It goes without saying that I like food. My affinity for food has been both a blessing and a curse, but as I have told many people before, the love is not just about eating. The love stems from the pure art and incredible science that cooking can be. With each flavor pieced together, a chef can bring together a true masterpiece like a painter does with every stroke of the paintbrush.
Sure. You can call me a food snob when I argue that restaurants like Applebee’s and Chili’s have played large roles in the devolution of the American palate. That and Guy Fieri.
At one point I wanted to attend culinary school and eventually open a bistro with a bakery/deli up front, but soon realized cooking was just a hobby that I did not want to turn into a career. So what could be the next best thing for a foodie? Food critic! Well. Maybe more of a food blogger since I’m still trying to make a name for myself. Oh well. That means that all you readers have the privilege of being privy to my very first food critique.
So without further adieu…
Thursday nights are typically reserved for date night with my girlfriend. We have favorite restaurants that we tend to stick, but this time we wanted to try something different. She loves Mexican, so I Googled top rated Mexican restaurants in Atlanta. That lead me to The Original El Taco which, in addition to positive reviews, also had a good Zagat rating. The Original El Taco it was. I found myself excited to try a new taco joint here in Atlanta. Unfortunately, that excitement all but disappeared by the end of the meal.
The first impression was certainly mixed. While the seating was organized and spaced out well so that no one was cramped, the restaurant was almost unbearably loud. If the source of the noise was just chatter from nearby there would be no problem, but the music was far too loud. No. Not I’m getting old and can’t stand loud music loud. It was loud to the point that we could barely hear our server. Fortunately a separate gluten free menu helped to balance out the initial impression. Unfortunately it did not improve the overall experience.
Our server took our drink orders, and then after a few minutes we decided on an appetizer: house chips with the house salsa and an order of the queso. Our server put the order in right away, but the kitchen was certainly not concerned with getting the appetizer out to us. At least ten minutes after ordering our appetizer our server returned to take our entree orders and noticed that we hadn’t received the chips, salsa, and queso yet. After a few more minutes we finally had our appetizer.
First of all, the house salsa served with the chips was phenomenal. The roasted tomatoes gave the salsa a nice, robust flavor followed by just a slight kick at the back end. If that salsa wasn’t already amazing enough, diners have a salsa bar to choose from different house made salsas. In addition, to the house salsa one could indulge in the fantastic romesco sauce (a bold, mildly spicy mixture of Fresno chili peppers, peanuts, and roasted vegetables), a nice and subtle tomatillo salsa, pico de gallo, and, my personal favorite, their “El Demonio” (The Devil) salsa; a fiery mango habanero concoction. The salsa hits all the sweet notes with the mango and a slight hint of honey at the front, but then as soon as you think you conquered “El Demonio” the fiery habanero hits you at the back end.
On a side note, I LOVE salsa especially when I have options at a salsa bar. In fact, a Mexican restaurant’s house salsa is one of the main gauges I use to determine the quality of said restaurant. In my opinion, good salsa usually means good food; bad salsa means really bad food.
Unfortunately my gauge was not working this time.
No matter how good the salsa is, nothing can be done when the chips used to eat said salsa are absolutely AWFUL. Sure they were fresh, held up well to the salsa, and had a nice crunch to them, but they were severely over-salted. I’m not talking about a little too much salt to where you notice it more than normal. I’m talking about chips so heavily salted that my palate was ruined. With my palate turned into a salt lick and guzzling water like a dog after a hot run, I turned to the one thing I thought would assuage my disappointment: the queso.
Boy was I wrong. The queso was just mediocre, run-of-the-mill queso. Not great and not bad. Just nothing to set it apart from the typical fare you can get at any cheap Mexican restaurant. In fact, it was the complete opposite of the chips: not seasoned well and lacked flavor.
