If you like to eat out, I bet you often drive by restaurants and wonder if the food is any good. I do that all the time. Maybe I’ve just discovered a fantastic pita pocket sandwich in Gwinnett, when all of a sudden I spy a tamale joint across the intersection.
Then it’s U-turn time.
That’s how I found La Mixteca Tamale House, a fast-casual spot behind a BP gas station at the corner of Old Peachtree Road and Satellite Boulevard in Suwanee, where an entrepreneurial family from Oaxaca has hung a shingle promising authentic regional specialties that can be hard to find in Atlanta. These include pizza-size tlayudas topped with chapulines (grasshoppers); little rimmed corncakes called picaditas; and mugs of the thick, masa-and-hot-chocolate drink known as champurrado, which begs to be sipped alongside a sweet-corn tamale or a delightful piña colada version.
Opening at 7 a.m. daily and serving classic Mexican breakfast dishes like chilaquiles and divorciados all day, La Mixteca is owned by sisters Antonina, Stacey and Patricia Hernandez. For the past 10 years, Antonina has run La Imperial Tortilleria y Rostiseria, a one-stop Mexican restaurant and market on Buford Highway in Norcross with tamales on the menu. At La Mixteca, which they unveiled in July, the sisters are a team with a tighter focus: showcasing the recipes of their family’s top tamale maker. That would be their mother, Rosa Hernandez Lopez, whom you can sometimes spy bobbing in and out of the back of the restaurant. (The Rosa, a sweet, bright-pink tamale flavored with strawberries and studded with raisins, is their mamacita’s namesake.)
I’ll say this: Hernandez Lopez is a tamale alchemist. Most of hers are seriously good.
A great way to start is with a $9.50 lunch special of two tamales, which comes with luscious refried beans and Spanish rice. If you ask what kinds of tamales are available, you may turn up a few things that aren’t on the menu on the wall behind the counter.
Crafting tamales is a laborious process that requires one to shape the dough by hand, shroud it in a corn husk (sometimes a banana leaf) and steam it. Like hand-pressed tortillas, which are often constructed from a bowl of cornmeal mush covered with a damp towel, tamales can go dry awfully quick, so the best ones come straight from the steam basket to your plate.
Among the three best I’ve tried at La Mixteca are the shredded pork with green sauce, chicken lightly dressed in red mole, and an exceptionally juicy rajas (with mild green chiles, slivers of sweet onion and cheese). On the Sunday morning we stopped by for a late breakfast, my friend complained that I was being a little too grabby with the rajas.
The picaditas (pork-seasoned cornmeal cakes more commonly known as sopes) are also worth sparring over. The breakfast version is topped with little more than chicken or steak, queso and crema. Ask for a loaded one (we liked the pollo), and you’ll get a festival of garnishes: lettuce and tomato, corn, beans, avocado, cilantro, onion, crema and cotija. It’s a good starter for sharing.
I was delighted to find lengua tacos here, but the beef tongue was dry, as if it had been reheated on the griddle rather than left to stew in the unctuous fatty tissue that gives it all its flavor. Frankly, all the street tacos we tried — al pastor, chorizo, carnitas, lengua — were a little chewy; and all were eclipsed by the sensational tamales.
Though I’m crazy about chilaquiles, I like my tortillas rather wet, preferably baked as a layered casserole almost like lasagna. Truth is, chilaquiles can vary from region to region, and some — like the chicken and green sauce version I had at La Mixteca — are dry and crunchy. Almost like nachos; not my personal fave.
But reader, you’ll be remiss if you don’t ask for a tamale bowl: another fully loaded extravaganza that features a tamale of choice, untucked from its blanket of shucks and showered with everything but the kitchen sink. Unlike your typical bundled-up tamale, it’s beautiful, Instagramable and worth driving across town for. Hernandez Lopez and her familia ought to trademark it; otherwise, it will be the next new concept from a chain near you.
America has quickly become a culture in awe of the bowl, be it composed around poke, grain, salad or, now, a tamale. Personally, I blame it on Chipotle. But make no mistake: As far as I’m concerned, the tamale bowl started at La Mixteca. Don’t dare pass this place by.
LA MIXTECA TAMALE HOUSE
7 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays. 1185 Old Peachtree Road NW, Unit D, Suwanee. 678-878-3483, facebook.com/lamixtecatamalehouse/.
Recommended: Pork tamale with green sauce. Rajas tamale. Picaditas. Tamale bowls. Fresh corn and piña colada sweet tamales.