Cinco de Mayo, coming up soon, is a lot like Christmas and New Year’s. It doesn’t really mean much, but it’s a great excuse to swill margaritas and eat faux Mexican food until you can barely crawl to the crowded restroom. Actually you may not get to the restroom. In the way Salvation Army bell ringers and carolers entrap Christmas shoppers, Cinco de Mayo mariachi bands encircle restaurant tables and won’t leave until you buy your freedom to pee with a big tip.
In other words, Cinco de Mayo is a big kitschy American party that celebrates consumerism. Go ahead and Google its history if you want to learn more, but trust me, the day is almost completely ignored in Mexico.
Still, Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity for you to get a little adventurous. Atlanta is full of Mexican restaurants. I’m using that term very loosely, because what most people call Mexican is actually Tex-Mex. Believe it or not, you don’t find Frito Pie, fajitas, and mega doses of cumin in Mexico. Southwestern cuisine is similarly derivative of Mexico’s cooking and a lot more interesting than most Tex-Mex, because it plays with chile peppers in more sophisticated ways.
The following restaurants may or may not offer Cinco de Mayo specials, but they’re good choices when you want to explore the different varieties of America’s favorite “ethnic” cuisine.
ROSA MEXICANO: It’s almost embarrassing to say so, but this import from New York offers something that has never gone over well in our city—gourmet Mexican food. The reason is that what most of us call Mexican is cheap street food like tacos and enchiladas. Rosa Mexicano’s menu includes some of those, but also dishes like Veracruz-style, pan-roasted mahi-mahi; and a braised ancho-marinated pork shank served with chipotle-creamed spinach and a red-bean chili with chorizo. You should always keep an eye out for their special menus—like a recent one for Passover, featuring barbecued brisket wrapped in a banana leaf with dried fruit. One suggestion— the guacamole, made tableside, is fantastic, but no, it’s not worth $14.(245 18th St., 404-347-4090, www.rosamexicano.com)
EL REY DEL TACO: This taqueria is many foodies’ favorite. Although the huge menu has some Tex-Mex influence (like fajitas), it is mainly pure Mexican, serving everything from seafood “cocteles” and tacos al pastor to gigantic plates of grilled meats and seafood with house-made tortillas. There’s one dish I discourage ordering—the chile relleno. I have no idea why, but they just don’t do it well. Be warned, too, that the kitchen doesn’t hold back on the occasional blast of hot peppers, so if you’re one of the city’s many pussy-palated people, be careful! (5288 Buford Hwy., 770-986- 0032, www.taqueriaelreydeltaco.com)
NUEVO LAREDO CANTINA: Chance Evans opened this pioneering restaurant more than 20 years ago, when it was still hard to find anything besides bad Tex-Mex in Atlanta. It’s deservedly made every “best of” list in the city at one time or another, but classifying the food here is a little difficult. It’s kinda Tex-Mex but a lot more Mex than Tex. Whatever. I always order the same dish here: the chicken mole, among the city’s best. The brisket barbacoa is another favorite and I never start a meal with- out an order of the grilled whole scallions with lime. The place is a lot of fun, decorated with kitschy art that comes alive when your eyes are drenched with tequila during an often- long wait for a table. (1495 Chattahoochee Ave., 404-352-9009, www.nuevolaredocantina.com)
AGAVE RESTAURANT: Jack Sobel wasn’t the first to bring good Southwestern cooking to Atlanta back in 2000 but he’s outlasted most everyone else. The mandatory starter is a bowl of green chile stew. Sobel makes it with renowned Hatch chiles from New Mexico, stewed with beef tips, potatoes, onions, and corn. It’s perfect comfort food with a usually mild sting. Entrees are creative riffs. Consider a fat slice of meatloaf made from veal, chorizo pork and Hatch chiles, served with spiced-up collards and mac and cheese. There’s also seafood, including scallops grilled and sautéed in a spicy tequila-lime cream sauce. (242 Boulevard, 404- 588-0006, www.agaverestaurant.com)
There are many more choices. Among the city’s most popular food trucks, for example, is YUMBII , which fills tortillas with Korean barbecue. To find a truck, log onto their website, www.yumbii.com.
HOLY TACO (www.holy- taco.com) in East Atlanta Village serves Hip- Mex fusion, like a beef belly sandwich with turnips, manchego, and arbol aioli. Try tacos filled with buttermilk-fried chicken hearts, skirt steak, brisket or goat—all mixed with other surprising ingredients.
Cliff Bostock holds a PhD in depth psychology, conducts workshops, and offers life coaching to individuals. www.CliffBostock.com.