(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is just days away. Lunch is a big deal there, and the one described below was perfectly suited to last year’s El Sur Latino focus.)
I think lunch in the good ol’ USA gets a bum rap. In some countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day. There, if you’re going to get invited to a meal, it’s usually lunch. There are courses sometimes. And maybe tea afterwards. And the best places are the ones that encourage naps after all that, as the good Lord intended. (Otherwise why would we be sleepy after lunch?)
Meanwhile, in the 8 to 5-ish workweek here in America, if you get an hour to eat lunch (never mind the time it takes you to get to a restaurant and back) you’re pretty lucky. Some get a half hour, and many eat at their desks or standing up while continuing to work. Sunday lunch is about as close as many of us get to a leisurely noonday meal, save perhaps the occasional holiday feast.
That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. There, lunch is celebrated. The skills of the chef are extolled. The tables are decorated to the nth degree. The servers are given standing o’s. And the eaters partake of multiple dishes that yesterday we didn’t know we loved. These lunches are so big they require a sponsor.
Our first lunch of the weekend, brought to us by Springer Mountain Farms, featured Chef Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria Del Sol. I was first introduced to this group of restaurants a few years ago in the Atlanta metro area – they have since expanded into Nashville. Chef Eddie has developed a menu there that blends the flavors and traditions of his home, Monterrey, Mexico, and the American South. I think I can say with 97% certainty that it was in one of his restaurants that I enjoyed my first barbecue taco, which he calls The Memphis: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce. Since then I have had many, but Chef Eddie’s was my gateway barbecue taco.
This SFA lunch was also given a name. (Do you name your lunches? No? See what I mean? No respect.) He called it, “Five Stops on a Journey from Monterrey.” The first stop on the journey was waiting for us on the tables: Cajun boiled peanuts with chile de arbol, a blend of flavors from Georgia, Louisiana and Mexico. Boiled peanuts are a snack that I didn’t appreciate till I’d been overseas a few years and someone sent a pack to a friend of mine. All of a sudden I became the expert in the room.
Next we were served a red chile pork tamale, inspired by his travels through Texas as a musician, where he learned, “just about everything goes with tamales.” Apparently, even armadillo. We were not served armadillo that day. But I was intrigued by the story he told of the crawfish tamale with the etouffee sauce. Tamales are another food I didn’t appreciate until adulthood – perhaps because as a youngster, I’d never seen one that didn’t emerge from a can. Now that I’ve made them myself, it’s a whole new world of masa and more.
The next plate to come out was refried pinto bean tostadas with Doe’s Salad. I haven’t been to Doe’s yet (I know, I know…it’s time to change that), so I haven’t had the salad. But apparently their style of salad is similar to what is served in the ports of western Mexico, dressed with lemon and oil. I was stunned at the brightness of flavor this salad brought to a refried bean tostada. And somehow, some way, they also tasted buttery – it must have been the beans. This was one of my favorite bites of the weekend, and from an informal poll (so informal you could call it eavesdropping, I guess) many others agreed with me.
Another favorite bite was his Chicken Pot Pie with a side of turnip greens. How many times have you heard about a taqueria with amazing turnip greens? These turnip greens are served at Taqueria del Sol and were featured in Garden and Gun magazine as one of 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Must Eat Before You Die. (I carry that list when I travle. Now make that 14 down, 86 to go.) TDS greens have onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, chicken stock (no pork in these), and more chile de arbol. Side note: my uber-powerful search engine tells me this pepper is also known as a bird’s beak chile or rat-tail chile, but I bet those names won’t be on the placard at the grocery.
Okay, back to the pot pie. I grew up with chicken pot pie – the kind that started as a frozen block which could be used as a weapon, then after an interminable wait (those were the days before microwaves) were delivered with lava-hot insides to unsuspecting children. This one was very, very different. The secret, says Chef Eddie, was in roasting the chicken before putting it in the sauce. And that sauce; it was so rich it almost had a sweet taste – I couldn’t get enough. But what set this pot pie apart from any and all others I have ever enjoyed was the “crust”. All this deliciousness came in a bowl made from a tortilla. It was not crispy like a taco salad shell, but just hard enough to hold the filling. Now I’m spoiled forever.
Dessert was one more blend of Mexico and the South: chocolate chimichanga with tequila-Grand Marnier cream sauce. The dark chocolate filling and that drizzle of cream were made for each other, a want-to-lick-the-plate kind of experience. (I settled for a serious plate-scraping with my fork. There were lots of cameras around.)
If you find yourself in Atlanta (and who doesn’t, eventually?), I suggest you find yourself at a Taqueria del Sol.