Finely tuned taquerias are hardly new to Atlanta’s restaurant landscape, in spite of recent openings that make that statement seem questionable. Along with big-ticket burger spots, they are the new meat-and-threes in a city that has eschewed fine dining for the rewards of concepts far more casual and certainly less expensive.
Taqueria del Sol, the brassy joint touting Baja-style tacos served with a side of smirk and Southern flair, has been pumping out soft tacos and messy margaritas for years, expanding to four locations. The Original el Taco took over more showy Sala’s digs last year, combining slurpable drinks with a semi-authentic menu conceived by chef Shaun Doty. Sotto Sotto and Fritti owner Riccardo Ullio has gotten in the game, too, opening Lupe Taqueria in failed Cuerno’s space.
Meanwhile, as the ITP gang was honing its masa harina skills, Chris and Michele Sedgwick (the royal couple of OTP restaurants), quietly opened Pure Taqueria in Alpharetta, waaaay back in 2005. The couple — whose restaurant family includes Bistro VG, Theo’s and Vinny’s — set up shop next to an old Pure Oil gas station, providing an open-air patio, free-flowing margaritas and Mexican offerings any gringo would love, but with enough authenticity to keep foodies fortified.
The formula proved perfect, and before you could say queso fundido, the concept was franchised. The Sedgwicks announced that Pure Taquerias would be popping up all over the Southeast.
While duplication in the restaurant industry is the ultimate form of flattery, it screams insincerity.
In truth, I’ve always adored Pure Taqueria; of the area’s taco joints, it has always proved the most authentic for me, and certainly the most fun. The thought of dozens of them emerging in strip malls and on street corners of Any Town, USA, made me want to snap up my fish taco and go home.
So when the Grape in Inman Park faltered and the Sedgwicks announced they had acquired the space for Pure, I cringed a little inside. While I can’t deny the couple their success, I wanted to keep Pure to myself (well, I guess I would be sharing it with the bajillions of other diners who clamor for a table on busy nights. And besides, another location had already opened in Woodstock).
All efforts have been made to keep the original restaurant’s breezy beach theme, though for me it lacks the playfulness — like it, the surroundings are sparse, and made to look like a garage; the kitchen, like the original’s, is open and very busy. The margaritas are every bit as good, and in warmer months I could see crowd control as an issue.
Because as much as I would like to admit otherwise, Pure Taqueria in Inman Park works — the queso fundido here is just as much a gooey, melted mass of Chihuahua cheese dotted with peppers and chorizo as it is in Alpharetta, and the tacos are bundles of real-deal messy fun.
And like the Alpharetta location, the best compass for navigating the menu is to steer clear of most of its more lofty aspirations: Shrimp, grouper and octopus ceviche are downright sophisticated compared to that queso fundido, and while good, the latter is better. Veracruz-style fish, surrounded by mussels in spicy broth, is an acceptable dish until you try a plateful of tacos and realize you’ve been wasting your time.
Stick to the basics — steamed beef brisket tacos seasoned with pickled red onions; tender marinated carne asada with pungent guajillo salsa. Gorditos offer thick corn tortillas split open and filled with shredded pork, lettuce and sprinkled with queso fresco and bright-tasting salsa verde. Skip dessert and have another margarita.
The Sedgwicks put the “fun” in “fundido,” and Pure scores even if it isn’t as special as the original.
Food: Taqueria +
Service: Very friendly and efficient
Price range: $$
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express
Hours of operation: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Saturday
Best dishes: Queso fundido, chips and guac, gorditas, taco plates of beef brisket, pork and carne asada
Vegetarian selections: Plenty of nonmeat options, but ask to be sure items are made without meat products
Parking: Complimentary valet or on street
Wheelchair access: Yes
Noise level: High when crowded
Address, telephone: 300 North Highland Ave., N.E., Atlanta, 404-522-7873
Web site: www.puretaqueria.com
Pricing code: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ 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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