Restaurant Review - Tortilla Utopia

Striking Mexican gold at Silvia's Pastry

Here's a little something I've learned about hole-in-the-wall restaurants: The trick to a great meal in these pint-sized operations is to discover the one, maybe two dishes the cooks in the kitchen take personally. Sometimes you can eat at these places, hate the strange food that don't taste like your mama's or like Applebee's, and give up. But if you find that true thing the kitchen does exceptionally well, you can have a transcendent meal, usually for a minimum of moola.

I've struck culinary paydirt at Silvia's Pastry, a teeny tiny little Mexican spot in Norcross. It's the tortillas. The steaming hot corn tortillas made mere moments before you eat them. They're incredible, better than any tortillas I've had in Atlanta, including those at the now-defunct Oh...Maria! (God rest her soul) when she was in her prime. A friend persuaded me to join him at Silvia's a few weeks ago to introduce me to these earthy masterpieces. He had a gleam in his eye when we walked in and sat down at one of three tables. He knew what was coming.

Tortillas freshly made from corn masa are not at all like the bland specimens sealed in lifeless bags in the refrigerator section of the grocery store. They're cooked for just a minute or two on a griddle, then piled together and sealed to steam. Fragrant with a subtle nuttiness, they're so hot you do the finger dance while trying to pull one out of the foil wrapper. Rick Bayless, renowned cookbook author and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago, notes, "Mexican food without corn tortillas is like Chinese food without rice. Out of whack. Missing the very canvas on which to paint all those wonderful flavors." Amen, brother.

Now I'm the one taking friends to Silvia's. They have the same rhapsodic expression I did. As they unwrap the tortillas and take their first bite, their faces light up like they're Indiana Jones cracking open the Ark of the Covenant. Only no bad scary ghostly creatures are flying around. They just start madly casting about, looking for something to dunk the tortillas in.

There's plenty to accommodate. Start with the Mole con Pollo. Mole, the national sauce of Mexico, the mysterious sauce with a touch of chocolate, is Silvia's other specialty. Bitter, sweet and dusky from various chiles and nuts (among other secret ingredients), mole to the mouth is like Sedona's red rock canyons to the eyes: so vast it's hard to take in, but exhilarating nonetheless. The dish is served, as is traditional, with rice and beans. The rice is your standard Mexican variety, slightly sticky and cooked in stock, but the meltingly tender pinto beans have a meaty smokiness that marries well with the other flavors on the plate.

Stews also have an appealing complexity (I'll be camped out here come wintertime). Posole — otherwise known as hominy, the toothsome corn kernels — is served in a red chile broth with slow-cooked chunks of pork. A plate of avocado slices, lime halves, onions and red and green salsas are provided on the side to liven things up. Note, however, that posole comes with chips, not tortillas. Ask for a separate order. Consome de Barbacoa with shredded beef brisket and chickpeas comes with similar garnishes, tortillas included.

Sometimes they have a wonderful special called albondigas, which are meatballs cooked in a glossy tomato sauce laced with chipotle peppers. Need I tell you how perfect the sauce is as dunking material?

You can also make a meal of soft tacos filled with assorted goodies, the favorite of which thus far is deshebrada, chunks of steak cooked with chipotles and onions and tossed with cilantro. Other delicious choices include chorizo sausage with potatoes and strips of poblano pepper with cheese. Skip the barbacoa filling, which was greasy and chewy.

Yes, there are some things at Silvia's I'm not wild about. The nachos were a befuddling concoction piled with queso fundido-esque melted white cheese, tiny little pellets of frozen shrimp, lettuce and chunks of meat. Enchiladas seem awfully popular, but I can't get into the store-bought tortillas rolled with shredded chicken that's zapped in the microwave with either mole or green sauce and topped with a landslide of unmelted cheese. Milanesa was breaded beef akin to chicken-fried steak that required some jaw work.

The menu is entirely in Spanish, so you might require the services of Silvia's husband, Roberto Nava, a patient soul who translates in detail any term you may be unfamiliar with. After I ordered during one visit, I asked him how business was doing. "Oh," he replied, "up and down. We don't do much ... how do you say? Propaganda?" I smirked. "We call it advertising in this country."

Mr. Nava does his best to convince you to try some of his wife's desserts before leaving. There are typically some variations of tres leches available, but I'm partial to the flan. It's smooth and light, with a multifaceted sweet finish from the caramel on the bottom of the aluminum cup in which it's baked.

Some caveats about this place: It's cash only, and the hours can be irregular, so be sure to call ahead to see if they're open. But call you should. If you've never had hot-off-the-griddle tortillas before, get in your car and head up I-85 as soon as possible. I mean it now. Off you go.