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GRAZING: Tacos, chimichangas, pupusas – and ‘banana’ pudding
The pandemic makes critics self-critical but Hispanic street food still tastes really good
It’s no surprise that the most repeated memes among dining critics since March feature the coronavirus pandemic. With a huge number of restaurants closing and a tiny number opening, critics don’t have much to review. Having basically always been an adjunct to the food service industry, they are now awakening to the kind of misery many never noticed — from the low pay and instability of restaurant employment to the way the coronavirus literally erases taste, thus provoking soul-searching like, “OMG, who made me the king of taste?”
While the present context is horrific, examination of the critic’s role has been underway at least since the Great Recession of 2007 accelerated the starvation of print journalism. To maintain economic viability, many critics were called down from the mountaintop to write news and feature stories as well as restaurant reviews. In the process, they lost the pretentious anonymity they never had to begin with while thousands of food bloggers and anonymous Yelpers created consensus that arguably gained more reliability in the public mind. Now, watching millions lose their jobs, critics are publicly ruminating their own futures. Many of their essays are a mix of hubris and startled compassion. In order to agonize for thousands of words over your need to support the industry in the future, you must have retained a very high opinion of your power, right?
More important than the etiquette of what is articulated, though, is what dining critics have long avoided saying. I’ve posted some links below that I found particularly thoughtful in this respect. I especially urge you to read the Los Angeles Times piece by critic Bill Addison, who started his career at Creative Loafing. Bill calls out the hierarchy of virtual enslavement that has defined the restaurant industry since its beginnings. Critics who can bring the insights of anthropology, history, and economics into view don’t stray from their art or purpose, as some argue. When someone whom you know to be underpaid and uninsured presents you a perfect plate of food while an infamous chef is screaming racial epithets at kitchen staff in the background, maybe it’s finally time to report the whole story. It’s the hospitality industry, after all!
Restaurants have long been the place where we gather to mark special occasions, reinforce social bonds, and cross so-called ethnic boundaries even as our actual borders remain supposedly walled. The absence of safe restaurants has added to the culture’s general malaise and — be warned — it’s really hard to find a single essay predicting a return to “normal.” Recovery from the viral threat and the devastated economy won’t occur overnight because of a vaccine’s availability on a particular day in the spring. Healing will be gradual and haunted by painful memories. So, no, you’ll likely not be able to head back to your favorite neighborhood spot in a year and find it unchanged.
Already, new restaurants are opening that enhance social distancing, especially by offering lots of patio space, but that’s not going to help much as we head into winter and must decide whether to take a table inside. Some new restaurants have incorporated interior distancing but that, to say nothing of required masks, challenges us to find pleasure amid reminders of a plague. Old and new restaurants alike are highlighting delivery, takeout, and “curb service,” a term that described dining in your car at the Varsity when I was a kid, but now means a Hazmat-clad restaurant employee will come outside and hand you your chili dogs when you drive up to the restaurant and then vamoose immediately. While you’re not supposed to eat in restaurant parking lots, I admit that more than once I’ve driven a few blocks away and tailgated in order to avoid the sloppy, steaming deterioration that takeout containers can cause. Delivery makes that effect even worse and adds a lot of dollars. Turning the whole world into one big food hall has one especially depressing effect: It reduces employment numbers significantly in a business with a very slim profit margin.
Recently, I visited three new venues that exemplify the joys and complications of takeout and dining in. They all feature Hispanic street food, which has become extremely popular in the last decade, but these three top my recent charts. I’m not going to bother to rave in particular at length about each. Just take my word for it: They are all worth the cost, which is generally low, but let’s not delude ourselves. If you want good prepared food during the pandemic (and likely after), you’re going to pay a bit more for street food and a bit less for fine dining, whose death knell is another column.
Chi Chi Vegan Taco Shop: If you’re a foodie, you’re usually willing to suspend dread in order to make room for curiosity. That was my feeling when I set out for this new Reynoldstown restaurant. Being behind the times by still expecting vegan food to taste outré instead of chichi, I thought the restaurant’s name was self-parody. It’s actually a play on owner-chef Chris Hodge’s name and, hell yes, Chi Chi is chichi AF. Located in a renovated building with other tenants, the restaurant’s exterior is salmon pink while the interior is whitewashed brick and marble.
I expected the restaurant to have patio space, but it does not, and, frankly, I was disturbed by the interior seating. There are only 20 seats and people were certainly seated near one another. Despite the requirement to wear masks, I didn’t see anyone among the seated wearing a mask while waiting for their food. Two of three people who strolled in to pick up orders were also naked from the neck up. I’ve become really grouchy about this and complained to the woman delivering food to tables. She disputed my observation, and I chose not to argue. I waited outside, perched on one of four stools.
When my food arrived 15 minutes after ordering at the counter, it was plated for dining in. I thought I’d ordered it to go. I was paranoid as hell but decided to go with it. The woman working the floor cleared a space at the end of a bar, next to the door. My first bite of an al pastor taco was astonishing. In meat-eating life it is a flour tortilla full of spit-roasted, marinated pork basted in fresh pineapple juice as it cooks. Chi Chi’s version is served in a slightly crispy tortilla. The meat substitute, “chk’n,” is plant-based, of course, and doesn’t make an effort to exactly impersonate sliced meat. It was almost like a deliciously seasoned stew topped with explosively fresh pineapple, cilantro, and onions (but missing the promised guac). I also ordered a veggie chimichanga, which was equally stunning. It was $16 but large enough for two people, and I’d venture to say it’s the best version of a chimichanga I’ve eaten in our city in a very long time. It’s full of rice, black beans, and fajita-style veggies wrapped in a gigantic fried burrito, topped with faux queso and pico de gallo. (You can add “meat” and guac.) Everything about its seasonings and textures seemed fine-tuned compared to the usual burrito dump.