Our entrees arrived only a few minutes after we received the appetizer, which was a little surprising, but beside the point. I ordered the smoked chicken taco (with crema, guacamole, and cilantro), the pork carnitas taco (with chili sauce, pineapple, lime slaw), and the refried black beans. Both tacos were on corn tortillas, and I was able to have fresh jalapeños on the smoked chicken taco rather than the normal fried jalapeños. I was excited to see if my entree would be more inspired than the appetizer. Unfortunately, bland became a recurring theme.
As for the smoked chicken taco, it was like eating bland upon bland upon bland; a three-layered taco of sheer disappointment. I suppose I can break the layers down starting from the top. The smoked chicken was not only overcooked and tough, it somehow made it onto the taco without any seasoning whatsoever. The one ingredient that gave the chicken any semblance of flavor was the fresh jalapeños topping the mundane poultry. Then just under the chicken was, apparently, the crema. Could have fooled me because I certainly did not taste it. Then the “guacamole”.
I know that each chef has a different take on guacamole. Trust me, I’ve had a lot. Regardless of the chef, when I read guacamole as an ingredient I expect guacamole not chunks of avocado that add nothing to the taco. Hoping things would improve, I moved on to the pork carnitas taco.
Unfortunately I allowed myself to be too optimistic because the second taco was only a slight improvement; the trend continued. Although the pork was not as overcooked as the chicken–albeit not by much–rather conservative seasoning was a problem again. The chili sauce the pork was marinated in added nothing to the pork. Nothing at all. Well, except for color so you knew that the pork was marinated in something. The saving grace, preventing the taco from being a complete dud, was the coleslaw. The coleslaw was amazing.
I can be very picky about coleslaw. Coleslaws made with far too much mayonnaise become overwhelmingly bad as the mayonnaise hogs center stage, much like the horrible stage actor whose ego prevents him or her from seeing that they are ruining the whole production. Other coleslaws can be far too heavy-handed with vinegar and that just ruins the palate. The perfect coleslaw is a happy balance between the two which is then combined with the right amount of cabbage, seasoning, etc.
This coleslaw was perfectly balanced; the right amount of acidity cut by the sweetness of the pineapple. Just the right amount of mayonnaise to bind the ingredients together but not dominate the flavor profile of the coleslaw. I could honestly just sit and eat a giant bowl of the coleslaw and be completely content. Maybe top it with a little bit of the El Dominio salsa to add a little kick. Hell, I’d order the sub-par pork carnitas taco again if that was the only way I could eat the coleslaw. Mmm. I could go for some of the coleslaw right now, but I digress.
The only other positive of the entire meal was the refried black beans. In fact, I found myself completely surprised by the beans. Refried beans at most Mexican restaurants typically are made with pinto beans and tend to be cooked in lard, vegetable oil, or another type of fat. One simply has to take one taste of most refried bean recipes for the amount of fat used to become obvious, as they are usually rather heavy and greasy. The amount of cheese certainly doesn’t help.
The Original El Taco’s beans were the complete opposite; almost the point of confusion. I went in with my fork for to retrieve the first bite expecting the slight resistance of dense beans, but instead it slid right into the beans as though they were a puree. The texture/mouth feel of the beans was no different. The beans were smooth, fluffy, and not heavy at all. I could not figure out how, but the beans were either cooked in much less fat than most refried beans, or used a lighter oil/fat. Can I just have a tub and a huge spoon now?
Unfortunately, a great restaurant delicious sides and garnishes do not make. There are simply not enough positives for The Original El Taco to make up for the negatives. Either the executive chef was off that night and the sous chefs have no understanding of proper seasoning. Or the restaurant expects the diner to have several margaritas and not care about seasoning or the quality of food because their palate has been dulled. I conclude that the latter is more likely.
If you just want to hang out with friends, drink a few margaritas, and munch on mediocre food by all means go to The Original El Taco.
Now that I’ve ranted enough about the experience, let me introduce my rating system. It is essentially a five star system, but instead of a star you’ll see this little guy:
One cheesy thumbs up is really bad and five cheesy thumb ups is perfect. My rating for The Original El Taco is as follows: