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Meet 3 of Atlanta’s best pitmasters

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Bryan FurmanB’s Cracklin’ BBQ‘s Bryan Furman
The reluctant king

In two short years, Bryan Furman has risen to the top of Atlanta’s barbecue game. The former welder, who started out with a modest ’cue stand in Savannah, now has a rabid following at his Atlanta restaurant, his own herd of heritage pigs (he’s also eyeing a new farm), a third restaurant on the way, and the designation from Bon Appetit as “Georgia’s New King of Barbecue”—not that he’s eager to wear that particular crown.

“I never wanted to be the so-called King of Barbecue of Georgia. I grew up with my dad cooking barbecue, seeing it done on the weekend. My mom, she had me prepping sides. When she would be making potato salad, I would be cutting.

“So, when I would go to a barbecue joint and it was crappy food, it was offensive. My whole dream had been that, once I quit welding, I’m going to open up my own barbecue joint, and I’m going to give a damn about it. It’s just something I do, and I care about it, and it comes from the heart.

“My Brunswick stew comes from my wife, and the coleslaw comes from my grandmother, but I put peaches in it. We raise our own pigs in Statesboro, about 150, 200 pigs. And right now, up in Greensboro, we’re looking at a 300-acre farm. I use all-natural pork ribs for my rib selection, and I use my pigs for my pulled pork.

“Everybody’s barbecue’s supposed to be cooked this way and supposed to be done that way, and I guess I just do it my way—the way I feel that it’s gonna work.” —as told to Jennifer Zyman

Jiyeon Lee & Cody TaylorHeirloom Market BBQ‘s Jiyeon Lee & Cody Taylor
The dream team

Why is Heirloom Market BBQ so insanely good? It’s not merely that it blends Southern and Korean techniques and ingredients. Rather, it’s that it channels the essence of what makes Korean food extraordinary—through the eyes of chef Jiyeon Lee—and what makes Southern food extraordinary—through the eyes of her co-chef (and significant other) Cody Taylor.

Cody: “When Jiyeon and I started dating, I didn’t know much about Korean food. She opened up a whole new world outside of Korean barbecue and bulgogi and some of the, I’d say, ‘starter’ Korean food. Then, at the same time, I would take Jiyeon to barbecue restaurants. I took her through Texas and to some good places in the Southeast, and we really just connected through food.”

Jiyeon: “In the beginning, actually, Heirloom wasn’t really Korean-influenced. Cody asked me to make collard greens, but I had never cooked collards before. When my grandmother cooked greens in Korea, Napa cabbage or radish tops, she cooked them for a very long time, like collards. I just made them like my grandmother did. I poured in rice wine vinegar and added miso. More and more, [Cody and I] started rebuilding recipes together, family recipes that have a connection with Korea and with the South.”

Cody: “When we set up Heirloom, I was doing most of the smoking, and I realized that gochujang [a Korean red chili paste] was such a great ingredient to capture the smoke. It’s similar to the dry ingredients to make a pork rub or a rib rub.”

Jiyeon: “The green tomato kimchi is Cody’s recipe. I was like, ‘Wow, I never would have thought of making kimchi with green tomatoes.’”

Cody: “I asked Jiyeon, ‘What do you think about making a barbecue sauce?’ And she came up with our KB [Korean Barbecue] sauce—basically sesame oil, soy sauce, and gochujang. There’s a region northwest of Seoul that’s famous for its spicy chicken bulgogi, and the sauce they serve with it is similar.”

Jiyeon: “Some chefs hate the word ‘fusion.’ But I don’t really mind, because it is what it is. Two different things, put together, create something unique. Heirloom is Korean-influenced American barbecue. That’s our identity. But it is very difficult to create good fusion because you gotta understand both sides very well. If somebody said, ‘Oh, is that Korean barbecue or American barbecue? I’m completely confused,’ I’d be pretty sad.” —as told to Jennifer Zyman

Stephanie GarnerOld Brick Pit Barbeque‘s Stephanie Garner
The protege

When Stephanie Garner started working at Old Brick Pit Barbeque, the Chamblee restaurant that had been around since 1976 and that her father bought in 2001, she didn’t know the first thing about barbecue. But she learned fast. Not long after her aunt assumed ownership of the restaurant in 2011, Garner became its pitmaster, nailing the consistency and style that Old Brick Pit’s loyal clientele demands.

“It is kind of tricky, to keep the smoker at the right temperature. But once you get it down, you start to know exactly how many pieces of wood to have in there, exactly how long to cook the meat.

“We smoke the ribs, then take them out and soak them in apple juice, then cook them for another couple of hours after that. The next day, we put them on the pit that we have inside—it’s an actual brick pit—and do the basting sauce. They stay on that for about another two hours and get more of the smoky flavor. And we only use hickory wood.

“I know most places have guys [cooking the meat], but to be honest, I think females in the kitchen are more precise. Guys kind of do as they do, but the girls, we take our time.” —as told to Jennifer Zyman

4805 Peachtree Road, Chamblee, 770-986-7727

Check out the full list of Atlanta’s 10 Best Barbecue Restaurants.

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

Review: Momonoki brings the beauty and craft of Tokyo and Taipei to Midtown

Momonoki

You can learn a lot about the origins of Momonoki, a new fast-casual joint in Midtown, from the Instagrams of Taiwanese-American chef Jason Liang and Taiwanese pastry chef ChingYao Wang (who’s also his wife). The couple best known for Decatur’s Brush Sushi Izakaya recently ate their way through Taipei and Tokyo as inspiration for Momonoki and its attached bakery, Momo Cafe. The deliciously atmospheric images from the trip—homey beef noodle soup in New Taipei City’s Banqiao District, lemon coffee with crushed ice in neighboring Zhonghe District, extra-strong matcha soft serve in Tokyo’s Ginza Six complex—are like a moodboard for their clever new project.

