What 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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
There’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.