60 Voices: Eddie Hernandez and Maricela Vega on the state of restaurants

"I think overall, everyone was forced to take a step back and truly check in on themselves."

Maricela Vega
Maricela Vega

Photograph by Alex Martinez

In April, Maricela Vega left her job as executive chef at 8Arm—the hip, subversive restaurant on Ponce where her acclaimed cooking was informed by her Mexican heritage and her commitment to local foods and social justice. She is not, however, leaving the Atlanta culinary scene: Vega will focus on Chicomecóatl, the “social enterprise” and food pop-up with which she initially made a name for herself.

Eddie Hernandez

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Taqueria del Sol—the beloved chain founded by Eddie Hernandez and business partner Mike Klank—celebrated 20 years in business in 2020. A James Beard Award nominee, former drummer, and native of Monterrey, Mexico, Hernandez is known for putting a Southern spin on Mexican favorites and, in 2018, published his first cookbook: Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen.

EH: I moved to Atlanta at the end of ’87. The Connector in the downtown area was under construction.  [laughs] It was different than what I came from—I was in Texas. The things that were available in Texas were not available in Atlanta. So when you talk about making Mexican cuisine, it was pretty difficult because of the lack of ingredients. You had to be resourceful and try to find what you could, the best way you could. It was mainly fine dining—nobody wanted to come to the middle. I thought Atlanta was lacking a restaurant scene that was affordable, creative, and bringing something different to the table. It was either Southern all the way—fried chicken, greens and cornbread—or fine dining.

MV: I was raised in Dalton. We only had a couple of tienditas that offered the ingredients that my parents were accustomed to. It’s really an interesting thing to consider about how much has changed—now you can go and get tomatillos and Topo Chico and, you know, everything anywhere. I got here in 2007, 2008. After I had worked under several chefs, I started branching out on my own in 2015. That’s really where I developed my cuisine, which was very much plant-based. It was a lot of effort to really take off—like vegan tamales. People were looking at me weird. It’s really not weird!

EH: That reminds me of a story. In the 90s, I competed in the US Chefs Open. I had a couple of dishes that made the finals. One of them was a tamale made with turnip greens—my take on Southern cuisine. I said, Well, you know, hot tamales are very popular in the Delta and Louisiana. Nobody’s ever done a turnip green tamale, so I did one. It was a takeoff on a vegetarian thing because I used butter instead of lard to make the dough, so they would be totally vegetarian. My take on food is to give an option—I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just want to make things that, you know what they are, but give you an option.

MV: The cuisine that I started to bring out was nothing that was reinventing the wheel: The use of turnip greens reminds me of the use of quelites—wild amaranth greens—and just really returning to a lot of the herbivore kind of lifestyle of indigenous eating, making use of greens and calabazas and so forth. A lot of that was just sort of reintroducing that precolonial cuisine: Yeah, you guys have done that. But did you know that tamales have been in existence for over 10,000 years, and it can be a variety of landraces and it’s according to regionality, and there’s no real authentic cuisine—it’s just according to where you are? And that’s sort of the same thing that Chico[mecóatl] is: This is, in a way, regional cuisine. I am a Mexican woman that was raised in North Georgia and lives in Atlanta, so I’m adapting to what is available.

EH: When I heard about [the coronavirus], right away, we started talking about what we’re going to do. We developed a program to modify the entire restaurant into a to-go business if it came down to it. We had containers, we modified the front of the house, we modified how we handle customers. We never took an order over the phone for 20 years, but we set up an extra line specifically for to-gos. So when it was a mandate, we were ready to go. Our business went down, just like everybody else. But within three months we were back at 75 percent.

MV: We’d never done to-go orders. We never did any of that: Uber Eats, phone calls, whatever. Every day, I would get people that were like, I didn’t know you guys did to-go food. And I’m like, Yeah, we do to-go food now! We went through [laughs] pivot after pivot after pivot, and honestly, I look back at it, and I’m very proud of all the pivots we made. I mean, how are you to know, right? Like: “My first pandemic, I got this.”

EH: [laughs] What are you trying to say, that I’ve been through a bunch of them?

MV: I wish that there had been better guidance or something, because it really hurt us financially. Towards the end of it, as I was wrapping my head around everything in January, I was like: Wow. Now I remember why this doesn’t work. Like, you know, high-end dining doesn’t work. There’s so much profit loss, and the overhead—you can barely take care of yourself as a business owner. How can you take care of your staff? How can you do things properly? At some point, someone is feeling the loss of it. And it really sucks. It really sucks just to see a reminder of that, and that’s what I think that’s pandemic truly proved within our sector of the restaurant world.

We provide all these feelings for people like joy and aesthetic beauty and taste, and here we are: Millions of people are out of jobs. They don’t even have healthcare. Like some fucked-up shit, like everyone’s having to crowdfund for each other because they can’t afford to pay rent, and the noncitizen people were denied assistance, and that’s who makes up the majority of our restaurant sector. I was just like, you guys, this is fucking disgusting. It definitely caused me to be like, Yeah, I don’t want to do this. I don’t know if I’ll ever own a restaurant. I’ll have the stuff that I do—my products, my vision—but definitely right now I’m feeling really like, ugh, I just can’t do that.

EH: Mike and I, we focused on the things that we had to do to survive. Whether we went for one year, two years, or three months, or 30 days—it didn’t matter to us. We needed to be ready to survive. I’m not saying that, just because somebody had to close a restaurant, it’s because of poor planning. No—their situation is different than mine. Everybody else’s situation is not the same as yours. You can only worry about what you’re going to be facing rather than what everybody else is going to be facing. It can sound egotistic that I’ve got to take care of myself, but I’m not taking care of myself—I’m taking care of 100 employees. So I have to think about what’s going to happen to my employees, to my business, to myself.

MV: I think overall, everyone was forced to take a step back and truly check in on themselves and, you know, that allowed time to evaluate the state of everything. People are going to start asking for more and recognizing their skill set. Lately, I’ve curated a whole group of people [in pop-up dinners at 8ARM] that are really special chefs in the city. A lot of them are people of color. Some folks might have the opportunity to be, I guess, an executive chef. Maybe some won’t. But pop-ups are not long term. It’s just like a way to be like, Hey, I’m here. Check me out. This is what I’m doing. I think that that’s going to be happening more as people start to go ahead and take equity into their own hands—like, Hey, this is my food. This is who I’m representing. You have Vietnamese folks, Laotians, someone from Bangkok. Bangladeshi food, Venezuelan food—everybody is going to find a way to really showcase who they are, and bring their own story to the light.

EH: Atlanta, there’s a wide variety of food from all parts of the world that is affordable now. I think that’s the biggest change that I’ve seen from the early 90s into the 2020s. I don’t want to be asked again, like I was asked one time by a lady from a magazine out of LA, what does Atlanta aspire to be—like Chicago, LA, or New York? I said, we don’t aspire to be like anybody else. Atlanta is its own city with its own food and with its own tastes. We don’t go to New York to have biscuits because we can get them here. We don’t need to go to LA to have a freaking salad just because they put pine nuts on it. We can have that here. We don’t have to go to Chicago to have a steak. We’ve got everything everybody else has got.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.