Liang and Wang understand chic aesthetics, and every detail at Momonoki (Japanese for “peach tree,” wink-wink) feels built for snaps. It’s difficult to find a more beautiful looking bowl of ramen in Atlanta, but these bowls are not perfect: The broths in the classic ramen preparations can lack refinement, and the Sun Noodles can be overcooked. Those noodles fare much better in the tsukemen (a style of ramen in which you dip the noodles into hot, salty broth). Just as good as the tsukemen is the Nagoya Taiwanese Mazemen, in which thicker noodles are topped with stir-fried pork, a poached egg, Asian chives, and garlic.

Cute katsu sandos (cutlet sandwiches) are fun to share; go for the fried shrimp with tartar sauce studded with shibazuke (Japanese pickles). Sidestep the poké for other beguiling bowls, such as sliced yellowtail—plucky with cured cucumber and a bright jalapeño-cilantro salsa—served over chili ponzu rice or over mixed greens. A hearty bowl of dry-curried ground beef over rice with a runny poached egg and sliced avocado is pure comfort food that you can eat with a spoon in one hand while you scroll with the other.

Over at the cafe, Wang’s pastry offerings include her popular matcha brownie, black-sesame or matcha soft-serve ice cream, and croissants slicked with black-sesame or matcha icing. The cafe’s drinks also are compelling: black-sugar, matcha, or strawberry lattes, roasted teas from Japan, and oolong teas from Taiwan. They’re lovely to sip as you watch traffic crawl by on the Connector. Momonoki embraces the adjacent gridlock. Its logo is a peach with the kanji character for “wood” written inside, which resembles a crude map of our highway system. Despite Momonoki’s global influences, you can’t get more Atlanta than that.

Rating
★ ★  ★
(Very good)

Vital stats
95 Eighth Street
404-390-3025

momonokiatl.com

This article appears in our October 2018 issue.

The 10 Best Brunch Spots in Atlanta

Superica best brunch Atlanta
Huevos rancheros at Superica

Photograph by Mary Caroline Russell

It’s not easy judging brunch. We had many more contenders than the 10 that ended up on the list below—and even after we narrowed the crowded field to 10, ranking them was no easy feat. We were quick to agree on our top pick, which we especially love, but it was almost as if we had a nine-way tie for runner-up. These places are all so good.

And lest you be disappointed about the exclusion of a couple of mainstays, such as Ria’s Bluebird and Homegrown (and those are just the ones on Memorial Drive!), you should know that we excluded restaurants that serve breakfast throughout the week if they don’t have a separate weekend or Sunday brunch menu. After all, brunch is not breakfast.

10. Buttermilk Kitchen
Chef Suzanne Vizethann’s breakfast-focused Buckhead restaurant Buttermilk Kitchen has a large following for good reason. Everything is made from scratch on both the weekday breakfast/lunch menu and the weekend brunch menu. For the latter, Vizethann offers several options not available during the week, including fried chicken and waffles with sriracha butter and whiskey syrup, short rib hash with yum yum sauce and pickled peppers, buttermilk biscuits with sawmill gravy, and a decadent lobster omelet. Or go for classic fluffy buttermilk pancakes with melting Banner butter alongside an ivory mug of hot Rev Coffee. 4225 Roswell Road, 678-732-3274

One Eared Stag Chef's Breakfast best brunch Atlanta
The Chef’s Breakfast at One Eared Stag

Photograph courtesy of Green Olive Media

9. One-Eared Stag
Chef Robert Phalen’s stylish storefront restaurant predates the massive wave of eateries that hit Inman Park in recent years. And it is no less exciting now than it was in 2011. The brunch menu regularly changes, but you can currently expect the chicken salad sandwich to have lardons and truffle, the fried eggs to be served over veal and rapini, and the bloody mary to get its kick from kimchi. Among the constants is the Chef’s Breakfast, six glorious items (little composed dishes involving peppery biscuits and soft eggs and cured meat and a luxury ingredient or two), served on a silver tray with a can of Schlitz. Are you in brunch heaven yet? 1029 Edgewood Avenue, 404-525-4479

Seed Kitchen & Bar
Blue cod at Seed Kitchen & Bar

Photograph courtesy of Seed Kitchen & Bar

8. Seed Kitchen & Bar
This is by far our favorite OTP brunch. Seed’s airy and modern space transcends its location at the far end of an East Cobb strip mall, and the beautifully plated meals that come out of its kitchen day and night can hold their own against their intown brethren. You might have had smoked salmon with potato pancakes and poached eggs elsewhere, but it didn’t taste as good as it does here. If you’re not feeling eggs or something sweet, go for the not-too-brunchy but oh-so-delicious chicken schnitzel with miso mustard, arugula, and roasted tomatoes, or the blue cod with caramelized Brussels sprouts, roasted cauliflower, and Thai herb vinaigrette. 1311 Johnson Ferry Road, Marietta, 678-214-6888

7. Greens and Gravy
Brunch is by far the best meal at Chef Darius Williams’s artsy, intimate soul food restaurant in Westview. There is much to admire about the namesake greens and gravy, served with watermelon chowchow, fried chicken, and biscuits. A fragrant dish of shrimp and sweet potato grits is just as good. Friends and neighbors sit elbow-to-elbow at tables crammed with big mason jars of Kool-Aid, and they just might persuade you to order the toasted pound cake with housemade preserves or the banana pudding waffles for dessert. 1540 Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard, 404-565-2074

Revival best brunch Atlanta
Almost Famous “Closed on Sunday” Chicken Sandwich at Revival

Photograph by David Crawford

6. Revival
Brunch doesn’t get any more gracious or more Southern than at Revival, the Decatur spot from Atlanta native and bold red-bearded chef Kevin Gillespie. The classic bungalow on the edge of downtown Decatur has a front porch facing a quiet residential street and walls and shelves packed with family heirlooms. On Sundays, it also has giant housemade cinnamon buns, fried chicken sandwiches, cathead biscuits with sawmill gravy, and ham hock hash with crispy potatoes and eggs. 129 Church Street, Decatur, 470-228-6770

