Taco Cantina’s au­then­tic Mex­i­can food im­presses in Smyrna

GA Voice - - Outspoken -

My Fri­day din­ing pals dragged me to the sub­urbs once again last week. Our des­ti­na­tion,

Taco Cantina (2517 Spring Road SE #101, 678-424-1826),

is lo­cated in a shop­ping cen­ter in Smyrna. Get­ting there from a civ­i­lized lo­ca­tion like Mid­town re­quires driv­ing through a labyrinth of hideous architecture, in­clud­ing the rear of Cum­ber­land Mall.

The chef-owner is Adolfo Gon­za­lez, who im­mi­grated from Mex­ico when he was 15. His story would make Don­ald Trump sweat. Gon­za­lez worked as a dish­washer at At­lanta Fish Mar­ket and ended up as sous chef by the age of 18. He con­tin­ued work­ing at other pricey, of­ten-ground­break­ing restau­rants in the Buck­head Life Group. Then, in the sum­mer of 2015, he and his wife Bri­anna opened Taco Cantina, which has been widely lauded.

There’s no doubt that the fla­vors of his dishes are au­then­tic Mex­i­can. But it’s also true that he brings un­usual pre­ci­sion in the way he presents and plays with those fla­vors. In a re­cent in­ter­view with Brad Ka­plan of Cre­ative Loaf­ing, Gon­za­lez noted: “Peo­ple ask about au­then­tic­ity, but my ap­proach is a mix of grow­ing up in Pue­bla and work­ing in restau­rants with chefs like Robert Hol­ley, Pano Karatas­sos, and Kevin Rath­bun — it’s au­then­tic to me, to the way I cook, the way my mother used to cook.”

Thus, for one ex­am­ple, his al pas­tor torta (sand­wich) is as­ton­ish­ing. To my cha­grin at first, I learned his al pas­tor is not the tra­di­tional pork slow-cooked on a spit in a bath of pineap­ple juices. The sand­wich, made with crisped white hoagie bread, in­stead con­tains chopped mar­i­nated pork with grilled pineap­ple. I can live with that, since it’s com­mon most everywhere th­ese days. But what to­tally shocks the palate is the un­ex­pected com­bi­na­tion of the pork with melted Swiss cheese. To that, Gon­za­lez adds grilled onions, chipo­tle mayo, and a bit of let­tuce and tomato. It’s the best ver­sion of this torta I’ve ever had.

Prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar torta here is not Mex­i­can. It’s a de­li­cious riff on the tra­di­tional Cuban sand­wich. You get your usual ham and Swiss cheese, but Gon­za­lez adds his slow­cooked pork, car­ni­tas, to the mix, along with a rel­ish, mus­tard, and chile de ar­bol mayo.

If you like na­chos — I don’t usu­ally — you can or­der a gi­gan­tic plate for $8.95. It’s eas­ily ad­e­quate for a ta­ble of six. You get to choose the meat, like the juicy, shred­ded brisket (bar­ba­coa). Gon­za­lez also heaps the chips with beans, white cheese, grilled corn, guac, and pico de gallo. The dish is “cleaner” in all its in­gre­di­ents but what re­ally makes the dif­fer­ence is the qual­ity of the meat.

There are plenty of tacos. The “reg­u­lar” ones cost $1.85 and in­clude, for ex­am­ple, carne asada (steak), chorizo, chicken, or al pas­tor. There are also “su­per tacos” for a dol­lar more that fea­ture mainly seafood like squid, shrimp, and grilled fish. You anoint th­ese with se­lec­tions from the salsa bar where choices range from, among others, a scorch­ing red to a cool­ing avo­cado and a tart tomatillo.

My main dis­ap­point­ment here was the tamales. They were al­most ined­i­bly dry. I also sam­pled the restau­rant’s black beans and found them vir­tu­ally taste­less. I was ir­ri­tated that they had sold out of their one dessert, tres leches cake. The dé­cor, by the way, is your ex­pected hole-in-the-wall.

You’ll oth­er­wise be stunned. It’s to­tally worth the jour­ney through the ar­chi­tec­tural heart of dark­ness.

Cliff Bo­s­tock is a for­mer psy­chother­a­pist now spe­cial­iz­ing in life coach­ing. Con­tact him at 404-518-4415 or cliff­bo­stock@gmail.com.

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