Try to snag a basket of chips at the slammed cantina down the street on a Friday night, and it’s obvious that Atlanta has the hots for Mexican cooking. In fact, our love for tacos spans decades. While old-timers say a few rudimentary establishments popped up in the ‘60s to feed hungry Latino work crews, a gringo-friendly version of the cuisine probably reached us around 1974. That’s when the first Monterrey Mexican Restaurant opened its doors in Doraville, paving the way for a seventy-two-location empire that straddles ten different states and counting. In the years that followed, smaller family-owned eateries thrived in Atlanta as the
tequila Mexican food craze swept America.
But to beloved local cocinero Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol, too many local restaurants contribute to a prevailing misconception of Mexican fare as greasy, mystery-meat-stuffed calorie bombs with a side of rice and beans—dishes that are nowhere to be found in Mexico. He has curated a few of his favorite recipes for the masses and given us a fresh take on Mexican cuisine. And guess what: All of it is healthy.
Before we start, could you clarify what Mexican food is—and what it isn’t?
The biggest misconception is that we eat a lot of rice and refried beans, because in Mexico we eat a lot of vegetables and even pastas. The Mayans didn’t know anything about pasta. Our food has been evolving. First we had the Spanish, who brought us the spices. And then we had the French, who taught us about sauce and helped us improve it using new techniques. We learned how and why to use wine, heavy cream, and good butter. When [invaders] came to our country, we wanted to learn as much as we could before we’d get killed!
You’ve mentioned that the food transforms from region to region.
Yes. In the north it’s really heavy in meats. When you go towards the center, it starts to change. You see all of these wonderful salsas. Then you go to the south, and they use a wide variety of freshly ground spices to make sauces. There’s a lot of seafood in one part of the country and meat in another; it’s very diverse.
How is the cuisine evolving right now in Mexico?
In Mexico City, they actually went back to the old way of cooking. [Chefs] are using modern, trendy equipment to prepare the same traditional dishes. They’ve started pickling pork skin and making tostadas with it. But they’re cooking many things in clay pots rather than really expensive copper pots. It’s 1900s cooking, and they use the old techniques rather than trying to elevate the cuisine. But there are some chefs that are trying very hard to elevate it, too. They’re wiping out the misconception that Mexicans only eat ground beef and tortillas.
Does Mexican food vary across the American South like it does in Mexico?
Of course! I love the tamales they sell at food trucks in Louisiana. And half of those people have never even been to Mexico. In Mississippi, you won’t see a Southern, independently owned Mexican restaurant to save your life. But when you get to Birmingham, Alabama, you start seeing the Tex-Mex “Southern style”—where sauces for the enchiladas are just a water-based sauce with spices. Personally, I modify things left and right to make sure that my customers get the idea of what I’m selling, and that they actually like what they’re eating.
How authentic are our Mexican restaurants in Atlanta?
I know everybody who owns a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta. But there’s part of the problem with “Mexican food” here—that people who own the Mexican restaurants are looking for money. You won’t find anything that they sell in Mexico. Here, everything revolves around the enchilada, the taco, the burrito, and the tostada. A chile relleno in a Mexican restaurant here is a piece of bell pepper that’s topped with a little ball of Mexican ground beef, coated with cheese and deep fried. It’s one of the most unhealthy foods I’ve ever seen in my life!
So how do you do things differently?
A taco to me is like an entree. It has to have a balance. It’s got to have its protein, the starch, the veggies, all on a six-inch flour tortilla. So when you bite into it, you get a nice bite of different flavors and textures. And it’s also good for you. Another thing is that I try not to use shortcuts. I buy my produce [almost] daily. In my pantry, the only two things that come in a can are creamed corn—because I can make it, but I don’t think I can make it any better than it comes from the can and it takes me a lot of work—and whole tomatoes that [Taqueria del Sol] uses for the beef red chile.
Do you have any tips for home cooks?
The most important thing in a house kitchen is a spice rack. If you have a great variety of spices, it’s limitless what you can do.
What’s your favorite local Mexican grocery store?
I like Super Mercado Jalisco on Buford Highway. It has everything you’d ever need. I like the variety and a lot of the fresh vegetables that they have. There are fourteen or fifteen different types of peppers. You can buy cactus already peeled and great Mexican chocolate— it really minimizes the amount of work that you have to do.