Chilaquiles at Superica

Photograph by Mary Caroline Russell

5. Superica
Ford Fry’s Superica is the Tex-Mex restaurant Atlanta didn’t know it needed. You can’t go wrong at lunch or dinner, but weekend brunch is the power move here. Both the Krog Street and Buckhead locations open a bit before most other brunch spots, at 10 a.m., which means you can beat the crowds while indulging in laid-back, Texas-style Mexican grub. Expect pancakes as large as a vinyl record with syrup that tastes like dulce de leche, huevos rancheros made heartier with bacon, and the most Mexican of all brunch items, chilaquiles: day-old tortilla chips brought back to life after a soak in red chili sauce and topped with fried eggs, pickled jalapenos, sliced avocado, shaved radishes, chopped cilantro, and queso fresco. 3850 Roswell Road, 678-705-1235, and 99 Krog Street, 678-791-1310

Canoe best brunch Atlanta
Smoked salmon eggs Benedict at Canoe

Photograph courtesy of Green Olive Media

4. Canoe
There is not a more beautiful setting in town for benedicts and bloodies. Canoe has been around since 1995, making it the grande dame of Atlanta brunch, and it has aged well. This is special-occasion, out-of-town-visitors, show-off-to-your-inlaws brunch, and you shouldn’t complain if you have to wait—strolling the stunning grounds is part of the experience. This town is woefully short on riverside dining, so do your best to land a table on the long, porch-like patio that looks out over the lazy Chattahoochee. Splurge on grilled strip steak over grits with house kimchi and duck egg, and go ahead and indulge in a half order of the brioche French toast for dessert. 4199 Paces Ferry Road, 770-432-2663

Bread & Butterfly
Pancakes at Bread & Butterfly

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

3. Bread & Butterfly
Cakes & Ale may be no more, but we still have Billy Allin’s ode to Paris in Inman Park. Bread & Butterfly is an incredibly useful restaurant, one that stays on top of its game during breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days a week—but Sunday is all about brunch. Waits are fairly tolerable, especially considering that this is where you’ll find Atlanta’s best pancakes. They arrive ready-made, drenched in melted butter and hot syrup. If for some reason you’re not here for those, you’ll be no less delighted by a baguette with room-temperature butter and strawberry jam (pair it with a perfect cappuccino), a simple omelet with a side of vinegary salad greens, or the more American avocado toast. 290 Elizabeth Street, 678-515-4536

2. The General Muir
Until 2013, Atlanta’s deli scene was practically nonexistent. The General Muir changed all that when it opened at Emory Point across from the CDC. Partners Todd Ginsberg, Shelley Sweet, and Jennifer and Ben Johnson (of West Egg Cafe) conceived a juiced-up Jewish deli where everything from rugelach to double-baked rye bread to pastrami to pickles is made in-house. The Muir even has its own bakery (TGM Bakery) next door, which provides the restaurant and its sister concepts—the Canteen, Fred’s Meat & Bread, and Yalla—with baked goodness. Weekend brunch offers several options not on the weekday breakfast or lunch menus, such as pastrami poutine, trout over red flannel hash, and the housemade English muffin with ricotta, peaches, and fennel. Fans will be happy to know you can also order the Muir’s staples: its peerless Reuben and the burger stack with fries (arguably the best burger in Atlanta). Show up early because it gets packed. 1540 Avenue Place, 678-927-9131

Ticonderoga Club best brunch Atlanta
The grain bowl at Ticonderoga Club

Photograph by Bart Sasso

1. Ticonderoga Club
Equally beloved by hardcore brunchers and those who claim to hate ritualistic and overpriced weekend meals, Ticonderoga Club is as delightfully weird and deliciously creative on Sunday as it is every other day. What we’re saying is: this is brunch with integrity. Whether you order the best Cobb salad in the city, the best grits bowl in the city (with poached eggs, sausage, and mushrooms), or the best (and not too brunchy) crispy fish sandwich, your meal will be all the more perfect paired with one of Ticonderoga’s special “cups”—sensible punches and boozy classics crafted by one of the most renowned bar staffs in town. Another perk: The dim-yet-friendly bar atmosphere in the back corner of Krog Street Market is a respite for those who aren’t ready to start their day with too much sunlight. 99 Krog Street, 404-458-4534

Chamblee’s Tip Top Kosher Market has a hidden Israeli restaurant in the back

Hummus with boiled egg and pickles

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

Since 1981, Atlantans in the know have made the trek to a barren access road off of 285 for cheesesteaks at the Mad Italian. It’s not a place you expect to be a food destination, those who know, know. And that same area has yet another interesting culinary destination if you don’t mind eating in the back of an Israeli market.

Israelis David Malka and Yehonatan Hazot opened Tip Top Kosher Market last August. Tip Top sells hard-to-find treats such as crunchy Bamba, a peanut-flavored bagged snack, and fun items like kosher Doritos. The real treasure is in the back of the store, where there’s a kosher restaurant you might mistake for a stockroom if you didn’t know was there.

One of the many salads on the menu, with complimentary babaganoush and cabbage slaw

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

If you keep kosher in Atlanta, your options for dining out can feel limited, so any new options are good options. While Atlanta has spectacular Persian options like Rumi’s Kitchen (one of my personal all-time favorites) and plenty of falafel and shawarma joints, Israeli and Lebanese food isn’t as well-represented in our otherwise diverse international culinary landscape.

Falafel appetizer

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

Inside the sparse restaurant at Tip Top is a slightly grumpy chef and a young, super friendly server with a thick Israeli accent. Sitting in the back of this kosher market somehow feels transformative, as if I’m suddenly in a market in Tel Aviv and not minutes from bumper-to-bumper traffic on 285. Perhaps it is the chef and waitress speaking in Hebrew, or the TV broadcasting a mix of music videos and soccer, or the small dish of babaganoush given to us as a complimentary nosh alongside red cabbage cole slaw.

