Taste the many flavors of Mexico in metro Atlanta

The chicken mole is a wonderful way to sample the traditional Oaxacan fare at Taqueria La Oaxaqueña in Jonesboro. Above left: a tamale with pork and green salsa and a sope with lengua. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

You don’t have to leave metro Atlanta to have an authentic experience

A Mexican revolution is happening in Atlanta. No shots have been taken — except perhaps for smoky mezcal and astringent tequila. But the coctel de camarones and the Micheladas are the color of blood, the Oaxacan moles as black as night.

I’m talking about the city’s new wave of regional cooking from south of the border: cochinita pibil from the Yucatan; puffy, batter-fried fish tacos from the Baja; birria from Jalisco; tlayudas from Oaxaca; giant submarine sandwiches from Mexico City; seafood from the Pacific Coast; and so on. Of the seven loosely defined regional cuisines that blanket the 31 states and the Distrito Federal (as Mexico City is called), most can be found somewhere in Atlanta, if you look hard enough.

While I've yet to encounter much food from Chiapas, in the far south of Mexico, Oaxacan specialties are certainly having a moment. The venerated Taqueria La Oaxaqueña in Jonesboro, which I tried only quite recently and totally adore, now has good company in the form of La Mixteca Tamale House in Suwanee (the loaded tamale "bowls" on an open corn shuck are worth traveling for) and Casi Cielo, which reinterprets regional standards in a contemporary idiom.

Casi Cielo’s striking enmoladas — chicken enchiladas covered in black mole sauce. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, which gringos celebrate with margaritas as our Mexican friends roll their eyes and say the day has little significance for them, I’ve come up with a list that speaks to the regional diversity that is Mexican cooking. Think of Cinco as something more than an excuse for heavy drinking.

Huaraches, ahogadas and the best tacos in town

I recently made a Sunday morning excursion to Tortas Factory del D.F. (5781 Buford Highway, Suite 101, Doraville; 770-452-8470, facebook.com/TortasFactoryDF/), where I ate my first sandal. Let me explain: I'm talking about a huarache: a chewy, flipflop-shaped Mexico City diner dish consisting of a fried-masa base, smeared with smashed beans and showered with meat, lettuce, tomato, cotija, crema, etc. Among the tortas, the Milanesa was excellent. So many of these breaded and fried cube-steak Milanesa sandwiches can be tougher than, well, a shoe, but the one at this fluorescently bright fast-food shop was perfect.

The torta ahogada made with chorizo at Taqueria San Pancho in Tucker. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

A few days later, I wandered to Taqueria San Pancho in Tucker (4880 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker; 770-493-9845, facebook.com/SanPanchoTaqueria1/), where I lunched on my first torta ahogada, a ginormous loaf stuffed with your choice of meat and ladled all over with spicy red salsa. (That I ordered it with crumbly chorizo gave it a double slap of heat.) It takes a while for this giant submarine to get soggy, in a good way.

The Guadalajara-style tacos from Taqueria San Pancho in Tucker are memorable. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

Meanwhile, I was distracted by the tacos al vapor, a specialty of this hole in the wall in a Tucker strip mall.

Very distracted, in fact.

For these Guadalajara-style tacos are the best I’ve had in Atlanta. “Vapor” means “steamed,” and the unctuous cabeza (cow’s head), cachete (beef cheek), lengua (beef tongue), costilla (chopped pork-rib) and carnaza (shredded beef) are painstakingly steamed until falling apart tender, then made into classic street tacos with chopped onion, cilantro and a mild green chile salsa. You may also choose your own fixings from the salsa bar, or order the meat by the pound to assemble your tacos at the table. Warning: These tacos are addictive. I’ve been sending friends here, and they inevitably tell me they went back for seconds.

Casi Cielo’s La Llorona cocktail is made with mezcal, which originates in Oaxaca. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

From the land of mole and mezcal

The first time I had a meal at Casi Cielo (6125 Roswell Road, Atlanta; 404-549-9411, casicieloatl.com), our server told us that we were about to eat traditional Oaxacan cuisine. That's not exactly true. Though the food is very much inspired by this glorious region, the vision is modern. It's an exciting departure for Atlanta diners with a thirst for delicious, mezcal-based cocktails (try the jalapeno-stoked La Llorona or the Josefina, essentially a classic margarita mixed with smoky mezcal) and thoughtfully detailed cooking (blue-corn tortillas, salmon cooked in a plantain leaf).

The fish tacos at Casi Cielo in Sandy Springs are made with mahi-mahi tempura and served on blue-corn tortillas. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

At a recent lunchtime stop, I savored the enmoladas (chicken enchiladas bathed in complex black mole) but found the Baja-leaning fish tacos a little meh, mainly because the mahi-mahi was bland and underseasoned. The weekday prix fixe lunch menu is a good introduction to Casi Cielo, and a great bargain, too. For $20, you get three courses, including full-size entrees of, for example, Salmon Prehispanico and Pollo al Carbon (a half roast chicken), a starter, and dessert.

