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Juan Vidal

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At Supremo Taco, I found Mexico City in a Memorial Drive parking lot

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The 50 Best TacosWhat brought me to Mexico City was work, a shoot for some television commercials I had written for a candy brand. What made me love it instantly was that I could eat my weight in carnitas and chicharrón and feel no regret.

Here’s the thing: I generally eat a lot. When I go out for a meal alone, I order enough food for three people out of fear that I might leave the restaurant unsatisfied. When I’m traveling outside the U.S., I order even more, straddling the line between indulging and what might be considered self-punishment.

One rainy afternoon after leaving El Péndulo, a bookstore and cafe in Zona Rosa with plants protruding from shelves and luchador-themed salt and pepper shakers, I was famished. I had stopped there to pick up a Spanish-language copy of my favorite novel, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (Los Detectives Salvajes). I was reading on the steps—wanting to feel closer to the novel’s colorful cast of Mexican rebel poets who steal books, drink like mad, and have a taste for cigarettes and expensive food—until my stomach began to growl. From there, I met up with a small group of friends and locals who asked where I wanted to eat. See, by the third day of the trip, they had caught onto my reputation as someone with an animalistic appetite. Mexico City is an ideal place for those with such appetites. It is a sprawling food paradise with endless street vendors cooking up tamales and elote on open-air griddles, a place where even the humble eateries can put a five-star restaurant to shame.

We found a spot on a terrace overlooking the Monumento a la Revolución. Soon, the waiters were bringing out trays brimming with beef tongue, grilled bone marrow with corn and chili mayo, short rib, and cochinita pibil. Then, there were the tacos, and the tacos were the whole point. Duck, fish, and guisado. When it came time to consider dessert, I ordered two lengua tacos instead, hoping that, by the time they arrived at our table, I’d be hungry again.

My borderline gluttony is not mindless. I’m not about consumption for consumption’s sake. What I desire more than anything is for chefs or cooks to expand my palate with the story of where they come from and why it matters.

Supremo's menu

When I got back home to Atlanta, I wanted to eat something that would take me back to Mexico City. I wanted tacos, and a lot of them. Then, I remembered all the good things I’d heard about Supremo, the new taco joint on Memorial Drive in Grant Park. I figured it bodes well that Supremo shares an owner with two of the most adventurous restaurants in town, Octopus Bar and 8Arm. The place is tiny, a sliver of building with a take-out window and a standing-only patio. But that bare-bones approach does not extend to its tacos, which are as bold and delicious as the food served at Supremo’s sister restaurants—and as those tacos in Mexico City. From the first bite of my carne asada taco, I was transported. The fresh, chargrilled flavor and salsa al albañil—made from broiled tomatillos, avocados, onions, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeños—took me back to Zona Rosa with my book, talking with new friends and tracing the steps of Bolaño’s wayward misfits.

The team behind Supremo has more in common than not with those misfits: Consider that Octopus Bar serves dinner only between 10:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. and that its menu includes no typical late-night grub like quesadillas and fries but inspired and nonconformist stuff like wasabi greens with maraschino vinaigrette and a goulash of osso bucco and beef rib. The tacos at Supremo aren’t as quirky as those dishes. They are traditional tacos, but their flavor is magically, exponentially ramped up. The al pastor, properly made with pork marinated with guajillo and citrus that’s then slow-roasted on a vertical rotating spit, is generously dressed with grilled pineapple and salsa fresca. Spicy lamb barbacoa, the meat swaddled in banana leaves and braised for five hours, is the best I’ve had in any city. The chicken mole poblano is creamy and decadent, the seared and braised dark meat topped with dense and mysterious mole and a zigzag of crema.

Lamb barbacoa taco, al pastor taco, and shrimp aguachile tostada
Clockwise from top: lamb barbacoa taco, al pastor taco, and shrimp aguachile tostada

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“That mole taco is the most intense dish I’ve ever made,” says Supremo chef Duane Kulers, who previously spent more than four years as chef at Octopus Bar. Notoriously time consuming, mole such as this requires 30 or so ingredients—and each batch of sauce gets better, with the flavors becoming more deeply compounded, when you add a bit from the previous batch (a dose of the “mother,” so to speak). Kulers’s current batch of mole has a lineage of about 14 months.

Similarly, he takes braising liquid from the finished barbacoa and adds a bit to start the next batch of barbacoa marinade, making the resulting meat “deeper and more characteristic.”

I wanted to showcase what I grew up with, a little part of some place in California that has a breezy deck on a busy strip, an eclectic mix of people, and good fucking tacos.

The housemade tortillas have a distinctive flavor and look, due to the three varieties of masa Supremo gets from a California distributor that sources organic white, yellow, and blue corn from Mexico. If you’ve been to Supremo, or follow them on Instagram, you’ve probably noticed their tricolor tortillas. The swirl of blue brings an earthiness, the white contributes a smooth and creamy texture, and the yellow lends a robust corn flavor. Staff member Reina Maribel mixes, rolls, presses, and cooks between 400 and 500 tortillas daily, five days a week.