Chicken schnitzel with a huge hunk of lemon

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

Merguez sausage and fries

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

There’s plenty of comfort food options—falafel, fried chicken schnitzel with thick cut steak fries, and juicy merguez sausages (spicy lamb). The falafel is golden brown and crunchy, a nice start to the meal alongside a salad. But the hummus, which comes topped with all sorts of topping such as boiled eggs or ribeye, was a bit thin and underseasoned. While there is a lack of salt in some dishes, it’s easily remedied with the dash of a salt shaker or a smear of zhug, a Yemeni-Jewish spicy chili paste (think a thick, homemade salsa) we ended up slathering on everything. However imperfect, Tip Top has its merits. I would go back for the crunchy and juicy schnitzel if on this side of town—assuming I can resist that Mad Italian cheesesteak. 2211 Savoy Drive B, 470-365-2994

Why Israeli grillmaster Shay Lavi is an Atlanta chef to watch

For chef Shay Lavi, grilled vegetables are the star

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

Chef Shay Lavi’s food, which includes Turkish, Libyan, Moroccan, Persian, and Israeli accents, is as diverse as his heritage. Half-Libyan and half-Turkish, Lavi grew up in Israel in Or Yehuda, a city in the Tel Aviv district. His paternal grandmother, one of his most significant cooking mentors, often prepared meals for large groups, and that inclination for hospitality got under Lavi’s skin at a young age. “I grew up in a house where food was everything. There was always food, for better or worse, making people happier,” Lavi says.

Multiple Shaksukas cooking on the stove.

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

When Lavi finished his service in the Israeli Navy, he decided to break from the family construction business and opened a kids’ toy store. But Lavi dreamed of becoming a chef. Everyone in his family advised against it, except his wife, Karen, who told him: “If all you want to do is cook, why don’t you just get rid of everything else that occupies you and just cook and be happy?”

Lavi sold everything and jumped into cooking professionally. “It was tough because everything I knew about cooking was wrong because whatever my grandma, my mom, and my aunts used to do is just wrong. I [wanted] to learn how to make it right. So I started concentrating on fine dining, buying books, learning, homeschooling myself, and then executing whatever I [wasn’t] learning at home in restaurants.”

Lavi plating a dish at an event.

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

While he was working in Tel Aviv restaurant kitchens, Karen got pregnant with their first child. “I decided [then] that I was not going to stay in Israel,” he says. “There’s too much for too little. I wanted a better life for us and better future for my kids to come.” Karen’s father convinced the couple to move to Atlanta, and after arriving, Lavi and his wife began eating at every restaurant they could to get the lay of the land. He landed a job at Ecco in Midtown, but adjusting to American kitchens proved difficult due to different service systems and a language barrier.

“Every time I got a ticket it took me a few seconds to just read it. It frustrated me so bad,” he explains. “And the way the [kitchen] line looks here is way different. Cooks don’t have the freedom to create, the freedom to speak up. It’s here’s your dish, here’s your square, build it the way you choose. Where’s the fun?”

Despite his frustrations, Lavi continued to land cooking jobs at restaurants such as Noble Fin and Wrecking Bar, where he met chef Terry Koval, whom he now calls one of his best friends. “The cooks [at Wrecking Bar] are amazing,” Lavi says. “They know how to handle food. If a cook has a problem with a dish, they’re going to tweak it. They’re going to work on it.”

While Lavi felt understood and free to improvise at Wrecking Bar, he still felt a calling to start his own enterprise. He says he’s just not a chef that’s meant to cook someone else’s food. Again, Karen provided a source of clarity and encouragement. “People will get it,” Lavi recalls her telling him, “Sometimes when you talk, you sound ridiculous, but it’s okay. Your plate talks. Talk through the plate.”

Starting his own catering company, Let’s Eat, allowed Lavi to connect back to what made him want to start cooking in the first place. “You don’t cook because you want to earn a lot of money,” he says. “You cook because you love it.”

Lavi’s grill setup

Lavi’s grill setup, featured above at a pool party, is not the kind you see at most backyard Atlanta barbecues. He commissioned a welder to build the custom rectangle grated grill to fit his height. It’s capable of getting intensely hot, which was one of Lavi’s specifications. Lavi transports this grill wherever he cooks, and estimates he can serve 500 guests an entire meal of salads, main courses, and dessert.

Lavi grills a variety of meats on thick metal skewers, but he’s a vegetable fanboy, and most of his meals are only 30 percent protein. His events often have tables overflowing with platters of colorful salads, vegetable plates, hummus, hefty cubes of feta drizzled with olive oil, pickles, and mountains of grilled pita. “That’s the kind of food I want to cook today,” Lavi says. “It’s the kind of food that makes you feel cozy. It’s not really heavy. I want you to experience a lot of stuff, so instead of composing one dish, I’m composing a table.”

An assortment of pickles, olives, and spreads at an event

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

Fruit and sweet bites to end the meal

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

Lavi seems well on his way to securing a place in Atlanta’s culinary community. In addition to his catering business, he was hired by chef Ryan Smith and the Giving Kitchen to cook a surprise dinner for the entire Staplehouse crew, which he says was a fantastic experience. “Ryan loves the food I do. I just made a bunch of stuff for them that I would cook for my family,” he says. “Getting reactions from the best restaurant in Georgia? They’re pretty awesome.” Lavi also appeared at the tasting tents at this year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, where he served slow-cooked lamb tucked into wedges of cloud-like pita bread.

One of Lavi’s dinners

Photo courtesy of Shay Lavi.

What comes next is his biggest move yet: Lavi recently acquired a restaurant space in downtown Atlanta on Hurt Plaza near Georgia State University. At the upcoming Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee, which he named after his grandmother, he plans to serve Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and Italian pastries. A variety of tiny sandwiches such as confit shrimp with avocado aioli, baguette sandwiches, egg dishes, and seasonal salads will round out the menu, alongside juices and coffee. The cafe is set to open in about three months. Lavi says he will still cater offices around the cafe and plans to host special themed events and private in-home dinner parties where fire, meat, and vegetables will be solidly the spotlight.

