Cheap Eats: Red Pepper Taqueria
A new turn for tacos at LaVista and Briarcliff roads
Red Pepper Taqueria is a bit like a Mexican version of Taco Mac, with a lot more "taco" and a lot less, um, "mac." There's a nice beer list (and even beer taps on some of the tables so you can help yourself to a pint or two), a bevy of flat-screen TVs decking the walls, and a healthy balance between being kid-friendly and bar-centric. And, like Taco Mac, Red Pepper is not really a taqueria. Yes, there are tacos on the menu, but the overall feel is really an elevated version of your typical random Mexican joint for non-Mexicans. The décor features the obligatory masked luchador heads, and, of course, the menu has queso dip and quesadillas, nachos, and enchiladas. But there's also ahi tuna, chicken mole, and brisket sopes, not to mention a vast selection of tequila and mezcal to fuel some fine drinks. And there are some nice salads, a glut of gluten-free options, even a burger and a Mexi-fied Cuban sandwich. Red Pepper is trying to cover all the bases, and it actually does a pretty good job of it.
Red Pepper recently opened in the space tucked behind Starbucks at the often traffic-clogged intersection of LaVista and Briarcliff roads. While this is clearly a neighborhood joint, you've got to give the Red Pepper team props for at least having the ambition to create an interesting neighborhood joint (not quite in the same league of interesting as Escorpion or Bone Garden Cantina or Taqueria del Sol, but interesting nonetheless). Owner Mimmo Alboumeh and chef Ignacio Barquera have made the rounds of many Atlanta restaurants, and are savvy enough to know what buttons to push, including the one that calls for using local and organic ingredients when possible.
Red Pepper aims to please, but also manages to throw in enough unique twists so that more adventurous diners won't mind stopping by for a drink and a bite. The bar is clear evidence of that, as are the smattering of dishes that successfully span the continuum of authenticity and popularity. The sopes appetizer, for example, combines the comfort of tender shreds of braised brisket, the snapping bite of pickled cabbage against rich crema fresca, and the almost-in-Mexico goodness of flat grilled masa cakes underneath it all. The requisite trio of salsas and chips are equally satisfying — you'll have a hard time picking a favorite among the green tomatillo, cascabel chili, and more straightforward tomato salsa (the salsa and chips are not free, though, and $5.50 for queso seems a bit steep as well — it's good, but not $5.50 good). I wish I could say the chicken mole was a home run of authentic deliciousness, but it's more like a double hit to the outfield — the layers of spice deep enough to make you happy, but lacking that extra pop and power required to make you stand up and cheer.
Since the word taqueria shows up in the name, I would be remiss to miss out on the tacos. There are many to choose from, and they range from pretty good to not too bad. As with the sopes, the kitchen makes good use of brisket in the barbacoa taco, here with a nice, powerful kick from jalapeño and cascabel peppers. In the pescado frito taco, the fish takes a happy backseat to a refreshingly crisp mix of crunchy slaw, sweet grilled corn, and bitter slices of radish. Your vegan friends will dig the organic tofu and oyster mushroom taco, packing a touch of heat alongside those earthy fungi. On the downside, the blackened Georgia trout taco gets drowned out by too much lettuce and tomato, along with a fairly generic chipotle remoulade sauce.
I get the impression that the tacos are here less as the focal point and more as entry bites ($3.25-$3.50 each) to get you into the more ambitious dishes and bar offerings. And once you get into the tequilas and margaritas, who knows where your appetite may turn. Me? I'm quite happy with a big bowl of the perfectly comforting chicken tortilla soup and an order of the brisket sopes. Or maybe that tuna crudo — a dish that's been done all over, but really works well here, rubbed in an intricate chili spice blend and quickly seared, bathing in citrus, begging to be chased by a cold, crisp beer. I think I'll help myself to another pint.