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.
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.
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
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