Update 8/9/18: This story initially reported the name of Lavi’s new restaurant as Cafe Roza, which was his original name for the cafe. Since publication, the name has officially been changed to Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee.

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Chef to Watch: Maricela Vega, a.k.a. Chicomecóatl, crafts beautiful, plant-based Mexican dishes

Maricela Vega Chicomecoatl
Maricela Vega her lighted “Tamales” sign at Creature Comforts brewery this past September.

Photograph by Rosalia Parra

When I first met Maricela Vega of Chicomecóatl, she was selling late-night tamales outside of MJQ during a Cholateca night (the best Latin dancing in Atlanta, by the way). Since then, trying to keep up with her on Instagram has been dizzying. “I’ve been in a sea of ideas. I feel like I’m navigating them now,” she told me. Vega’s food has since been cropping up all over—she’s hosted a tamale pop-up at the Creature Comforts brewery in Athens and she regularly serves creative, complex dishes at the Spindle in Old Fourth Ward that produce swoon-worthy Instagram photos. (One recent example: A bright purple sope that incorporated hibiscus, coriander sour cream, onion, and squash blossom.) With her pop-ups, Vega brings a unique perspective to cooking in Atlanta.

“I want to create food spaces where there is a deliciously beautiful, living interpretation of modern Mexican cuisine,” she says. Her recipes are inspired by the cuisine of her Mexican ancestors—traditions she hopes to keep alive—but most of her dishes are entirely plant-based. “I modernize my food by creating relationships with Atlanta-based growers,” she explains. “This allows room for constant creativity, and it intersects with my own roots: Southern agriculture with Mexican heritage.”

Huarache de whipped queso fresco, kale, watercress, pasilla beans, and butterkase cheese

Photograph by Sharif Hassan.

Although Vega was born in Orange County, California, she grew up in Dalton, Georgia. Her family originally came from a small village in Guanajuato, Mexico, where they were farmers. They moved to California in the 1980s—”when everything was bad in Mexico, a terrible time,” Vega says—and later bought a home in North Georgia. Vega went to college for two years at Georgia Southern University, studying international law, but after a criminal justice internship in Atlanta, she took a break from law and never bounced back.

Mole ice cream with hibiscus sauce and mole crumble from the 1st El Palador for Living Walls + Buford Highway project

Photograph by Rosalia Parra.

That break, however, propelled Vega to seek work as a chef, even though she had never worked professionally in a kitchen, only learning techniques from her mother. First, she cooked at now-closed Tierra restaurant, then at Midway Pub and Empire State South. Still interested in farming and justice, she made trips to Cuba and Mexico City to study their foodways and related politics.

During one trip to Mexico, she visited her uncle on the farm he’d recently taken over from her grandfather. “The house there was centered to look out at the mesa, and I went up to the rooftop and just sat,” Vega explains. “I just remember staring at [the mesa] and thinking, ‘What am I’m going to do [with my life]? What am I going to do?’ I’d already decided that I when I went home to Atlanta, I was going to quit my job. I was like, “F— it. I’m going to just [make tamales] and see where it takes me.”

Why tamales? “They’re nostalgic, and I cook based off diaspora,” Vega says, noting that when she was a child, her mother would make pork tamales with salsa verde and pozole every year for Vega’s birthday. “As a kid growing up assimilating to both American and Mexican culture in the South, I struggled to identify with who I was. But in the past five years, I’ve rediscovered a lost identity: my Mexican roots.” And she felt there was a real market in Atlanta for true Mexican cuisine.

She started selling tamales under the name, “Chicomecóatl.” (Besides the obvious “ATL” pun, the name is a tribute to the Aztec goddess of agriculture and maíz.) She became best known for her El Palador pop-up dinners, which were hosted in her home and featured a sit-down tasting menu of unique plant-based dishes. Think Mexican classics, such as mole, but formulated with entirely different ingredients, many sourced locally from farmer friends such as Grow Where You Are, Mayflor Farms, Mena’s Farm, and Community Farmers Markets. She’s also been known to incorporate foraged ingredients, such as the goldenrod she turned into a drink at one El Palador dinner. Over the past few months, she’s carved out more consistent places for fans to try her food, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Her first “regular” gig was at the Spindle, a biking apparel shop in Old Fourth Ward’s Studioplex that is fast becoming a testing ground for many new chefs. Vega currently serves an a la carte menu featuring three to four dishes there every other week.

A rice bowl with a 6 min egg, chickweed, pipian sauce, sweet potatoes, and dill

Photograph by Sharif Hassan.

Much like the Aztec goddess whose name she sports, Vega ultimately wants to provide for her community. “[My] intention is to provide people with access to nutritious food, and working with a like-minded community has allowed me to work toward that goal,” she says. Further down the road, Vega has big dreams for her self-described “social enterprise.” Rather than open her own restaurant, she hopes to open a neighborhood bodega that “houses an assortment of diverse goods created by people of color,” along with fresh produce from local farmers and, perhaps, freshly milled corn, a cornerstone of much of Latin American cooking.

“I want to keep producing food that is made the right way,” she says. “And then I want to create programs where we teach people how to cook and [grow food in a] garden. Ultimately, food accessibility is only going to come from within the community.”

Beyond catching her biweekly Spindle pop-ups, you can also try Vega’s food at LottaFrutta, where she’ll host a dinner dubbed “La Casita” one Sunday per month until the end of this fall. The $65 by-reservation-only dinner (you can sign-up by emailing Vega) features five courses and two non-alcoholic drinks such as horchata or agua frescas. (It’s also BYOB.) And her dizzying schedule never stops: Vega is also collaborating with MaituFoods this fall to produce vegan school meals for underprivileged pre-school students. At the end of the year, she plans to travel to Oaxaca, Baja California, and Mexico City to further her education on maíz, moles, and mezcal. And she plans to host a couple of mezcal and maíz dinners in the fall lay the groundwork for projects she’s planning in 2019.

