There is an abundance of “Mexican” food around Atlanta, but to me the genre gets broken up into three categories: theme park Mexican, Tex-Mex, and authentic Mexican.
Theme Park Mexican is the majority of what I see in Atlanta. Last night I went to La Parilla on Howell Mill and this restaurant would qualify for this category. Huge drinks, sombreros, and quirky names are the norm. If you go to La Parilla’s menu online and click on the section for “Traditional Mexican Dishes” you may notice that they display a photo of a hamburger. Our waitress called us “amigos” with a painted-on smile at least a dozen times, and somehow it came across in a way as if she thought her manager was listening somewhere nearby.
My definition of Tex-Mex is anywhere that successfully specializes in the dishes of Mexican origin, popularized in America. These dishes may utilize Mexican ingredients and flavors, but the dish as we know it here, may not actually be eaten in Mexico. A sizzling plate of fajitas comes to mind. Nuevo Laredo is Tex-Mex to me, even though they foray into mole, barbacoa, and simple carnes asadas. But calling them Tex-Mex isn’t a dirty word to me, Tex-Mex can be done brilliantly, as anyone who has been to San Antonio can attest.
Authentic Mexican be found in the carnicerias on Buford Highway. The primary offering being small, inexpensive tacos with your choice of cabeza, lengua, al pastor, chorizo, barbacoa, or some other meat offering, and a tiny amount of onion and cilantro. You may get a molcajete set on your table filled with a variety of thin red/green salsas or pico de gallo. Chips and salsa are generally not provided for free, if offered at all. 40 oz magaritas are nowhere in sight.
Sorry for the essay on this, but when I went to Bone Garden Cantina on the Westside for the first time, I noticed that on their list of “rules” ala Vortex (same owner) they state, “We do not serve ‘Americanized’ Mexican food, so if that’s what you’re looking for you are in the wrong place.”
With that, I set off to decide on which category I’d place them based on my two meals.
Thin and hot chips were delivered quickly on both occasions, served with a fairly good salsa, which is a bit thicker and flavorful than most water like salsa served at the theme parks. It reminded me of a cilantro-light version of the Nuevo salsa.
There’s lots of interesting paintings around the room, which was absolutely packed when I went there on a Friday afternoon. On my other visit it was still fairly busy, especially considering the industrial location on Ellsworth.
I thought the way the light shone on the devil’s head in this photo was kind of interesting.
On my first visit I got a pork tamale, as well as chicken and beef tongue tacos on corn tortillas. These tacos were awful. The meat was flavorless, but the sauces were even worse. The filling was too plentiful, making it difficult to eat, and the whole thing turned into a soggy and bland mess. The tamale was formed appropriately, but the meat also lacked any discernable flavor. Despite the menu’s indication that you should order the tamales before they run out, based on this experience, I don’t really think you’re going to have a problem finding one.
Katie got a veggie taco and empanada. I didn’t taste her food, but she wasn’t a fan either.
You can see how soggy the tortillas became after just a few minutes.
That first visit was probably two months ago, and I held back on the post because I felt I really needed a second visit before I posted so negatively. Also, I had received a tip that the flour tortillas were the way to go.
On the next visit I got a chicharrones taco on flour tortilla with rice and beans. This taco isn’t listed under the regular taco section on the menu and is easily missed. This time the filling size was much more appropriate, the meat was less soggy, and the amount of salsa had thankfully been significantly cut back and actually had a sharp green salsa flavor. The fried pork skin wasn’t stellar, but a few pieces were appropriately crunchy and flavorful. I also liked the charred tortilla and it held up just fine.
I also got the chorizo enchilada in guajillo chili sauce, which tastes exactly like a red chile sauce I recently made which I’d recommend. The sauce was delicious and the chorizo was as greasy and satisfying as it should be. This was my favorite dish.
My dining companion on this occasion had a shredded chicken taco, and while I don’t remember his thoughts on this, I wanted to put the picture on display to show how much more in balance the ingredients are compared to the first visit.
He also had the shrimp enchilada, which he seemed to like well enough, though he did comment on the sauce being a little thick and gloppy.
My second visit was significantly better than my first, decent enough to the point where I’d go back, especially considering how close it is to my place. I’m not going to confirm the “authentic Mexican” claim on their rules, though I wouldn’t relegate them to the theme park status either.
That leaves them in my Tex-Mex category, which as I’ve mentioned, isn’t a bad place to be. But to be candid, I’m only going to go to Bone Garden when Nuevo is packed, because Nuevo does this genre better.