In 2022, when he and his business partners opened the Mexican restaurant El Valle in Midtown, Luis Damian was clear on what he didn’t want for the space: “I didn’t want to open another tequila bar with a theme of sombreros, skeletons, and mariachi that Americans think of when they picture Mexico.” A native of the city of Puebla, Damian had cooked for more than two decades in restaurants around the American South—most recently at Escorpión, which El Valle replaced on the corner of Peachtree and 5th.
“When I eat at restaurants in Mexico City, I see tastefully designed interiors with refined dining and great service,” Damian says. “My goal was to create a simple menu and educate guests about our food.” El Valle’s dining room is painted in neutral tones, with muted Mexican art hanging on the walls. Its menu features delicately flavored, artfully presented dishes like short ribs with black garlic mole; grilled octopus with pipián, a sauce made from pumpkin seeds and dried chilis; and scallop crudo in aguachile.
Damian even took a leap of faith and ordered 600 bottles of rarely seen Mexican wines from regions like Valle de Guadalupe, not entirely confident he’d be able to sell them. When the wines sold out within two months, it was a testament to El Valle’s early popularity—and to the evolving role of Mexican cuisine in the Atlanta area. The restaurant is just one of a crop of upscale Mexican spots that have popped up around the city in the last couple of years. On the Westside, Palo Santo serves wood-fired fare and chic vibes; Carmel, in Buckhead, offers elegant interiors and a seafood-forward menu from Acapulco native Luis Guevara Salgado; and Decatur’s Tortuga y Chango, from the folks behind El Tesoro, pours a lovingly curated selection of mezcals. In Chamblee, meanwhile, El Valle’s success inspired Damian and his partners to open another Mexican place earlier this year: Oaxaca, serving regionally focused dishes like tlayudas and squash blossom quesadillas.
This new wave is changing Atlanta’s perception of Mexican food. For a long time in the U.S., the cuisine has been seen as casual, even downscale: tacos and heaps of rice, beans, and cheese, served in colorful dining rooms accompanied by pint-sized margaritas. But that can be a far cry from the top-quality ingredients and discerning service you’ll find in the fancy restaurants of Mexico City, Baja, Puebla, or Monterrey. Travel, social media, cookbooks, and streaming shows are increasing awareness of Mexican cuisine and culture outside of that country’s borders. So are celebrity chefs like Daniela Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera, whose Mexico City restaurant Pujol was ranked one of the best in the world. American restaurants are catching on; Damian says he was inspired to open El Valle by a visit to Olvera’s Manhattan destination, Cosme, where he tasted corn meringue mousse, pastor-marinated cobia, citrusy duck carnitas, and handmade masa tortillas.
At Palo Santo, chef Santiago Gomez struggles against the expectation that Mexican food should be cheap and plentiful. In addition to sourcing produce locally and importing artisanal ingredients, he grinds his own flour to make tortillas, dehydrates fruits and flowers, and makes all sauces in-house. A fine dining veteran, Gomez blends indigenous ingredients with global cooking techniques, using heritage varietals of blue corn, chocolate, beans, and chilis to compose plates like duck carnitas with kimchi, Spanish rice with smoked scallops, and bone marrow with chipotle beurre blanc. “People who spend $300 for a Japanese omakase menu should also understand that we are importing the best-quality ingredients,” says Gomez, whose entrees range from $25 to $130 (for a 32-ounce dry-aged rib-eye).
Previously, stereotypes associated with Mexican food have dissuaded chefs and restaurateurs from taking these sorts of risks. Juan Fernando Henao is the vice president of La Parrilla Mexican Restaurants, a casual southeastern chain with recognizable offerings—fish tacos, carne asada, chiles rellenos, etc. But in 2018, when he opened Casi Cielo in Sandy Springs, diners were skeptical: The restaurant served 80 varieties of mezcal, upmarket cocktails rimmed with ingredients like powdered grasshoppers, and dishes that foregrounded complex Oaxacan flavors. “It took almost three years for us to establish,” Henao said, adding that the restaurant’s success was boosted by Mexican immigrants, business travelers, and consulate employees who helped spread the word. “It was the community that really facilitated this more than PR. When you create moles as good as your grandmother’s, you touch the hearts of people.”
Henao kept more approachable dishes on the menu, but slightly modified. Lunch bowls feature Oaxacan herbs and spices, and the fundido de queso contains three kinds of stone-ground chilis. Some diners still ask for free chips and salsa; Henao’s staff politely explains that they’re not available on most Oaxacan menus, just like some Italian restaurants offer bread and olive oil, and some don’t.
“People are hungry for authenticity, but our job as chefs and servers is to educate our audiences about the diversity of Mexican cuisine,” Damian says. “When Starbucks first started, people didn’t know what was an Americano or a Frappuccino, and now the whole world is drinking them.” With small plates, sophisticated flavors, and chic decor, he and other Mexican chefs in Atlanta are collectively moving the needle. “We are taking our own path and giving our own interpretation with the aim of highlighting Mexican cuisine and art,” Damian says.
This article appears in our September 2023 issue.