The 10 Best Mexican Restaurants in Atlanta

Rreal Tacos
Pork trompo, fish, and adobo grilled chicken tacos from Rreal Tacos

Photograph by Josh Meister

The debate over which spots to include on our list of best Mexican restaurants was as hot as habaneros. Food writers are passionate by default and doubly so when rushing to the defense of their favorite lengua tacos or most prized tamales. So we laid a few ground rules to narrow the options: no Tex-Mex or hybrids of any sort (that doesn’t mean we don’t love you, Superica and Taqueria del Sol), no tacos-only joints, and no letting Buford Highway hog the entire spotlight (though it could).

Still, the list was tough to compile, and as much as we might delight in letting the debate rage for, oh, the rest of the year, we figured you’re getting hungry.

P.S. Though it’s a hike, we suggest you start with our No. 1 pick. It was the easiest consensus we reached; our lower-ranked selections, as you might guess, were hardly unanimous. 

Pork tamale, pork taco, and margarita la paloma

Photography by Mara Shalhoup

10. Mi Barrio
Before you start complaining about the bland guacamole or uninspired enchiladas, allow us to make the case for Mi Barrio. The food is not exceptional, but the dive-bar vibe and chill AF (but still friendly!) service is kind of amazing—especially on fast-gentrifying Memorial Drive. Stepping into this roadside shack is like stepping back in time to when this part of town had serious edge. (R.I.P, Lenny’s.) Plus, the chips are hot and fresh, the housemade salsa has adequate kick, the margaritas are enormous, and the pork tamales are honest-to-god good, with spicy hunks of meat nicely tempered by sweet masa. 571 Memorial Drive, 404-223-9279

9. Nuevo Laredo Cantina
One visit to Nuevo Laredo, and you know whether you’re in or out. Long waits (sometimes up to two hours on weekends), pre-mixed margaritas, huge plates of food, and a raucous atmosphere in a campy setting might not appeal to purists. But its legions of fans will defend it to the death. Try the signature brisket barbacoa, the divine Holy Tacos (filled with mashed potatoes, white cheese, onion, and cabbage), and the sloppy and oh-so-fun lobster tacos. 1495 Chattahoochee Avenue, 404-352-9009.

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8. Rreal Tacos
Former fine-dining chef Adrian Villarreal jumped into the crowded casual-fare arena with this fresh taqueria that pays homage to his Mexican roots. The tacos hit all the right notes, with impeccable ingredients (grilled fish, carnitas, beef barbacoa, al pastor seasoned with pineapple-smoked chiles) stuffed into three different kinds of tortillas. You also can’t go wrong with thoughtful sides like vegan guajillo bean soup and kale salad with chayote, or with the daily specials and housemade agua frescas. 100 Sixth Street, 404-458-5887

7. Taqueria Cuernavaca
The intoxicating smell of carnitas is the first thing that hits you as you walk through the door of this tiny supermarket with its hidden, makeshift taqueria in the back. In addition to a wide selection of tacos (breakfast ones, too), you’ll find tostadas heaped with a ceviche of sweet, plump shrimp; a bowl of chicken soup with thin but fragrant broth and a hunk of corn on the cob; and tender chicken tamales that almost always sell out. 5000-C Roswell Road, Sandy Springs, 404-236-0022

6. Tacos Linda Vista
You can order (delicious) tacos at Tacos Linda Vista, of course, but you don’t have to. Not in the mood for handmade tortillas stuffed with soft shredded cabeza or tender lengua? Well, there are platters of mole poblano over chicken and red enchiladas, a variety of soups such as caldo de res, Americanized dishes including excellent nachos and enormous breakfast burritos, and, for the vegetarians, flautas filled with beans instead of meat. This Roswell spot is the kind of place you can take anyone. 10495 Alpharetta Highway, Roswell, 678-352-0990

5. Mariscos El Veneno
Like a Mexican Red Lobster, only spicier and quirkier, this humble seafood restaurant has a cult following. You’ll often find large groups converging to devour giant platters of fried snapper; bowls of soups brimming with shrimp, crab, and mussels; and fat goblets heaped with seafood and avocado cocteles. Mariachi show up at regular intervals; the tumblers of micheladas contribute to the jollity; and people from various backgrounds blow a ton of cash on oysters on the half shell, fried shrimp, and stuffed crab claws. Beware of the house habanero salsa (the “venom” in the restaurant’s name) served with the complimentary marlin tostadas at the beginning of the meal—and don’t leave before buying some sweets from the ambulant churros man. 5082 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-986-9568

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4. El Rey del Taco
Whether you’re here for a quick lunch or a late-night taco run, you should stick around for a bit and enjoy the festive vibe at this Buford Highway mainstay, which is always decorated for whatever holiday of the season. El Rey del Taco, which means “the king of tacos,” lives up to its name with an exhaustive list of options, including chivo (goat), cabeza (beef cheek), and carnitas (slow-cooked pork). But there are tons of other options as well, from sizzled meats a la plancha to more than three dozen seafood dishes. Pro-tip: Ask for the handmade tortillas (“tortillas hecho a mano”); they cost a little extra, but they’re worth it. 5288 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-986-0032


3. Tacos la Villa
This might be the third best Mexican restaurant in the metro area, but it’s undeniably the home of the very best tacos. Tucked away next to a Japanese restaurant in a nondescript strip mall in Smyrna, this taqueria is always full of people who’ve been tipped off to those inimitable tacos, from spicy lamb to crumbled chorizo. The richness of each filling makes for a lovely counter to an acidic salsa or pickled carrots from the salsa bar. Flautas, tamales, nachos for the kids, and platters including daily specials round out the menu. But come on; you’re here for the tacos. 2415 Cobb Parkway, Smyrna, 770-951-0415

