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Tacos, tortas ... and tongue

Surprises and standards at Taqueria Los Rayos

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You don't have to be Hannibal Lecter to perk up at the connection between a restaurant location on Hospital Avenue and a menu featuring delicacies like tongue, tripe and the deceptively named "barbacoa" (hints: it ain't Mexican for "barbecue" and cow's head is a main ingredient). Eager-to-learn intown foodies, however, will sidestep this chance flirtation with the lurid for the sake of enjoying the flavorful, deeply satisfying fast-food standards on the traditional taqueria menu at Chamblee's Los Rayos.

A highlight of the highway: Grouped with neighborhood standbys Canton House and Penang, Taqueria Los Rayos becomes one of a perfect series of stops in Buford Highway 101 for folks eager to sample the bargain-priced culinary fireworks for which the area is noted. Ten bucks should leave you feeling food-coma full. It's handy to have a working knowledge of some taqueria standards (meaty choices like carnitas or carne asada, for instance) that many people will recognize from mainstream favorites like Taqueria del Sol or Nuevo Laredo.

Chamblee is a futbol town: The building itself -- a salmon-colored cinderblock outpost with splashy signage -- has enough visual clout to stand up to the funky address. Ordering occurs front-and-center at a cash register; most regulars know what they want from memory. A short counter overlooks the rowdy fun of the open kitchen. The rest of the small room is lined with simple four-tops and decorated with dusty reproductions, phone card posters, a clutch of sagging balloons left from Cinco de Mayos past and a more-than-healthy share of Mexican futbol paraphernalia.

Put out to Pastor: If you're hunting for a signature dish, try the pork al Pastor-style. Marinated in citrus and chile and then cooked on a large rotisserie spit, tangy chunks of pork are folded (as are all Los Rayos tacos) into a steamed corn tortilla and served with house salsa, lime segments and seared petals of onion ($1.60; cheese is $.30 extra).

This preparation can also be enjoyed on a slightly larger scale as a burrito (in a flour tortilla, $3.74), as a torta (sandwich, $4) or as an especiale ($8) covered with melted queso blanco and thin slices of onion, tomato and avocado with corn tortillas on the side. Chorizo -- ruddy, rich and faintly spicy -- is crumbled into the same variations as the al Pastor, as is seared chicken, seared beef (carne asada) and carnitas (twice-cooked pork).

A big winner among the tortas sandwiches (which include, of all things, a respectable Cuban) is the Milanesa ($4), in which flash-fried beef slices are paired with buttery slivers of avocado, onions and cheese on a briefly toasted soft Cuban-sandwich-style roll. Be sure to try an agua tamarindo or Jamaica -- super sweet but pleasantly unusual soft drinks ($1.25). For dessert, wash down all that carnage with a straight-up strawberry malt (malteado fresaa) served in a tulip glass ($2.75).

foodanddrink@creativeloafing.com

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