Mon. - Thurs. from 6:30 p.m. -1 a.m., Fri. from 6:30 p.m. - 2 a.m., Sat. from 5:30 p.m. -2 a.m. and Sun. from 5:50 to 10 p.m.
Best dishes: Cochinita pivil and sencillo tacos, frijoles charros, garlic shrimp
Vegetarian selections: Veggie tacos and quesadillas
Children: Yes, but evenings have more of an adult feel
Parking: Complimentary valet or on-street
Reservations: Yes, for parties of six or more, plus call-ahead waiting
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: Medium to high
Patio: Yes, weather permitting
Address, phone: 905 Juniper St., Atlanta, 678-904-4584
Web site: www.urestaurants.net
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. The price code represents a typical full-course meal for one excluding drinks.
Key to AJC ratings
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit and miss.
Food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.
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