Atlanta Orders In: Taco Cantina in Smyrna survives by ‘just cooking good food’

This takeout order includes Taco Cantina’s regular al pastor, super fried chicken and super Asian beef tacos. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
This takeout order includes Taco Cantina’s regular al pastor, super fried chicken and super Asian beef tacos. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bob Townsend

Credit: Bob Townsend

Taco Cantina is a modest, family-run business, but chef-owner Adolfo Gonzalez brings a lifetime of fine-dining experience to the venture, including working as the executive sous chef at Coast Bar & Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta Fish Market.

Since the restaurant opened in the summer of 2015, in a small strip center on Spring Road in Smryna, Gonzalez has featured dishes that his mother made when he was growing up in Zacatlan, Puebla, in central Mexico, including tacos, enchiladas and traditional sides.

ExploreMore Atlanta Orders In
Taco Cantina’s torta Cubana is made with slow-cooked pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, sweet relish, mustard and chile de arbol mayo, and served with house tortilla chips. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Taco Cantina’s torta Cubana is made with slow-cooked pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, sweet relish, mustard and chile de arbol mayo, and served with house tortilla chips. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bob Townsend

Credit: Bob Townsend

Surprisingly, though, some of the biggest sellers are nachos, burritos and quesadillas. And, Gonzalez’s culinary claim to fame is his torta Cubana — a take on the Cuban sandwich, pressed with Mexican bolillo bread.

As with so many other owners of small restaurants, it was tough for Gonzalez to make ends meet in 2020, and 2021 continues to be challenging.

Speaking by phone recently, he said business is down 40% to 50% compared with “before all this crazy stuff happened.” But, he’s managed to remain open the entire time, by offering takeout and using delivery services.

ExploreCobb County dining news
Taco Cantina’s chicken tinga enchiladas come with green salsa, black beans and white rice. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Taco Cantina’s chicken tinga enchiladas come with green salsa, black beans and white rice. Bob Townsend for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Bob Townsend

Credit: Bob Townsend

“A small business cannot afford to close for two or three weeks,” he said. “We live paycheck to paycheck. What we sell that week, we spend on labor and stuff that we cook fresh every day. We’re not like McDonald’s, with frozen hamburgers. Everything I prep has to go out the same day.”

Gonzalez has been meticulous about safety measures, requiring masks for everyone, and installing protective glass around the order counter and open kitchen.

Still, he’s managed to keep his sense of humor, even in the face of a few uncooperative customers.

“I have a sign out front that says, ‘No Masks, No Tacos; No Tacos, No Life.’ It’s actually pretty funny,” he said. “But, if you don’t have a mask, we’ll provide one to you, free of cost.”

Gonzalez had a second Taco Cantina location in Old Fourth Ward, but closed it in early 2019, a little over a year after it opened. “I was short on money, and it was a lot of overhead, and I just couldn’t keep it going with that and all the taxes,” he said.

Gonzalez admitted his transition from fine-dining to Taco Cantina was difficult at first.

“To be honest, when I opened, my stuff was not that great,” he said. “I thought I knew food, but I knew seafood and other stuff, and it wasn’t from my own culture. So, I started talking to my mother, and she wrote me recipes for barbacoa and chicken tinga, and helped me with the salsas.”

Later, though, Gonzalez decided to branch out, and add sandwiches and fancier-dressed “super tacos,” including Asian beef and buttermilk fried chicken, to the menu.

“I put on the torta Cubana, the chicken Milanesa, and the steak torta, just hoping the three would sell, and, all the sudden, I was paying my bills with tortas,” he said. “And, along with the nachos and burritos, the tacos became secondary.”

Looking ahead, Gonzales said he has a couple of new projects in the works.

The Indigo Road Hospitality Group asked him to help open a new Mexican seafood restaurant in Charleston. After that, he’s hoping to open a burrito shop, which will be a spin-off of the ghost kitchen he’s been operating with Burritos California and Uber Eats.

“That’s my next move, to open a small burrito shop of my own,” Gonzales said. ”It’s tough now, but you’ve just got to keep cooking good food, and don’t gouge the customers, and just be honest.”

TACO CANTINA

Menu: classic and contemporary Mexican

Alcohol: canned and bottled beer

What I ordered: regular al pastor, super fried chicken and super Asian beef tacos; chicken tinga enchiladas with green salsa, black beans and white rice; torta Cubana with slow cooked pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, sweet relish, mustard and chile de arbol mayo, served with house tortilla chips. All were solid offerings, but the torta Cubana and super fried chicken taco were standouts.

Service options: takeout; curbside; delivery via GrubHub or Uber Eats; call or go online for takeout or delivery

Outdoor dining: small patio and outdoor tables

Mask policy: employees wear masks; customers must wear masks when ordering; masks will be provided, if needed

Address, phone: 2517 Spring Road, Smyrna; 678-242-1826

Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; closed Sundays

Website: mytacocantina.com

In Other News