2. Taqueria San Pancho
The specialty at this Tucker taqueria is worth a cross-town drive during rush hour: tacos al vapor, a hard-to-find style of steamed taco. The steam seals the edges of the tortilla, resulting in a creation that looks a bit like a taco calzone. San Pancho’s fillings include everything from cow’s brains to beef cheek, but if you aren’t feeling adventurous, they serve many other dishes including a homemade, fried-hard shell taco, tortas, burritos, and Mexican breakfast. 4880 Lawrenceville Highway, Tucker, 770-493-9845


1. Taqueria La Oaxaquena
You can fight us on this if you insist, but you won’t change our minds that this is the best regional Mexican restaurant in the metro area—which makes it the best, period. Oaxaca is considered the culinary capital of Mexico, and the Oaxacan specialty that chowhounds have raved about for years at this Jonesboro hotspot is the tlayuda: a large grilled tortilla covered pizzalike with refritos, string cheese, avocado, lettuce, and your choice of meat (pork sluiced in chile is tops). You’ll also discover some of the finest tacos in town; handmade corn tortillas are folded around delicacies such as stewed beef cheeks, tripe, and pork al pastor. Chicken tamales, flavored either with mole or salsa verde, have a surprisingly delicate texture. Huaraches, the sandal-shaped boats of masa dough, are sublime loaded with rich goat meat. Our favorite recent discovery: a burrito stuffed with carnitas that blasts the palate in all the right ways. No matter what you order (and you should order it all), you can’t go wrong. 605 Mount Zion Road, Jonesboro, 770-960-3010

Anna Russ left a career in oncology research to start a holistic tea company: Teaney

Teaney teas
A selection of Teaney products

Photograph courtesy of Anna Russ

For 20 years, Anna Russ worked in oncology clinical research that aimed to discover and test new drugs for cancer treatment. She traveled to more than 65 countries, where she was fascinated with how cultural influences and belief systems affected health outcomes. After examining thousands of patient charts, she says she felt almost disenchanted with the way diseases like cancer are approached around the world.

“We’re good at reacting to catastrophic disease,” she says. “But the current medical system isn’t designed for prevention. It’s not designed to mitigate risk; it’s designed to react to it.” That notion set Russ on a path of curiosity to explore other modalities such as Eastern philosophies that embrace a holistic system. It also led her to discover Ayurveda, a type of Eastern medicine that focuses on a holistic approach to health and disease prevention primarily using nutrition and lifestyle therapies rather than the “reductionist science” of reducing unknown variables for optimum health and wellness. She finally decided to leave her corporate role to start Anna Apotheca, a company that offers training and certification in Ayurvedic medicine, as well a product line of teas.

“I tell people I’m still in biotech; I just use whole plants now,” she says. “I use all the same protocol, all the same tools I gained in all of those years [as a researcher], but instead I’m using food and whole plants. I’m using what your belief systems are, where are they out of balance, all of those different end-points to try and regain or optimize health.”

Teaney’s matcha

Photograph courtesy of Anna Russ

Russ was inspired to develop her tea line, Teaney, after an aunt’s ALS diagnosis devastated her family. “When I get stressed out, I can’t sleep. And when I don’t sleep, I’m a nightmare,” she explains. “I found myself really overwhelmed [after my aunt’s diagnosis] and felt helpless with what my family was going through. I knew exactly which herbs I needed to make a tea that would help me sleep and quiet my mind. But I was so overwhelmed that all I wanted to do was pour a glass of wine and go to bed.”

But that exhaustion drove her to apply her years of scientific process to figure out how she could make tea better and easy to make, while also ensuring that she was getting the right dosage of the herbs. She saw a problem in the way tea is often manufactured—even though a bag may say it contains 150 milligrams of chamomile, the drinker doesn’t know much they’re actually extracting when they steep the tea bag in hot water, she says. It’s too variable.

“A lot of the chemical constituents that are relaxing and calming often are lipophilic (meaning they want to attach to a fat and not water). Putting it in water isn’t always the best medium,” she says. “It’s actually repelled, so you’re not getting everything the plant has to offer you.”

Turmeric Golden Milk latte

Photograph courtesy of Anna Russ

Russ had two problems to solve in creating a better tea: One was that to make the vitamins, minerals, herbs most effective, they needed a fat or an emulsifier. The other was that dry tea leaves oxidize so quickly that their flavor diminishes day by day. She found her answer to both issues in a common household ingredient: honey, which acted as both an emulsifier and a preservative. Russ takes her honey seriously—she only uses local honey and requires a material safety and data sheet as well as a certificate of analysis from her vendors. Honey is so important to Teaney that’s it’s the root of the brand name: Russ combined “tea” and “honey” to arrive at “Teaney.” (No relation to electronic music star Moby’s now-shuttered NYC teahouse TeaNY.)

Russ wanted to make sure Teaney ticked all of the boxes of a great tea. She wanted it to smell great, be shelf-stable, and simple for anyone to make. For her Turmeric Golden Milk latte blend, for example, she found that by combining honey with finely ground tea leaves, ground coconut, and other herbs and flavors such as ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and turmeric, she could extract everything the plants had to offer and pass those benefits on to the drinker by mixing the tea with a steamed, plant-based milk such as soy or almond. None of the Teaney teas require bags or steeping—the drinker simply mixes the tea directly into a type of milk or into hot water.

“It’s all plants; it’s all natural. I can formulate the teas to know exactly how much ashwagandha you’re getting, exactly how much passion flower, everything,” she says.

Teaney
Teaney’s dark cacao reishi

Photograph courtesy of Anna Russ

Teaney has already amassed an Atlanta fanbase. Local health guru Jen West now serves it at her health-focused Cafe West Express in Buckhead, and Atlanta Food & Wine Festival founder Dominique Love is also a big supporter. “[When I was diagnosed with cancer twice in 2014,] Anna was by my side from the get-go, providing Ayurvedic treatments to help my body heal and get through a lot of painful moments,” says Love. “Her teas were life-changing, especially one tea that helped me with sleeping, something that has evaded me for years. I got my office hooked, too. Being in the food and beverage event industry, my team often burns the candle at both ends. But Anna’s teas have been essential to keeping us on track, energizing us when we hit a wall and soothing stressful times.”

