Seated at a table at the newly opened Antiguo Lobo in downtown Chamblee, Jesús Oñate Jr. remembers his late father — the pioneering Mexican restaurateur, Jesús Oñate Sr., who opened one of the first Mexican restaurants in Georgia in 1971.
“My father came from Jalisco, and my mother came from Colima, so they were neighbors, but they met in Atlanta, and I was born here,” Oñate Jr. said. “My father came here around 1970, and opened his first restaurant, Monterrey Mexican Restaurant on Shallowford and Buford Highway in Chamblee. Now there are over 70 Monterrey restaurants, and number one still exists on Buford Highway.
“Number two is still in Smyrna, and that’s where I was born and raised. My first job was at that Monterrey. I graduated high school and decided I wasn’t going to go to college, I was just going to keep working for him. I might have been 21 when he said, ‘It’s your turn. Here’s the keys to the restaurant.’ That’s when I took over in Smyrna.”
Monterrey was, and still is, very different from Antiguo Lobo. But if Oñate Jr.’s newest restaurant is a contemporary-cool take on multiregional Mexican food, and a wide-ranging exploration of agave, he still credits his father with establishing what he calls “Southern-style Mex.”
“It was a Mexican style created for people in the South at that point in time when there was no Mexican food here,” he said. “It was more acceptable to people who were here in the 1970s.”
With his first restaurants, Oñate Jr. started tweaking the menus a bit, and he added a bigger, more sophisticated bar program, with more cocktails and different styles of margaritas. But the biggest transformations came about when he opened Zapata in downtown Norcross.
“Right there, we changed it completely, with a tequila bar, and a different level of food that was more authentic. That’s when this whole idea of what we’re doing now started,” Oñate Jr. said. “It took awhile to be accepted. We didn’t have hard-shell tacos. We had tacos the way you find them in the streets of Mexico. So it took a minute, but eventually we got there.”
In many ways, Oñate Jr. sees Antiguo Lobo as the culmination of the journey from father to son, and into the future of Mexican restaurants.
“Coming back to where my father first started, he opened the doors, not just for his immediate family, me, my brother and my sister, but for many, many other people,” he said. “I used no template for this place. I did it off the top of my head. What I did in this place is what I feel from my heart.”
On the menu, Molcajete el Monstruo is a popular carryover from Zapata, with a cornucopia of steak, grilled chicken, chorizo, grilled shrimp, green onion, grilled queso fresco, tomato, nopal cactus, tomatillo cream salsa, rice, and refried black beans.
You’ll also find Yucatan-style cochinita, cebolla morada, carnitas, pollo al mole, carne asada, and Baja-style mahi-mahi. Perhaps not so surprisingly, there’s a fun section of the menu titled “Old South Mex,” with hard-shell tacos, burritos and nachos.
“We put our own touch on things,” Oñate Jr. said. “Like I said, there’s no template here. I travel to Mexico. I love to eat. I love to visit restaurants. So it’s things that I see that I want to make my own and make here.”
In addition to the food, Antiguo Lobo offers an impressive wall of agave-based spirits behind the bar, along with a changing list of cocktails made with tequila and mezcal, and a house margarita on draft.
“Everything that we can get in Georgia that’s agave, I’m trying to get behind the bar,” Oñate Jr. said. “We have a margarita machine but we’re doing a frozen Paloma. Our house margarita is made with 100% blue agave, fresh lime juice, French orange liquor, and a little bit of agave nectar.”
After a little over two weeks, Oñate Jr. calls the reception to Antiguo Lobo “amazing.”
“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “Chamblee and the areas around have treated us so well I couldn’t ask for more. Obviously when you open a restaurant, there’s some tweaking. Here we haven’t had one complaint. Everybody has been so amazing and we’ve been slammed every evening.
“But really, my main deal here was to dedicate this place to my father. My father passed away a few years ago, and it was really hard. And more than for me, this was to get recognition for my father for all he did. The man was a pioneer. He changed the game in the Southeast United States, and this is my way of recognizing him. He paved the way, most definitely.”
11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays; noon-10 p.m. Saturdays. Closed Sundays-Tuesdays.
5370 Peachtree Road, Suite A, Chamblee. 470-385-6502, antiguolobo.com.
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