Restaurant Review - Taco pronto

Don Taco wastes no time serving authentic cuisine

To gaze upon a Don Taco restaurant, armed with the knowledge that it's part of a chain, you may guess it serves the generic, Americanized version of Mexican cooking you find at franchises like Taco Bell. With four locations around the Atlanta area, Don Taco is unquestionably a fast food joint, but it achieves authenticity.

One Don Taco can be found about a mile outside I-285, sharing a block or two with several Korean restaurants, Grandma's Biscuits and King Kong Motors, indicating once again how inclusive this part of town can be, appealing to immigrants, grandparents and giant apes alike. This particular Don Taco is a refurbished Arby's restaurant, and despite the addition of earth-tone colors and a few paintings of Latin-American villages, the interior still suffers from overly bright fluorescent lights, glare from the windows, Spartan booths and a spare, uninviting patio.

The secret weapon, however, of any Don Taco is its salsa bar — this location's is especially long and inviting. It features two varieties of green salsa (one sharp and tomatillo-based, the other creamy and guacamole-like) as well as the mild tocayo (featuring roasted peppers) and the scorchingly spicy, napalm-like albanil, in addition to separate bowls for chopped onions, cilantro, limes and pico de gallo.

The menu of burritos, soft tacos, etc. will be familiar to diners who frequent either Americanized burrito places or the more traditional taqueria, whether you drive through or eat in. Two specialty vegetarian burritos are featured at $3.99 each. The Tampico, made with potatoes, refried beans, tomatoes and grilled onions, can be inconsistent. On the most recent visit, it was almost entirely potatoes (akin to samosa stuffing) and didn't taste fresh. On other occasions, the ingredients have proved more robust and balanced. Mysteriously, the chupacabra is named after a Latino boogeyman (it translates as "goat sucker"), yet it merely offers rice, beans, lettuce, sour cream and a disproportionately small amount of avocado. Perhaps the scary thing about it is the way it falls apart. But when the vegetarian burritos lack zing, it pays to return to the salsa bar.

I've had better luck with the meat dishes, especially the steak quesadilla ($3.75). With the tortillas fried to be slightly crispy but not brittle, the quesadilla proves a terrific vehicle for juicy morsels of steak and a generous amount of rice, beans, cheese and other fillers. The chicken flautas ($3.99) — tightly rolled, fried and just a bit greasy — are addictively chewy and a handy size for dunking in salsa containers.

Other meat dishes have less pizzazz. The pastor, or pork meat, is as orange as Georgia clay and has a tendency to dry out, making it a merely adequate burrito filler. The "Crazy Taco" ($4.99) has a hard, crumbly shell, with the basic fillers all but snowbound by a heap of shredded cheese. The soft tacos ($1.65 each) tend to go heavy on the cheese as well, although the chicken taco had more assertive, flavorful meat.

With such low prices and fast service, Don Taco can be an effective place to grab a quick bite and enjoy hearing some Spanish, especially if you speak only a little of it. Three televisions constantly play the endlessly fascinating Spanish-language talk shows, game shows and telenovelas. A sign on the doors has the word "boracho" with a slash through it, proving more elegant than if it simply read "No drunks."

Don Taco can hardly match the richness of Mexican cuisine you find at a place like Zocalo, and isn't as cozy as nearby sit-down taquerias such as Las Americas. But when you have a hankering for inexpensive burritos and fresh salsa and don't have time to make up your mind among the ever-increasing options around Atlanta, Don Taco offers a fast and easy solution.??