These days, if you mention Latin food to Atlantans, I wouldn’t be surprised if food trucks, or carts as they are often known, enter the conversation early and often. In that respect, it’s kind of funny that I, along with a couple of buddies, stumbled upon La Carreta Taqueria in Marietta.
La Carreta, whose given name is La Carreta Hispanic Grocery and Taqueria, translates as “the cart” or “the wagon” depending on which Hispanic country you find yourself in. In reality, this full-service restaurant and amended market does little to remind me of those mobile eateries popping up all over the country.
I have no real framework for La Carreta’s history and popularity. Until I drove past and ultimately around and up to the free standing building, I had neither heard of nor knew of anyone who had been to it. Thus, I don’t know who runs it, where they come from, or how long La Carreta has been there. Follow up research online turned up a seemingly devout following via a few social food sites but little else. Maybe it’s the proximity to The Big Chicken that leaves me so surprised. With that in mind, on with a longer than usual post.
There are a couple of entrances into La Carreta and we found our way in via the grocery market. On account of my company, I didn’t really have the luxury of carefully inspecting the material. Getting them to venture into unknown territory was a tough sell (did I mention I had to turn around?). So we progressed through the aisles, turned the corner, and gazed upon the restaurant with some bit of shock.
Most taquerias in the ethnic neighborhoods are a bit on the downtrodden side. La Carreta is quite comfortable inside. With tile floors, plenty of windows, and carefully painted and decorated walls, this is as comfortable a venue as one would expect from a cost friendly eatery. Size-wise, the restaurant has roughly 18 tables, many of which are two tops.
Surprised to find a full wait staff (most of the market taquerias in town are counter service), we gladly plopped down at a dark wood four-seater and turned our attention to the soccer match on the TV. Soon after, Susanna, a polite young woman, walked over and ripped off a bit of Spanish. My two compatriots were no more helpful than two stooges, so I whipped out my “I understand Spanish very well, but I speak it like shit.” For all know, I called her a turd; but, she immediately and quite competently swapped out the rapidamente for English. In my brief communication with other employees, I would say they all default to Spanish, but can each put out a few things in English [though none as proficiently as Susanna]. Bottom line, no matter what you speak, you can get by at La Carreta.
A quick perusal of the fairly in depth menu turned up a few thoughts. First: this wasn’t really a taqueria. Sure, in a pinch, the description fits. But the menu offers a full onslaught of options. Second, if pressed, further inspection of the menu turns up a strong Colombian presence. So even if in the absolute most technical of terms there are more “Mexican dishes” than Colombian, so many of the execution styles find their roots in Colombia that I’m call La Carreta Colombian and run with it.
Brooken up into botanas (apps), sopas (soups), tacos, quesadilla, tortas, burritos, Colombian tamales, and platillos (plates), it’s a safe bet that even three macho dudes can’t go through the entire menu in one sitting. Huey and Dufus (hey – you guys know it’s true), wanted tacos. Fine. They requested one of every type (which turned out to be 10 and not 8 … more in a minute). I was a bit more careful with my decision.
The soups intrigued, especially the three Colombian soups/stews. There is a sancocho and a mondongo as well as an Ajiaco. The first two are served on Saturday and the last on Sunday. All ring up at $8.88 but it’s a weekday … so none of that. Tacos were out. The quesadillas (mostly $5.50) and burritos ($4.88) were interesting, as were tortas ($5.88) and the three culturally distinct tamales. I spent most of my time on the plates.
Most cost around $9, but for my money, I wanted the bandeja paisa. For those unaware, bandeja paisa is probably the most well-known and popular Colombian meal. The menu actually says something to that effect (albeit in broken English). For $10.99, the listed offering is some homemade rice, beans, Colombian chorizo, pork belly, steak, fried egg, avocado, and an arepa. Yes and please!
So Susanna darted off to the kitchen and we returned to our conversation. Meanwhile, three or four tables seemed to stay occupied at any given time. A good sign, considering that we were there in off hours.
Need I remind you that this is a full-service restaurant. Things didn’t come out inside of three or four minutes like they do at other taco houses; but, our order came out fresh after ten. La Carreta wasn’t busy, and I don’t know if it gets busy … but don’t walk in demanding a meal in five minutes or less and your expectations should be met without a fuss.
As we chatted, I eyeballed the patacones with guacamole that were sitting behind me. These tostones are fried plantains that are flattened out into jumbo looking tortilla monsters. I can’t comment on the flavor, but I can tell you the guac looked appealing and I eyeballed the dish for longer than was appropriate.
First out of the kitchen was the bandeja paisa (followed momentarily by the taco mound). Bandeja (tray) paisa (Andean person) is always served on round dishes. The aforementioned parts to a bandeja plate are pretty much what all bandeja piasa comes with even though the steak is common substitute for carne en polvo, a ground up meat that I’m used to seeing on the dish.
The food was well plated, but ultimately fell short. At times … way short. Perhaps the most obvious issue was the absence of an arepa. It was listed, whereas the plantains were not, so there’s my beef. Also, and though this was totally clear from the time I ordered, the beans were Mexican frijoles negros and not frijoles paisas. Just a note as the beans were delicious and deep.
I don’t have the time nor the space to recount each discriminant sampling, so I’ll just gloss over most of it. The meats on the dish, save for the chorizo, were way overdone. The beef was chewy, the chicharrón tough to handle, and so forth. I will say that the flavors were very Colombian.
Take for example the chicharrón (on the bottom left and top right). When we think of pork belly, we’re more often thinking of bacon or a super thick slice of bacon popularized by southern farm to table cooking. Colombian pork belly is, at least in many of the regions, a good bit different. For one thing, chicharrón is rubbed with baking soda and salt. It’s then cooked in water until a point when the water evaporates. They are then finished with a good ‘ol rendering au jus style. Also of note, is that the skin is a prevalent part of this style of pork belly, so it’s a bit tougher and less fatty/meaty than other preparations.
In between all of this consumption, I had to fight for samplings off the taco mound. Though eight are listed on the menu, ten showed up. The two outliers were a lengua taco and a mushroom taco. All were $1.99, save for the shrimp ($2.25), and all came on a double stack of housemade tortillas.
Again, time and space is of the essence … so let me give you a lame recap:
The proteins were all executed far better in the tacos than on my bandeja paisa. The pulled barbacoa was stellar, whereas the chicharrón, the steak, the chicken and pork (al pastor) were competent but a little overdone. Meanwhile, the fried tilapia and the shrimp were cooked to perfection. The toppings came fresh and well matched, though I did find the salsa verde, a repeat ingredient, on the bland side.
The dudes mowed through the majority of tacos and only took some to-go on account of our schedule. They were done moments later. It’s a safe bet that the meal assuaged their concerns, though they don’t have a dictatorial eye for food.
Make no mistake, on some days, messed up orders and overcooked meats would send me on a tear. I wouldn’t be afraid to call the bandeja paisa a flop. BUT, even at it’s worst, there was great promise in the meal. Now I didn’t try everything that came to the table, but all of it showed an attention to tradition. The service, while prone to oversight, was friendly and attentive. The atmosphere was a plus and the food was über high in the quality scale. Anyone who tells you this is Mexican food is either being lazy or just doesn’t know better. Regardless, it’s worth putting this place on the map. La Carreta has already shown me enough that it may just be one of the best “taquerias” in town.
La Carreta Taqueria Restaurant Address & Information
1288 Roswell Road, Marietta, GA 30062 // 770.579.2963