A few years ago, when Elizabeth Lenhard reviewed El Mexicano for this newspaper, it was a little family-owned Mexican dive on Moreland Avenue. The Formica tables were chipped, the concrete floors were mottled and the view boasted a glimpse of a landfill. It was a dive, but a dive with “ridiculously good” carnitas, $2 tacos and “perfectly cooked” shrimp. Lenhard’s friends in the neighborhood begged her not to tell anyone about the place. They wanted to keep it a secret.
Well, if there was any secret left about El Mexicano when that review was published in 2015, it was soon blown. I heard about it all the time. It was the perfect place for a party, one couple told me, because the cocktails were strong and the room was casual. It was just right for a weeknight meal, a different couple told me, because the tacos were cheap and you didn’t have to feel guilty about the skinny margarita. At some point, I began to feel like I was the only person who hadn’t been to El Mexicano.
Sure, I had excuses. I lived on the other side of town. The place had already been reviewed. I was busy covering the latest overpriced Buckhead restaurants. Those were lame alibis. I knew it was a mistake to miss out on El Mexicano. I must have made plans with a friend who lived nearby to go a half-dozen times. Inevitably, I’d be behind on a deadline or he’d unexpectedly be on daddy duty and we’d reschedule again. For at least a year straight, it seemed like I was intending to go to El Mexicano next week. That year ended when El Mexicano closed this May.
Why would such a popular, beloved restaurant close? It’s a hard question to answer accurately without speculating about private business details. El Mexicano’s Facebook page was covered with hundreds of messages and notes mourning the restaurant’s demise. In any case, the owners, Roxana and Octavio Aguirre, soon announced that their new restaurant, Patria Cocina, would open at the Beacon in Grant Park, just a short drive from the old location. This was great news. Finally, I thought, I’ll be able to eat at the new El Mexicano.
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So, on a recent weekday night, I finally slipped into a table at this family-owned Mexican neighborhood joint, looking for a cocktail and the good meal I’d been imagining, at this point, for years.
From the cocktail list, I ordered a Cazuela Mexicana and soon a large clay bowl was delivered to the table. There were three halves of juiced citrus — grapefruit, orange and lime — stacked together like nesting dolls of fruit mingling with reposado tequila, triple sec, and grapefruit soda. It was not what I would call a subtle or nuanced cocktail, but it packed a fun punch. It’s a little like something I’d expect if an old-school Tiki bar like Trader Vic’s tried to make a Mexican cocktail.
A trio of salsas arrived along with a half order of guacamole. Both were fine, though it seemed like the salsas had been just pulled out of a refrigerator, a recipe for blandness when it comes to anything containing tomatoes. They had a little more flavor once they warmed up.
The rest of the meal went like this: Everything was pretty good, just OK. An appetizer of chicken mole tostadas, dressed up with slivers of pickled red onions, sour cream, cotija cheese and avocado, wasn’t bad. Despite all of that accouterment, though, the most important part — the mole — just wasn’t that compelling. The black sauce was a touch too sweet, without enough depth. And what was the deal with the dry, beat-up kale thrown on the plate? Was that a garnish? It wasn’t making anything look better.
An entree of pork chile verde, served with rice and refried beans, didn’t possess the tender, braised pork I was hoping for. The chunks of pork were tough and the chile sauce watery. It seemed like both needed to be cooked for a few more hours. A fish taco and a fried avocado taco weren’t bad, but they yearned for a more potent salsa to kick up their flavors.
Was this the restaurant that I’d been hearing praise about for years? Well, no. For starters, even though the Patria Cocina location is close to the old El Mexicano, the buildings might exist in different worlds. Whatever divey charm I’d heard about has been replaced with a big, boxy new development, very bright and very clean. Eventually, I realized that this room had been confusing me. At my first meal at Patria Cocina, I’d ordered all wrong. I’d looked at that fancy new development and ordered the things I thought I should order in that room.
The next time I came back with a friend, we ordered a meal more fitting for a dive. There was a warm, gooey bowl of queso loaded up with jalapenos. I had a towering, refreshing michelada that boasted a just-right kick of clam juice. What the menu calls “street tacos” (the classic combination of cilantro, onion and a house salsa on a corn tortilla) aren’t two bucks anymore; they’ve gone up to three. I ordered a plate of four, including carnitas and al pastor, and would have gladly ordered four more if I’d had the appetite. They’re worth every penny. In that way, I finally got a taste of El Mexicano. The place everybody had been telling me about might be gone, but the tacos at Patria Cocina are still here.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays. 1039 Grant St., Atlanta. 404-622-3501, patriacocinaatl.com.
Recommended dishes: Street tacos. Guacamole. Queso dip. Michelada.