Tlayudas are an Oaxacan specialty at Taqueria La Oaxaqueña in Jonesboro. This one is topped with chorizo and al pastor meat. A cabeza taco is at upper left. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

If you are looking for old-school Oaxacan, Taqueria La Oaxaqueña (605 Mount Zion Road, Jonesboro; 770-960-3010, facebook.com/laoaxaquenaatlanta/) is the ticket. Pizza-size tlayudas (piled on crispy fried tortillas) are big enough for two: riotously colorful assemblages of fresh veggies, stringy Oaxacan cheese and meat of choice. (I dig the chorizo.)

A Mexican spread at Taqueria La Oaxaqueña in Jonesboro includes (clockwise from left) chicken mole, a pork tamale in green-chile salsa; a sope with lengua; chips and salsa. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Don’t even think about not trying the classic Oaxacan mole. One-fourth of a chicken (the leg and thigh) is puddled with velvety dark mole and plated with beans and rice and a foil-wrapped package of corn tortillas. Scoop every drop of that textbook mole up with your last sliver of tortilla. Meanwhile, I yearn to try the goat barbecue, chiles rellenos, chilaquiles and many other dishes. For now, I can vouch for the excellent cabeza, pork tamales in green sauce, and the sopes. Finally, the condiment bar may be the most delightful in the city. Be sure to crunch into a cinnamon-kissed pickled carrot.

Pacific memories

As Atlanta writer Muriel Vega pointed out recently in Eater, Atlanta has a disproportionate number of marisquerias, most of which tout themselves as purveyors of Nayarit-style seafood. A visit to a marisqueria always takes me back to Mexican vacations on the Pacific, and memories of coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail) washed down with icy Modelos or Micheladas. Such an outing usually begins with a complimentary chopped seafood tostada, which I douse with lime and hot sauce before moving on to a seafood cocktail, maybe one with oysters if I'm feeling flush.

Two local marisquerias to consider are Mariscos El Veneno (5082 Buford Highway, Atlanta; 770-986-9568, Facebook: Mariscos El Veneno) and Mariscos La Riviera Nayarit (5385 Jimmy Carter Blvd., Norcross; 770-662-0086, facebook.com/mariscoslarivieranayaritoficial/). The very first slurp of my meal-size seafood cocktail at El Veneno was imbued with the briny taste of oysters. The place itself has the coarse patina of a working man's hangout; it's a fun, lively place, though maybe not my first choice of the ilk.

At Mariscos La Riviera Nayarit in Norcross, everyone gets a complimentary seafood tostada (right). Micheladas (left) are fishbowl size; the Michelada Nayarit is garnished with peeled shrimp and comes with two tiny oysters floating in the goblet. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Mariscos La Riviera Nayarit, on the other hand, is a sprawling restaurant spiffy enough for a (second or third) date; it’s a nice place for a family fiesta, babies included. I started my repast with a Michelada Nayarit, a fish bowl of a drink with peeled shrimp on the rim of the goblet and a couple of tiny oysters hiding in the Modelo-and-tomato sea. Next, a fried whole snapper was a tad on the tough side, but with rice, fries, salad and garlic bread, it was a generous pile of food for $16.99. Funnily enough, that buttery garlic bread was the best thing on the plate.

Tacos La Villa in Smyrna serves many classics of the Mexican repertoire, including foot-long flautas stuffed with your meat of choice and showered with toppings (upper left); sopes (right) and tacos such as this lengua and borrego, or lamb barbacoa (bottom left). CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Shades of Jalisco

On Saturdays and Sundays, Tacos La Villa (2415 Cobb Parkway SE, Smyrna; 770-951-0415, facebook.com/Tacoslavilla/) serves lamb stew, menudo and pozole, the kind of everyday food that you can find in the owner's home state of Jalisco. For my money, La Villa is one of the best all-around-Mexican joints in town, and unlike many small taquerias, it serves cerveza. I was impressed with everything I tried here: lengua and borrego (lamb) tacos; a sope with chorizo and all the toppings, and, best of all, foot-long flautas filled with your meat of choice (I like the beef barbacoa) and garnished with avocado and crema. When I work up the nerve to stomach menudo, I'll go here. Never mind that it's made of cow's stomach. I've a feeling I'll be very pleased.

RELATED:

ExploreTake Buford Highway for a tour of Mexican food
ExploreNew metro Atlanta taco places to try
ExploreMetro Atlanta restaurant reviews
ExploreCobb County dining news
ExploreRead the AJC Spring Dining Guide: The Atlanta barbecue issue

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.

In Other News