Food Review: La Duranguense, exploding the palate one spice at a time

I’m a chile head—one of those people who can’t get enough spicy food in his mouth. I wasn’t really born that way. It’s like any other addiction. Once you start nibbling on mild jalapeños and chile con carne, it’s not long before you’re dousing all your food with Sriracha, then sending plates of Thai food back to the kitchen because it’s not sufficiently fiery. Mild jalapeños piss you off.

On a recent Friday night, my friend Brian insisted my regular dining group sample the relatively mild food at Taqueria la Duranguense (365 Pat Mell Road SE, Marietta, 404-966-9480). I normally won’t consider a drive to the hinterland of Marietta for a meal, but Brian raved persistently. He was right. It’s an amazing little dive whose name apparently refers to a type of music from the Mexican state of Durango.

So, be warned. The only atmosphere here is oxygen and the smell of mildly spicy stews. If you love vinyl tablecloths topped with rolls of paper towels, you’re going to love this place as soon as you walk through the door. It’s located in a run-down strip center in a neighborhood that is heavily populated by Latinos. And the woman behind the counter who takes your order (and cooks) speaks monosyllabic English.

Happily for you, there’s nothing on the brief menu, posted on the wall, that isn’t addictive. It’s the kind of food that initiates a craving to go back and back again. The only thing available is gorditas, which translates as “little fatties.” Imagine thin pocket bread made of masa (corn flour), griddled until slightly crispy, and then stuffed with all manner of ingredients.

I was excited—very excited—to see one of my favorite Mexican dishes. I’m talking about chicharrón, which are fatty pieces of pork skin. Typically, they are fried to make what we call “pork rinds,” folded into tortillas and topped with salsa. But they are also fried and then stewed in green or red salsa until they are tender. Usually I prefer the slightly sour green version, but I have to say Duranguense’s red version has more complex flavor and spiciness. It’s mild! But you can add hot sauce.

I also sampled an ovo-lacto-vegetarian option—rajas con queso. Rajas are strips of charred poblano peppers (whose piquancy varies) and queso is the classic white cheese, sometimes combined with heavy cream. The melting cheese coats the strips with absurdly velvety texture and, in fact, can temper a fiery pepper with its dairy base. Another vegetable option is nopales (chunks of cactus), which did not make it to our table.

Unfortunately, when I visited the restaurant around 8:30 p.m., it had already sold out of a number of dishes.

Prices, by the way, are embarrassingly low: $3 for each gordita. Two will fill any average diner, but we got three each and could barely waddle out the door.

Does La Duranguense earn any complaints? Two minor ones. First, calling the restaurant is useless. When they answer the phone, nobody says much of anything and hangs up. Second, sometimes the sauces can be overwhelming to the degree that they mask the flavors of the meat. As hard as it is to do, eat slowly and give your tongue a chance to fully explore the ingredients. You know. Like sex.