The menu here is brief and I want to try everything on it, but I’m not planning to eat on the premises. Halfway through my chimichanga I got anxious as hell and asked for a box to take it home. It held up pretty well, but like all takeout food, it lost some of its gloss, even in a brief drive. Still, I suggest that you order online for pickup.
La Bodega: This is a little complicated. La Bodega is three food things seemingly crawling toward infinity. It is, foremost (to my mind), a Salvadoran pupuseria. It is a developing Hispanic grocery store (or “bodega”). It also hosts The Window for takeout pop-ups of potentially infinite numbers. Located in the gigantic, old, renovating, artsy, alternative, lovable MET complex in southwest Atlanta, it is the project of Ken and Jeanette Katz, owners of Buenos Dias Café in downtown Atlanta, which they’ve shuttered due to COVID-19.
I love pupusas but I have eaten so many bad ones in Atlanta, I gave up ordering them anywhere a few years ago. They’re not complicated. They are griddle cakes made of corn flour stuffed with a variety of ingredients. They are often compared to Venezuelan arepas and Mexican gorditas, but pupusas are stuffed before they are cooked instead of after. This makes them denser, and if made too long in advance they are virtually inedible even when dunked deeply into sauce for a long time.
I ordered a sample plate of two pupusas, with plantains, pickled cabbage slaw, and quinoa topped with black beans. The first was the pupusa revuelta, probably El Salvador’s favorite and certainly mine. It’s full of black beans, cheese, and crunchy bits of chicharrones, the fried pork fat that made my life worth living south of the border. I’ll get two next time. The other pupusa I ordered was stuffed with chicken mole characteristic of the Mexican state of Guerrero. It was tasty and tender but the red mole was a bit thin and lightly flavored for my taste. I’m not saying that’s bad. It’s a popular style, but I want more depth. You can eat these with your hands or with utensils. Just be sure you include a bit of the tangy slaw with each bite. The menu includes many other dishes such as bizarrely compelling pizzas, breakfast nachos, and Cuban sandwiches.
During my visit, two pop-up vendors were working the Windows gig. One was Carrot Dog. Sorry, I really don’t like hot dogs or carrots. However, I love banana pudding, and I made a beeline to BeyNana’s window. The owner, Micki Bey, was working outside the window, something like a carnival barker, urging people to try samples of her banana pudding. The interesting thing about BeyNana’s banana pudding is that it contains no bananas. That’s right. You don’t have to shove those overripe, browning bananas out of the way while you go for the pudding, as Ms. Bey explained to VoyageATL. There are about 20 different varieties of the pudding available, such as delicious S’mores, which I sampled. While I waited for my pupusas, I swung basic and devoured half a tub of the plain pudding with vanilla wafers. How good was it? I ate the rest of it at traffic lights on my way home, getting honked at twice. Check out La Bodega’s website for other pop-ups.
Lupe’s Mexican Eatery: Sofia Garcia Diaz of Little Tart Bake Shop has fed me something I have only been able to find one time in Atlanta since the late ‘80s. I’m talking about tacos filled with chicharrones suaves — big sloppy pieces of soft pork fat and skin. Granted, she stews them in a red sauce instead of the salsa verde in which I ate them voraciously in Houston and Mexico, but I don’t care.
Diaz, a native of Guadalajara, hosts a pop-up, Lupe’s Mexican Eatery, at Little Tart every Saturday and Sunday, 5-8 p.m. The fare changes weekly, of course. I scored my pork chubs during a week she was preparing tacos made with stews, “guisados.” I did get a dose of green sauce in which she cooked luscious beef tongue. We also sampled perfect chicken tinga and cochinita pibil. The only near-meh was the “chocoflan” — chocolate sponge cake topped with flan. Because the cake was twice as thick as the rather airy flan, the taste was overwhelmingly chocolate with only a thin ribbon of caramel here and there.
We hoped to eat on the premises, once again to avoid the terrible effect of takeout boxes on steamy tacos. We were invited to use the patio in the rear. It was empty and really dark. Nobody could find the light switch, so we ran home with our bounty. Yep, the tortillas were wrinkled, but nothing can really ruin a big glob of pork fat and a chunk of cow tongue.—CL—
Chi Chi Vegan Taco Shop, 1 Moreland Ave., 404-464-7153, chichivegan.com, @chichiveganATL, facebook.com/ChiChiVegan/
La Bodega, 680 Murphy Ave. #4158, 404-809-4158, labodegaatl.com, @labodega.atl, facebook.com/LaBodega.Atl/; BeyNana’s, @beynanassweets; Carrot Dog, Kemi Bennings
Lupe’s Mexican Eatery at Little Tart Bake Shop, 68 Georgia Ave., 404-348-4797, order online, @lupes.eatery
Suggested articles on dining criticism and post-pandemic reality
“The New Order” by Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/04/23/restaurants-matter-reasons-more-than-dinner-posts-food-critic-what-were-danger-losing/?arc404=true
“Razed and Exposed, the Restaurant Industry is Due for Change” by Bill Addison, The Los Angeles Times: https://sports.yahoo.com/razed-exposed-restaurant-industry-due-130018600.html
“Why This Dining Critic Isn’t Eating Out Right Now” by Ryan Sutton, Eater New York: https://ny.eater.com/2020/7/1/21310249/against-dining-out-bars-coronavirus-nyc-restaurants
“What’s Next for Restaurant Criticism?” by Christiane Lauterbach, Atlanta Magazine: https://www.atlantamagazine.com/dining-news/whats-next-for-restaurant-criticism/ —CL—