I had the chance to taste Teaney recently at Brash Coffee in the form of a soy latte made with the Turmeric Golden Milk, and I was honestly wowed. The vibrant orange-yellow tea (the color comes from the turmeric root) sung with ginger and, although it has no caffeine, I found myself feeling energized. I’ve since tried her matcha, which achieves that creamy and unctuous umami perfection that discerning tea lovers will appreciate. It isn’t watery, but creamy thanks to Russ’s methodology. For me, the flavor alone was enough to make me a fan. If there are health benefits, even better.

Teaney is available on its website and at Brash Coffee and Café West. Russ will also make an appearance at the Southern Marketplace within the tasting tents at this year’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival

Heirloom Market BBQ reopens after a fire destroyed its smokehouse

Heirlom Market BBQ reopens fire
The Korean pork sandwich

Photograph courtesy of Heirloom Market BBQ

This past Friday night (which just happened to be the 13th) Heirloom Market BBQ’s smokers caught fire, causing the popular barbecue spot to temporarily close.

“Thank goodness for the Cobb County Fire Department,” says Cody Taylor, who owns the Korean-inspired barbecue spot with his wife Jiyeon Lee. “They did a helluva job. They got the phone call at 10:45 p.m. and they had the fire down by 11:20 p.m. It was a big fire but it was contained.”

But although there was no damage to the kitchen or restaurant itself, the smokers were completely destroyed. “Everything looks normal until you go around and see the smokers,” Taylor says. He explains they are waiting for the county to investigate the cause of the fire and and waiting on insurance to decide if they will repair or replace the smokers, which he orders from Texas.

This isn’t the first time a fire has closed down Heirloom Market BBQ. Just two weeks after opening in 2010, a fire behind the fence in the neighboring apartment complex took out their entire walk-in cooler, forcing them to close. “That was a lot cheaper of a fire,” says Taylor.

The Korean Fried Chicken at Heirloom Market BBQ.

Photograph courtesy of Heirloom Market BBQ.

Heirloom will reopen at 11 a.m. Wednesday with a limited menu they’ve cheekily titled “Up in Smoke.” The menu will have many of their most popular dishes, although a little less smoked meat. Taylor will be using his trailer to cook other cuts, such as the beef tri-tip for sandwiches or platters, which cooks more quickly than brisket. Taylor told me big smoker items such as brisket and ribs will have to be on hold for now. “I couldn’t even cook enough brisket on the trailer to keep up. It would be gone in an hour and a half,” he says. However, look for other fan favorites such as the spicy Korean pork sandwich with kimchi pickles and kimchi slaw or one of the many tacos Taylor plans to offer in the coming weeks. Since the kitchen is fully operational, Taylor also plans to offer his Korean fried chicken. He normally offers 32 orders of the fried chicken, but will be doubling it to 64 to make up for the smokers being down. The chicken, which is $14, is marinated in gochujang (Korean chili pepper paste) for 32 hours before being battered and fried twice. It’s served with a sweet and spicy sauce, kimchi pickles, and cucumber radish banchan. Get there early because it is bound to run out. 2243 Akers Mill Road Southeast, 770-612-2502

The “Up in smoke” menu

Photo courtesy of Heirloom Market BBQ.

Big Daddy’s Taco serves up fun Indian-Mexican fusion tacos in Chamblee

The exterior of Big Daddy’s Taco

Photograph by Jennifer Zyman.

A lot of people take food way too seriously, and, I admit, I can be one of those people too. But I also think food can and should be fun, even if it is a total departure from the whatever people who use the word “authentic” think it should be. You won’t find “authentic” tacos at Big Daddy’s Taco in Chamblee, but this little spot is pure fun. Owners Jay Patel and Nazmul Hossain met as students at Georgia State University and have been good friends ever since. The pair opened the restaurant in January in a nondescript building on Chamblee Dunwoody Road, just across from Chamblee Charter High School.

An assortment of fusion tacos and sides at Big Daddy Taco

Photo courtesy of Big Daddy's Taco.

The premise of the restaurant is self-described as fusion, but these flavor combinations are not found in your average tacos. Think of your favorite flour or corn tortillas stuffed with chicken tikka masala or chana masala (Indian stewed chickpeas). Since the owners’ families hail from Bangladesh and India, many of the fillings and sides are inspired by their countries. However, the menu spans the globe, with fillings from other places like Middle Eastern falafel or the very American Buffalo chicken tacos. As a Mexican, I take my tortillas seriously and really hate it when they arrive cold, under-steamed, or over-steamed to the point that they fall apart. The tortillas I’ve had here, however, have been heated until they are just pliable enough for rolling, yet still sturdy.

I was initially surprised how well the Indian and Middle Eastern flavors worked with the traditionally Mexican wraps. But, when I thought about it, Mexican and the Middle Eastern, Indian, and Bangladeshi cuisines share many common ingredients—stewed lamb, grilled meats, cilantro, an abundance of cucumbers, etc. So, when I bit into a tender lamb taco topped with cucumber wedges and a yogurt sauce inside of a corn tortilla, it somehow all made sense. I also liked how the sides like Mexican rice were bright red with tomato, but also extremely buttery and reminiscent of Persian rice.

Uno and tacos are always a great combination.

Photo courtesy of Big Daddy's Taco.

The guys named the restaurant “Big Daddy’s Taco” because they both had the nickname in college and they thought it was funny, easy way to remember the restaurant. And “fun” seems to be a big part of the equation here. There’s a table full of board games, where I saw many families taking advantage of the free entertainment (one in particular was engaged in a heated game of Jenga). Although the interior is pretty sparse, it works for the casual set-up where you order at the counter, pay, and sit. The price point is super affordable with most tacos coming in between $2.50 and $4.25. There are also daily specials and combos, making this a pretty sweet place to eat some filling tacos without breaking the bank. 3665 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, Chamblee, 770-558-3117

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