It seems like nearly every denizen of the metro Atlanta area has made at least a handful of trips to the unusually situated Nuevo Laredo Cantina. Located in Atlanta’s version of no man’s land [though I’ve lumped it in with the Westside], it’s a wildly popular Tex-Mex spot with a dedicated following. Often times, it’s publicly lauded; and so far as my experience has gone, privately snickered at. Still, I’m not 100% sure why I’m penning this piece, as I don’t have any startling revelations to offer up. I’ve been there as many times as most, and I’ll play it out as I see it.
As mentioned, NLC doesn’t attempt to be authentic Mexican. Instead, it focuses on the Mexo-American cuisine of towns like Laredo, TX. As logic would follow, I’m as baffled by those who walk out slamming Nuevo for its lack of authenticity as I am by those who praise it for its traditionalism.
The building is a glorified house stationed near the intersection of Marietta and Chattahoochee; a car trip over might leave you a little frightened. It’s not that you feel unsafe; rather, you might think you’re heading to the wrong spot. Even with the handful of buildings that have popped up in the recent years, the neighborhood is marked by foliage and warehouses, Crestlawn Cemetery notwithstanding.
Parking can be a flat-out BIATCH, so put on your patience pants and your walking shoes. Though NLC controls a section of the Pepsi lot across the street and a sublet of the lot adjunct to their property, the parking spaces often fill to the brim. Give this nearby parking a drive-by and snag a spot if you can; however, on a busy night, don’t be surprised if you are forced to find parking on the nearby side streets.
Style wise, kitsch is the name of the game. It starts with the head-to-tail yellow with red accents paint job and carries through all the way to the plentiful count of 5x7s that line the walls. With no discernable theme, the picturas seem to include candid shots of people who no one will ever recognize and/or snapshots of South of the Border landmarks. The crowded interior, combined with the hoakey decor and the yellow exterior, really helps make Nuevo a fun, bustling place to visit.
Outside, there is a table-less patio utilized for corralling the massive wait line. Breaking through that first line of defense, entrance inside can be a skillful dodge job. If the interior of the place is vacant enough for you to turn your head, you’ll notice a packed out bar with a shameful excuse for seating. There’s a window ledge with stools and bar seats inches away in a space that can’t be much wider than four or five feet. It’s really a microcosm for the entire space – cramped. Meanwhile, a metal gate keeps the table sitters fenced in and the waiting patrons huddled in the front. The hostess is usually found fortified near the kitchen area, straight back from the doorway.
Upstairs you’ll find a number of tables, a few for two and a bunch for four. Then, the dining area heads down a few steps where you will find booths, a handful of free floating tables, and the “facilities.”
Once you’re seated, you had better race to figure out your order. It seems that a server will almost certainly popup inside of 60-seconds to take your drink order and another one-twenty later to ask about food. If you are ill prepared, don’t be surprised if you don’t see them for another 20-minutes (and I’m not kidding there). Regardless of the crowd size, service bounds back and forth between gruff and friendly, an in short supply. Waiting for the check is another frustration. Bottom line … the service just doesn’t cut it. I’m not saying it’s a guaranteed failure; rather, that it has been so bad on so many occasions that good service is the exception not the norm.
The menu reads like any well-rounded list of this mixed culture grub. Nachos, dips, and chips head up the appetizers lineup. I’m particularly partial to the Queso Flameado con chorizo and the Nachos Asada. To be honest, the Queso Flameado (thick melted queso blanco) isn’t really that great. However, there is just something rebelliously awesome about taking solidified fat (the cheese) and mixing it with more solidified fat (chorizo). Divided up by you, the ingredients are laid out in a soft flour tortilla and then projected towards your mouth. Adding in the accompanying Pico de Gallo gives each bite a little bit of brightness. Still, the mildness of the chorizo is disappointingly notable. Even without my requisite heap of crema (sour cream), the flaming cheese is most useful as an early ticket to a starring role on Six-Feet Under (the TV show – not the restaurant).
