Review: Holy Taco

Mexican fusion in East Atlanta

When Holy Taco opened in February 2008, it’s likely that I groaned and moaned about it to a few people. It might have been possible to overhear me saying, some tipsy evening at the Earl, “Can we get something other than bars and tacos in East Atlanta? I mean, seriously. How many gringo Mexican joints can one neighborhood bear?”

Despite my misgivings, I grudgingly ate at Holy Taco in its first weeks, and found no real reason to return. Until a couple of Sundays ago.

My family and I woke up with a hankering for Mexican food. Mi Barrio (the one authentic Mexican restaurant in the Grant Park/East Atlanta area) was closed, and Cantina La Casita, the longtime fallback for cheap tacos and margaritas in East Atlanta Village, closed permanently two weeks ago. “Holy Taco?” my husband asked me. “I guess,” I acquiesced grumpily.

We arrived to a spacious patio full of young patrons, laughing in the gorgeous weather and drinking heavily. All that was expected. The unexpected came when I started looking over the menu. Beef cheek? Chicken hearts? Galician octopus? “This menu is crazy!” I said to my husband. “When did Holy Taco get so cool? And how did I miss it?”
The answer is, it happened over time. Chef and part owner Robert Phalen explains that when it opened, he was looking to create an authentic, traditional taqueria. He ultimately realized that authentic wasn’t his strong suit. “I’m not authentic,” he said. “I’m not Mexican. So now it’s more like Mexican fusion.”

The result is an incredibly cool neighborhood eatery that’s going places with its food that even some of the most daring high-end chefs in town wouldn’t dare.

The chicken hearts taco, served on two warm corn tortillas, is now on my weekly rotation of must-eat dishes. The hearts lie encased in a not-too-heavy buttermilk batter and contrast with a piquant pickled onion garnish, the vinegar of the onions cutting through the organ’s musk. Perhaps even better is the lengua taco — tender, juicy roasted beef tongue (which has a texture similar to brisket but is far softer on the tooth) served with tomato cucumber salsa.

Phalen, who spent most of his 10 years in Atlanta working with Shaun Doty before opening Holy Taco, shows a ton of Spanish influence in his cooking, sometimes to great effect and sometimes not. The octopus, which appears on a short tapas section of the menu, is classic and tender, served on a small plate with lemon and paprika.

One of the most interesting dishes on the menu is a tomato salad that combines heirloom tomatoes, peppery local arugula, white anchovies, hot serrano chiles, and a hunk of soft, ash-rinded Miticana sheep’s milk cheese. There’s a lot going on in this salad, and your mouth’s attention is pulled this way and that as bold flavors assert themselves. It worked right up until the spicy chiles part, when the subtleties of the cheese, the sweetness of the tomatoes, and the puckery pungency of the anchovies get obliterated by the chiles’ lingering burn. It’s one place I think Phalen could pull back, just a smidge, and find more success.

There are other places where the kitchen’s ambition is thwarted by its execution. The beef cheek empanada suffers from a dense, leaden crust and a somewhat tasteless filling. I was thrilled to see an entrée of fresh sardines, a delightful fish whose boniness and fishy smell often turn people off, and whose sweet, complex flavor is underused as a result. Phalen attempts to debone the sardines (my guess is, to make the dish more palatable to diners unfamiliar with fresh sardines), which is a completely futile exercise. Tiny bones remain in the flesh, which would be easier to remove if the fish were still intact. The butchering only adds to the fishy aroma and taste. Left whole, this would be a far more pleasing dish.

On the other hand, the tortas, or Mexican sandwiches, may not be totally authentic (they’re smaller than usual and served on ciabatta rolls rather than the traditional bolillo), but they’re delicious, especially the fatty, crispy pork belly version.

If you’re there to drink (and there’s plenty to drink, including fresh, appropriately sour margaritas and a nice selection of tequilas and mezcals), order a basket of the chicken chicharonnes. The small hunks of chicken soaked in rum and then cooked in fat are too salty and fatty for regular appetizer consumption, but go down well with beer or the harder stuff.

Honestly, East Atlanta doesn’t need another Mexican joint where booze is the main attraction. The neighborhood does need more restaurants where the food takes the limelight, and where there’s a serious chef in the kitchen. On that front, Holy Taco delivers. What a pleasant surprise.