What is it, Atlanta? What is it about tacos? A restaurateur can put tacos into just about any space, anywhere in the city, and practically be guaranteed success. Why tacos? Why?
OK, I get it. Tacos are the perfect food. Portable. Cheap. Extremely compatible with tequila and/or beer. Available in a variety of flavors and textures. I love a good taco as much as the next gringa with a penchant for corn, meat and alcohol-laced lime juice. I personally prefer my tacos from a truck or dinky stand, firstly because they're generally cheaper, and secondly because – surprise! – Mexican food is most often made delicious by actual Mexican people. I'm not totally against putting the taco in a more refined setting, even if it smacks of making ethnic food safe and palatable for the non-adventurous among us. But as a city, we're getting close to taco saturation. With no lack of taco eateries, in the past year alone we've seen the openings of the Original El Taco and Pure on North Highland Avenue, and now Riccardo Ullio's Lupe in the old Cuerno location on Juniper Street.
And frankly, what's going down on Juniper Street is mildly depressing. When I think back a couple of years, to when Ullio first occupied the two spaces between Seventh and Eighth streets, I remember excitement, creativity and potential: Beleza, an upscale health food and tropical juice-fueled cocktail lounge, and Cuerno, our city's first serious attempt at Spanish cuisine. There were problems. Finicky Atlantans didn't like having to park a block away in a lot, they like valet, dammit. Despite its bold, creative, raw and organic menu, Beleza quickly turned into more of a Midtown party scene than a restaurant. Now, Beleza doesn't serve food at all, and the static cocktails have gone steeply downhill in quality. The place is a shadow of its former self. And Cuerno has become Lupe, as if to hammer home the point that Atlantans aren't as sophisticated as we like to claim. We won't eat regional Spanish food. But, boy, do we love tacos!
Thus far, Lupe is a success – so much so that it's now open seven nights a week. Cuerno's red velvet and wrought iron romanticism has morphed slightly into a more Mexican-themed room. Gone is the huge metal bull that inhabited the center of the space. The light fixtures are less dramatic, now curling in classic hacienda style. Everything has been toned down a notch.
The straightforward menu consists of a few dips, quesadillas, tacos, and a couple of entrees. The theme seems to be simplicity – simple to execute, simple to enjoy. Margaritas are the drink of choice, and they're strong although not particularly refined, which is a decent way to describe a lot of what's offered here. The food is all passable, some of it even downright enjoyable, but nothing shines. No extra steps have been taken to liven up the food or make it stand out.
Guacamole is exactly salty enough, could use a little more acid, and is ultimately forgettable. The free salsa rojo that comes to each table (no other salsas are available with the chips) is mushy and bland, a jumble of pulpy tomato dice that lacks brightness and spice.
Tacos come in sets of three. The most interesting choices are the goat and the beef tongue, although they aren't necessarily the best. The goat has a faint, pleasing muskiness and the requisite amount of spice. The tongue seems to be there mainly as a nod to authenticity (beef tongue is a standard taco filling at those trucks and stands I mentioned earlier), but the flavor here is slightly off, as if they're ordered so infrequently the meat is a day past its prime.
Both tilapia tacos and shrimp tacos are covered in a spicy red sauce, which leaves a pleasing burn. Pork tacos are juicy and rich, the best of the bunch both times I ordered them.
Taco plates include two sides, some of which are actual sides and some of which are more like condiments. The best side is the pinto beans cooked with bacon. The most confounding is the "guacamole," which is nothing like the guacamole appetizer and is instead an anemic pureed avocado cream.
On the entree menu, the chicken mole comes swathed in a dark, rich sauce with refried beans and Mexican rice. The dish is hard to fault, satisfying the bitter/sweet/savory elements one expects from a mole, but it speaks to my frustration with this restaurant as a whole. The mole only needs a few tweaks to make it special – bolder spicing, more pronounced flavors, a sauce that is obviously handmade and cared for. Instead, we get something that's just good enough – not great, not bad.
Service is perky and eager to please, but I encountered slip-ups so amateur they bordered on offensive. One evening, a woman at my table received the wrong taco. Before the correct one arrived, the waitress appeared at the table brandishing an empty plate. "Here," she said, pushing the plate under my dining companion's nose. "Put the one you didn't order here." Was she planning on serving it to another guest? Was she concerned we were trying to get more than we'd paid for? Their mistake, our discomfort.
In general, the experience of eating at Lupe is pleasant, and the food is completely passable. But Ullio is a restaurateur we've come to expect excellence from, and excellent this ain't. If tacos are the golden bullet that saves his foray into Midtown, then so be it. We get what we deserve.