As Le and Kulers will tell you (if it’s not already obvious from Kulers’s cooking), these are tacos with roots in Southern California. Both men grew up there. Le lived in L.A.’s Koreatown and Echo Park, where he was introduced to Mexican street food. “I remember getting elote, chicharrónes, and fresh fruit from vendors pushing around shopping carts, but my favorite was always the tacos,” says Le, who is Vietnamese. “I never realized how much I loved and missed them until I moved to Atlanta.”

Chef Duane Kulers adds a finishing touch of salsa verde to a taco
Chef Duane Kulers (left) adds a finishing touch of salsa verde to a taco.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

“Mexican food is so prevalent in California—the little stands on the streets, the people selling tamales off the side of the highway. It was the first cuisine I was introduced to, outside of my parents’ cooking,” says Kulers, whose mother is Filipino and father, a chef himself, is Italian.

Kulers moved to Atlanta about a decade ago and, a few years back, noticed a minuscule, oddly shaped building alongside an abandoned parking lot on a then desolate stretch of Memorial Drive. He snapped a photo of it and texted it to Le, saying that, if it ever came available, they should snag it. It would be the perfect taco stand.

Le was able to snag it eventually, after Grindhouse Killer Burgers opened its sixth location in the long-shuttered dive bar attached to that parking lot. “I knew what I wanted to do,” Le says. “I wanted to showcase what I grew up with, a little part of some place in California that has a breezy deck on a busy strip, an eclectic mix of people, and good fucking tacos.”

Part of the beauty of Supremo is how seamlessly it channels both Southern California and Mexico City from that Memorial Drive parking lot—and how it manages to satisfy a different kind of hunger.

People ordering at SupremoThere’s a passage in The Savage Detectives that I think about often:

“Drink up, boys, drink up and don’t worry, if we finish this bottle we’ll go down and buy another one. Of course, it won’t be the same as the one we’ve got now, but it’ll still be better than nothing. Ah, what a shame they don’t make Los Suicidas mezcal anymore, what a shame that time passes, don’t you think? What a shame that we die, and get old, and everything good goes galloping away from us.”

I think it’s true that, for the perpetually hungry, there is a fear of missing out. We understand that time goes galloping away from us. And we push back against that time by eating tacos and drinking and loving as if it might all come crashing down by morning.

Additional reporting by Mara Shalhoup

This article appears in our March 2020 issue.

Sorry mom, but Dominican food is island-inspired perfection

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Juan Vidal, seated before "one of life's great delights"
Juan Vidal, seated before “one of life’s great delights”

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Do not tell my mother this—she is my heart and a beast of a cook, and I owe her my whole life—but her food is my second-favorite escape from this gluten-free, no-high-fructose-corn-syrup world we now inhabit. As a Colombian-American, I have always remained steadfastly devoted not just to my mother’s style of cooking but to Colombian cuisine in general: blood sausage, caldo de costilla, and pandebonos con chocolate caliente. But see, I grew up in South Florida, which, in addition to having its fair share of Colombians and Colombian restaurants, boasts a vibrant Dominican population. Naturally, that means island-inspired flavors—a blend of Spanish, Taíno, and African influences—flow in abundance. And, reader, let me tell you something about Dominican food: It is perfect. It is one of life’s most consistent delights. Not a day goes by that I do not think longingly of my old friend Domingo’s mom’s massive pot of rice on the hot stove, of which the best part was always the crust of sticky pieces that formed at the bottom. Dominicans call it concón, or crispy rice. Puerto Ricans say “pegao,” and in Cuba everyone says “raspa.”

If you’re not entirely familiar with Dominican cooking but have a taste for sweet and salty perfection, from pan de coco and pastelitos to meat and rice dishes and cuchifrito (stew of pork innards), I recommend a trip to Sabor Dominicano (4186 Buford Highway, 404-963-1799) to experience it yourself. You’ll be greeted with Dominican flags, energetic Caribbean beats, and the glorious spectacles that are Spanish soap operas. Maybe throw on some Juan Luis Guerra and make a full day of it, yes?

Here’s what to order for lunch (or breakfast, brunch, or dinner). You might even find these on the buffet, which will set you back between $6 and $10.

Mangú con los tres golpes (top)
The Dominican breakfast of champions works any time of day. Mangú is made up of mashed plantains, fried eggs, queso frito (fried cheese), and salami, topped with tangy, pickled red onions. Though parts of the dish can be traced back to West Africa, its preparation is uniquely Dominican, equal parts hearty starch and fatty goodness.

Sancocho (middle)
A staple in many Caribbean and Latin American countries, sancocho is a traditional stew made with protein and vegetables. In the D.R., sancocho is often prepared as a seven-meat stew that includes beef, pork, chicken, and goat meat. Here, it is characteristically thick and flavorful (and only available Saturdays and Sundays). Be warned: A single order can feed a village.

Pollo Guisado (bottom)
This braised-chicken dish—studded with sauteed peppers, onions, garlic, celery, olives, red beans, and white rice—is a spicy, traditional island meal and an indispensable part of Dominican culture.

This article appears in our October 2019 issue.