The Nachos Asada, aka beef fajita nachos, are best as a reminder of what once was. In my formative years, I discovered beef fajita nachos at the now defunct Rio Bravo. Sure, I was too young to know my ass from my head (some would say that hasn’t changed), but I really dug Bravo’s serving of flat and crispy tortilla chips topped with some refried beans, some cheese, and thick cuts of steak. When Rio Bravo departed, I was left searching for something that brought back the memory. Alas, NLC has tried and ultimately failed. Mind you that this might be the result of a warped perspective as anything else. Still, Laredo’s take is nothing more than fix-filling. The long strips of lean steak are now diced instead of sliced, the beans are worth of a can and not much better, and the cheese lacks no taste. While the steak, as you will see momentarily, is one of my real winners … the assembly of the Nachos Asada is relatively bland, usually lukewarm, and a shell of its former self. A few years back, when they incorporated full on strips, these suckers came close to competing with my idealized memory of childhood trips to the river Bravo. Now, they just are.
The rest of the menu seems to offer a handful of authentic hints as well as the abundant options of meat, beans, and cheeses, all combined with a tortilla to form something, be it burrito, taco, fajita, or other. I won’t elaborate much on the individual preparations, as the flavors all seem to hide behind the safety blanket of simplicity and mediocre accompaniments.
The main difference here is the protein you choose. As Tex-Mex steak goes, I find this stuff damn good. Maybe I wouldn’t be so high on it if we had seriously delicious TM offerings around town … but we don’t. The seasonings used on the steak make it the only thing I’ll really order these days (but not for lack of effort). The acidic liquid used to marinade the steak is definitely citrus inspired. The lime juice is used to denature the steak just enough so that once it hits the flame, the cooking process is short and sweet. Though cooked thoroughly, there is always a respectable juiciness to the meat because of how the lime flavors interact with your tongue.
If I am somehow coaxed out from behind my steak fajitas, I’ll usually jump ship for something with lobster or shrimp. Though never mind blowing, the seafood strikes me as better than what you would expect from a desolately located restaurant. The real failures of this place come in the form of the sauces and the remaining proteins. Veggies – NEXT. Chicken – almost always dry. Brisket – disgusting and unable to compete … the comments on the entrées continue like this for sometime. They are almost always either overcooked and some unusually combination of the opposites under seasoned, overly sweet, and totally bland. Cheese is used with such glorious generosity that if you don’t get something that has been spiced to hell, you end up with something where the protein is drowned out by the aforementioned standard ingredients. The pictured innards of a recent brisket burrito sure looked appealing, but the taste of the brisket was so sweet and burrito so offensive on the whole that I couldn’t eat more than a bite or two.
People will often jump to the defense of the extensive taco list. I’m not quite there. They aren’t bad, since there are no overdone and ill-prepared sauces to be found, but there isn’t anything award winning to be found. The lobster tacos are a tasty mess, but at roughly $9 a head, nowhere near justifiable.
Some would like to revel in the margaritas. Unfortunately, I’ll blow right past “never done it for me” and settle in on “a complete waste of cash.” The margaritas are like syrup in a glass … sweet and absent of any real tequila punch, not to be confused with a donkey punch :0). If you are unfamiliar with a donkey punch, I suggest you bypass Google and just keep reading. Thus, you can continue to assume that I am a well-adjusted and polite Southern gentleman. [Which I am … thank you very much Mrs. Dallas Clark]
Table Talking Meredith Ford Goldman ruffled a lot of feathers when she wrote up the Tex-Mex destination. That explains the “do not pass” sign sporting her name right by the door (and behind the bars cover thing windows – for serious?). While I doubt my words will get me banned, I do think NLC has some serious flaws and shortcomings, as well as a handful of saving graces.
Despite the tastiness of the steak, there are just to many uh-oh moments and too few standouts to really go ape for the food. The real pleasure of a trip is usually in the vibrant atmosphere. The flip side to that is the wait and the cramped quarters, which often exceeds 30m, even for a duet. If you are looking for peace and quiet, you will probably be turned off. Still, Nuevo Laredo wants a crowd and they want a happy atmosphere, and that’s what they deliver. Stick to the steak products, and you’ll manage just fine. Dabble in the crustacean options – and you’ll have a good chance. Taking it a step farther, if you are craving simple queso blanco – there’s plenty of that to go around as well.
Look, no matter what I say, the reality remains that a vast number of people love this place with unabashed fervor. I won’t hate you if you are one of them, and there’s a chance you’ll see me there anyway. However, it wouldn’t hurt if the food was re-tuned and the service went through a major overhaul.