Cheap Eats: El Progreso #14

The grocery store eatery serves legit Mexican fare in Grant Park

Wednesday August 5, 2015 04:00 am EDT

INTOWN ETHNIC: Spend enough time chasing culinary thrills in Atlanta, and you'll come to realize a few unspoken laws of dining out in this city — one being the fundamental truth that, if you want ethnic eats, head north. Like animals seeking higher ground, hungry Atlantans in search of an authentic, affordable meal travel up Buford Highway and to faraway lands such as Norcross and Duluth. But inside the Perimeter, no less than two miles from Grant Park, hides a tasty secret (one that's becoming less and less hush-hush by the day). El Progreso, to which some might refer colloquially as "Prison Tacos," is a Mexican grocery and carniceria on a shabby stretch of Boulevard, adjacent to a creepy, gutted Mrs. Winner's and just steps from the looming federal penitentiary. It's the kind of ramshackle place an average intowner might not give a second glance. And, as anyone familiar with those aforementioned Atlanta dining tenets will know, those are almost always the places worth stopping for.

THIS WAY TO PARADISE: Perhaps it's the bars on the windows or, you know, the sprawling and slightly menacing prison complex right across the street, but there's something a little eerie about this particular corner of Boulevard. Don't chicken out, though: Inside El Progreso, taco nirvana awaits. To find it, you'll walk past a pastry display case stocked with bolillo and pan dulce the size of your face, past the shelves of queso fresco and crema, and past the cooler full of Jarritos and Tampico. Hang a right at the butcher counter until you get to a tiny grill, equipped with one very busy cook — maybe two, on a good day — dishing out some of the most legit Mexican fare this side of Doraville.

YOU LITERALLY CANNOT GO WRONG HERE (UNLESS TONGUE FREAKS YOU OUT): Go on a weekend and you'll get to try one of the house specials only available on Saturdays and Sundays: a plate of juicy carnitas ($6.99) or barbecued lamb ($7.99), a seafood-packed stew ($8.99), and menudo ($7.99), aka the spicy tripe stew often sworn by as a hangover cure. Not quite ready to stomach a bowl of beef stomach? El Progreso's tortas ($6.99-$8.99) are filling and overflowing with meats, whether your tastes lean toward spicy chorizo or thin-sliced carne asada. Skip the french fries and save your lunch money for an agua fresca instead. And, at a mere $1.49 apiece (or $1.89 for tongue and tripe), El Progreso's tacos are cheap enough that you could have one of each and spend just barely more than $10. The bright red, achiote-marinated al pastor pork has just the right amount of charred fat to lend a little crunch, and the beef barbacoa is tender enough to put many barbecue joints to shame. Each is served on a pile of soft, warm corn tortillas with a sprinkling of diced onion, cilantro, and a wedge of lime, the way the good lord intended — none of this shredded iceberg lettuce and grated cheese nonsense, and certainly none of the $4 price tags some Tex-Mex joints manage to get away with. Talk about criminal.

¿HABLAS ESPAÑOL?: Don't be surprised if you're one of the only English speakers in the crowd: Unlike many popular BuHi spots, this place hasn't hit full gringo mainstream — not yet, anyway. While the staff certainly caters to English speakers, menus and signage are primarily in Spanish, with some English subtitles for the non-bilingual among us. The service can be slow, with one or two cooks often juggling a dozen orders at once, and the language barrier can occasionally be tricky. But take comfort in knowing that even if there's a miscommunication, it's hard to go wrong here. Just know that, just as the signage is mostly meant for Hispanic readers, those salsas on the table are mostly meant for Hispanic palates. In other words, they're hot as all hell. This gringa learned that the hard way.

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