Love comes and goes, but Jalisco’s hard-shell tacos are forever

If Max and I break up, this place will stay neutral territory.

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The 50 Best TacosAfter the dissolution of a relationship, the most lasting loss for me—more than the inside jokes, the books I’ll never get back, and, usually, the actual person—is that of a favorite restaurant we frequented. I’ve lived around Atlanta for most of my life, and in that time, people I’ve split from (or the cringe-inducing memories of them) have won custody of a growing number of places special to me. There’s the East Atlanta sushi spot I abandoned after ending my first relationship there; the Edgewood Avenue bar where a former friend can always be found; the Decatur pub where a particularly noxious fling worked. Parts of my city subconsciously disappear this way, a map quietly marked with red Xs. But the restaurant that I’m most afraid of surrendering to a big red X is a Mexican joint in a Buckhead strip mall that happens to serve, in my opinion, intown’s best hard-shell tacos.

Jalisco does not make the most inspired Mexican food, but it has brought south-of-the-border joy to the American masses since 1978, when Guadalajara immigrant Guillermo Coronado opened the restaurant with his family. (They continue to run it today.) The menu has changed little in its four decades, still offering both tamales and hamburgers, served on plates too hot to touch, and providing descriptions of rare Mexican dishes such as “nachos (Nah-chohs).” But if you know what’s up, you’ve come for the hard-shell tacos (“Tah-kohs”). They are perfect, like the Emoji taco. Aromatic ground beef, tender pulled chicken, or a comforting mud of refried beans softens shards of crackling tortilla, freshly fried each day and topped with iceberg lettuce and shredded white cheese. (As one recent Yelp reviewer wrote of Jalisco: “You either get it or you don’t.”)

Jalisco is charming, affordable, and unpretentious; in the couple of years that I’ve been with my boyfriend, Max, it has become our favorite restaurant. We make the trip up to Buckhead about once a month, never suggesting to bring friends along for fear they might not understand Jalisco’s humble glory (or worse, claim it for themselves). As our lives—routines, families, Amazon Prime accounts—merge like a slow-motion car crash, the stakes of breaking up rise, too. Historically, I have found long-term relationships dubious: That two people will continue to enjoy hanging out with each other forever, surviving decades of moves, neuroses over the right way to load the dishwasher, boredom, and change, seems like a fantasy. Upon our eventual uncoupling, there are arguments on both sides for who should retain guardianship of Jalisco. Max started going there first, but I’ve got the nostalgia factor: It’s the type of restaurant I grew up around, whose spicy dishes and infinitely customizable options were friendly to my vegetarian Indian immigrant family. But the unfortunate reality is that Jalisco is our place; it would never feel right to go without him.

The writer and her boyfriend share what’s sure to be one of many more meals at Jalisco.
The writer and her boyfriend share what’s sure to be one of many more meals at Jalisco.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Jalisco is particularly valuable because hard-shell tacos are a rarity intown, outside of chains. Soft tacos are king, and those crispy, golden shells get a bad rap, rejected for their perceived inauthenticity and association with grade-school cafeterias (or a certain fast-food conglomerate that wants us to “Live Más”). But hard tacos were some of the first types to enter the U.S. from Mexico, descended from fried tacos dorados, sometimes rolled into taquitos or made with potatoes and eaten during Lent, according to food journalist Gustavo Arellano. The hard-shell taco’s typical ingredients—cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, ground beef—reflect the ingenuity of Mexican Americans, who adapted traditional recipes with what was available to them.

Jalisco’s dependably fast service and delicious hard-shells have cultivated a loyal following. Over the decades, its customers—many Westminster and North Atlanta High families (and some who misname the restaurant “Jalisco’s,” as if it were the owner’s name, rather than the Mexican state)—have brought small gold and silver plaques to the restaurant. The staff mounts the plaques, bearing customers’ names or those of their loved ones, alongside the booths, where you can read inscriptions honoring birthdays—“Happy 26th Agie . . . We’ve been coming here since you came to us”—anniversaries (“Chelsea & Wesley, Love at first salsa”), graduations, and even departed loved ones: “JIMI . . . 3 HARD TACOS, BEEF, CHEESE, NO LECHUGA, 1998–2017.”

I sit at the booths to read the plaques every time I visit Jalisco, eager to see familiar missives (“RAISED ON JALISCO’S . . . GO DAWGS”) and find new ones. They are silly and sweet dedications to love and loss, a carved heart in a tree, frozen in time even as the surrounding neighborhood and city have transformed. They remind me that some things do last. Even if it’s just a love of Jalisco’s hard tacos.

Despite my misgivings about long-term relationships, I try my best to make peace with their fragility, the inevitable accumulation of invisible Xs on my emotional map. I watch the car crash unfold from the driver’s seat, unwilling to change course. But this time, for Jalisco’s tacos and for a particularly good relationship, I resolve to try something different: If Max and I break up, Jalisco will stay neutral territory, a place where we’ll meet from time to time to chat and enjoy a delicious remnant from a bygone era, a small refuge of permanence in a life of constant chaos. Who knows? Maybe we’ll add our own plaque someday.

This article appears in our March 2020 issue.

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