My hunt for a taste of home in Atlanta: the perfect bandeja paisa

Bandeja Paisa
Las Delicias de la Abuela’s bandeja paisa

Photograph by Cori Carter

A couple years back, after I signed my first book contract, my wife and I decided we wanted to leave Miami for good. We longed for the change of seasons, and I felt it would only serve my writing to step into the unknown—especially since my book, a memoir about the intersection of fatherhood, race, and hip-hop culture, was so tied to home and the joy and pain that comes along with it. I needed to view “home” from a distance to better describe it.

With these things in mind, we made a running list of cities where we might see ourselves living. We cast our net pretty wide, including places we knew full well we would never move to but that were exciting to think about anyway. There was Los Angeles: beautiful but too far from our families. New York City: attractive for countless reasons but overwhelming and expensive with four children. Chicago: a glorious and booming metropolis whose arctic chill is perhaps too brutal for these Florida bones. On and on. After several weeks, we landed on Atlanta. It is relatively close to loved ones, it is affordable, and it seemed like the ideal mix of vibrant and outdoorsy.

When I thought of Atlanta, I thought of Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes (R.I.P.) torching the $2 million Alpharetta estate of her boyfriend, NFL wide receiver Andre Rison. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s, when Atlanta was at the heart of the civil rights movement. I also thought long and hard about barbecue, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie—and, knowing Atlanta to be a city shaped by its various cultures, about bibimbap, pupusas, and biryani. I was confident its culinary offerings would be as deep and fulfilling as its Southern hospitality.

It took almost a year of living here to discover—and I am aware of how unreasonable it is to ask this of any new place—a little taste of home. Soon after arriving, we experienced some truly great meals in Atlanta, from Korean to Salvadoran to some of the best Indian I have ever had. And Tacos La Villa in Smyrna without question serves the most flavorful lengua tacos anywhere. But it felt like something was missing in all this. Which is to say, what I craved most after leaving Miami was the perfect bandeja paisa—the national dish of my parents’ native Colombia—which is easy to find in restaurants all across the Sunshine State. For the uninitiated: Bandeja paisa is a hearty combination of protein and carbohydrates. A traditional platter consists of Colombian sausage, ground beef, rice, red beans, chicharrón (fried pork belly), an arepa, plantains, avocado, and a fried egg on top. It’s a lot, to be sure, which is why the dish is often referred to as “a heart attack on a plate.” But like many things that can kill you—Coca-Cola, French fries, birthday cake—it is also delicious. And for me, it is, above all, a dish that carries the flavors and feelings of home.

According to the 2010 census, metro Atlanta has the tenth largest Colombian immigrant and Colombian-American population in the country. Exceptional Colombian food can be found throughout the region, but the first couple of spots I tried left me wanting. Either the beans were too watery or the meat was dry. It was passable, at best. I have been eating bandeja paisa since I was a child, so I will always speak up when its goodness is challenged or when it is not executed properly. You might consider me a bandeja paisa evangelist, extolling its virtue from the proverbial rooftop. If there were a church of bandeja paisa, I would go to that church.

All it took was expressing my mild dissatisfaction to my neighbor Andres, a native Colombian who had been living in Atlanta for five years, to figure out where to go. His eyes beamed with delight as he told me about Las Delicias de la Abuela, a place on Buford Highway that according to him has the best Colombian food in the city, in any city. We made plans to go the next day for lunch. I was beyond eager to embrace some new vision of home, if only for the length of time it takes to consume a meal.

“Home is wherever you’re able to find it—if you look hard enough.”

The meaning of home is difficult to contextualize. Home can be synonymous with any number of things—love, loss, the memories of who we once were. The desire for home, if you have been away long enough, is a tightness that burns in your chest and hands. It can be crippling if you don’t tend to its demands, somehow. But in my time here I have learned that home is also a shifting destination. And that building a new one is a process of endless construction, of acquiring new memories and traditions, and finding fresh ways to stimulate the senses. Home is far more tangled and elusive than the invisible dotted lines that separate and divide us.

On my way to the restaurant the following afternoon, I received a message from Andres. Some personal matter had come up that required his attention, and he was unable to make lunch. But he implored me to continue with the plan, so that I could experience Abuela for myself and report back later.

As I walked through the door, I felt the sweet sting of familiarity. Live music blared; the place was all bloated with people and food and laughter. I ordered two beef empanadas and a Coke to start. I made small talk with the waiter, ceremoniously dipping my empanadas in ají picante, a Colombian dipping sauce. I told him briefly about my quest. He smiled and assured me that I had indeed come to the correct place.

He was right. And Andres was right: The bandeja paisa was everything he had promised it would be and much more. Every bite was like turning a page in a book, the story slowly revealing itself—the story of well-considered ingredients and how, when put together with love, they have the ability to transport you to someplace you’ve been before, like your mother’s or grandmother’s table. I sat there alone, feeling—in some small way—that I had crossed an important threshold.

Later, I found other joints in Atlanta that also do a bandeja paisa perfectly: La Casona and Casa Vieja, to name a few. It occurred to me that a familiar dish done well is not just a reminder of home. It is proof that home is wherever you’re able to find it—if you look hard enough.

This article appears in our July 2019 issue.

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