Trusty Tortillas and warmed-over Willy's
I've strayed. I've tread the primrose path of glamorous burritos, seeking to allay my ennui in ever more exotic ingredients wrapped in flour tortillas. There was no end in sight. If I could not content myself with a foie gras burrito served me by a friend, what would happen next?
Would I show up at Mystique on a Sunday for the clothing-optional brunch that has earned Paul Luna's new restaurant enough free publicity to eclipse the mediocre reviews? No burritos there, of course, but sometimes a burrito, like a cigar, is a metaphor.
All through my wild days, my mad burrito existence, I never forgot Tortillas (774 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-892-0193) and, damn it, I've gone back to basics. Honestly, I have.
Beneath its name on the takeout menu, Tortillas reminds us that it's "not a chain." Atlanta's original burrito shack opened in 1984 and, although it moved to its present location from a much smaller one a few doors down that now houses Marco's, it has never tried to become an empire. It has instead remained true to its original vision of straightforward San Francisco-style burritos without bizarre fusion.
Part of Tortillas' charm, if that's the right word, has always been its down-and-dirty, somewhat boho ambience. In the beginning, it was staffed by Emory boys — including John Thomas, a former section editor of this paper — who combined heavy attitude with an overdeveloped sense of the cool and a love of rock music. The restaurant's walls were decorated with changing art from the Atlanta Chainsaw School of Abstract Expression.
The ambience is still strictly grunge. The staff has less attitude and their service, which declined for a while, is primo these days. I've had two longtime favorites here: the shrimp burrito ($5) with guac added ($1), along with green sauce. My other favorite is a plain cheese quesadilla with roasted green chile peppers ($3.45). All of Tortillas' burritos are built around the best pinto beans I have ever tasted, although black beans are available.
Recently, Tortillas expanded its menu — not, I'm happy to say, to weird fusion ingredients, but to some more authentically Mexican meats including chorizo, barbacoa and chopped pork. They can be ordered in quesadillas and enchiladas as well as burritos. I have been blown away by all three. They are absolutely as good as you'll find at any authentic taqueria in town — and unlike nearly every other burrito joint in the city, Tortillas steams its meats when you order. The meat is not dumped out of a steam tray onto the tortilla. In effect, I'm re-addicted to Tortillas.
My happy return to Tortillas was in part inspired by a visit to the new Willy's Mexicana Grill (1071 Piedmont Ave., 404-249-9054). Willy's, which backs up to Piedmont Park, has been an immediate hit, as it has been at its seven other locations in the city.
I was delighted to find Steve Waters, co-owner of Grant Park's defunct and much missed Foodz 2 Go, working at Willy's. If only Willy's was half as good as Foodz, I'd be a happy man. But, truth be told, I don't get it.
The menu here reads great. You can have a burrito or taco stuffed with green mole chicken, garlic-cilantro steak, chipotle barbecue sauce, Sinaloa-style grilled chicken or marinated tofu. Veggies also are available. You pass through a line before a sneeze-glass where utterly frenetic but friendly workers plead urgently for you to spit out your basic order and choose from the available extras, some of which — like coleslaw and black olives — seem way out of place. Most of the burritos start around $5.
Many people call this food "fresh" and "light tasting." I suppose if filler can be fresh, I might agree. But my green mole chicken, tasty by itself, practically disappeared in the huge quantity of rice that forms the bulk of every burrito. By the time you add the beans, practically all flavors of the meat are overwhelmed. Chipotle barbecue pork was no different and, unlike the chicken, wasn't very savory. Willy's should send a spy to Tortillas to taste well-prepared pork. Avoid the watery cheese dip and chips ($2.50).
The best thing I can say about the place is that it has a pleasant patio and offers you the chance to pick up something to go and picnic in the park. It soon will have competition, though. Orange & Scarlett's is opening a second location next door.
Here and there, feedback
Up the street from Willy's, a second location of Jake's has opened (970 Piedmont Ave.). Jake Rothschild has turned a basement space into an ice cream parlor that marries minimal design in the main area with a cozy den off to the side. A couple of sandwiches are offered in addition to ice cream and the food menu will expand in the future.
There is a far greater selection of ice cream here than at the North Highland store. Livid blues and pinks punctuate beiges and browns, ivories and calicos. Rothschild's kinky flavors are very adult by and large (despite some rather cloying marketing: "Laugh often, dream wildly and eat lots of ice cream."). My favorite, maybe my favorite ice cream ever, is his honey-fig. None was available the night of my visit, so I settled for the ginger, which is bracing and sharp. It was the perfect antidote to my weirdly homogenous meal at Willy's.
Speaking of ice cream, Lisa Freeman wrote to commiserate with Joe Johnson's lament that he can't find frozen custard in our city: "I am crazy about the stuff and the closest that I know of is Khor's Brothers in Ft. Lauderdale at the Sawgrass Mills Mall. There is also one in Virginia Beach. I love frozen custard so much, I wish someone would sell it in Atlanta, and whoever would start I think would have a corner on the market." Perhaps Jake's can consider it?
A new Thai restaurant is opening in East Atlanta. ... Terra di Siena, that capital of Milano design and northern Italian fare, has been taken over by the folks who own Baraonda. ... The Gospel Girls have returned to Burkhart's on Sunday evenings (about 7), along with a free buffet meal. It seems a suit has been filed against the city for its backward and unevenly enforced Sunday closing law, and bars have been allowed to reopen in the interim.
Feedback from Rich Jenkins: "Liked your reviews of The Earl and the Flying Biscuit. If anything, you could have been tougher on the Biscuit. I arrived here in '98, after its apparent heyday and was pretty unimpressed with the cloying menu and the mediocre food. Even the signature biscuits can be a problem. Warm from the oven, they're a dream, but if they've cooled off (which happens all too often), they're like hockey pucks. Every city has places like this — favorites long past their prime, but not so obviously awful that they scare people away. I suspect that it remains a favorite because it's a nice place to sit and people watch, outdoors, in the cool of a weekend morning. ...
"The Earl is great, odd service and all. The onion rings are the best I've had in a while, although they and the burger make for more grease than I'm used to. It's the antithesis of 'typical' Atlanta dining and it hopefully will scare people away for years to come. The music also won me over. There are few places around where you can hear real blues and non-playlist classic rock."
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.??