Taco Love: There isn’t much more enjoyable than discovering a special little restaurant in the most unassuming of places: a gas station. It’s where Sr. Sol started out. It’s where many taquerias and pupuserias have been housed in Athens. It keeps expectations and rent low. Los Reyes Mexican Restaurant (1880 Hwy. 29 N.) is exactly the kind of gem that rewards the effort of finding it.
The restaurant hasn’t done much advertising through the conventional channels. I happened to notice it in the list of health inspections published in the Banner-Herald, but if you head out Highway 29, past the Georgia State Patrol office, you’ll find a Gulf station on the righthand side of the road that has a small grocery store on one side and Los Reyes on the other, painted with the phone number and promises of delivery food in big, bright figures.
There’s not a ton in the immediate area that would provide competition, and the restaurant seems to do more take-out business than anything else. Its atmosphere is simple, not seedy, with a couple of rows of extremely clean booths and a sombrero or two hung on the wall. It suggests Howard Johnson’s far more than it does truckstop. The people who work the counter and take your order are not only exceedingly friendly but speak perfect English. But I delay... The real point of all this is that Los Reyes has the best traditional Mexican-style tacos I have had in Athens, and you should hie yourself over there for some seriously good eats. Most places keep their tacos too dry, with the faint bitterness of the corn tortilla taking precedence over its filling. Sure, you can douse them in lime juice and salsa, but then the housing device gives way. The ones at Los Reyes are perfectly balanced, and their flavor is explosive.
The fish in the fish taco is sauteed, which is usually inferior to the fried version, but it’ll make you forget the Baja style at least briefly. The al pastor is red, with a gentle note of pineapple. The barbacoa and the lengua are the winners, even in a strong field, with deep, meaty, nuanced savoriness. All come with onions and cilantro in just the right amounts. I haven’t made a poor choice yet at the restaurant.
The tortas are of the variety that blend enormousness with lightness, stuffed with meat, lettuce, tomato, avocado, jalapenos, cheese, onion and sour cream and slathered with mayonnaise, yet shockingly easy to pick up. The asada I got instead of the Oaxaca style I’d ordered was so good I didn’t even mind the mix-up. The carne asada comes with ordinary rice and beans but also with a large whole roasted jalapeno and phenomenally well-grilled giant green onions, their ends papery and oily, their bulbs soft and sweet.
Even the Burrito Los Reyes (chicken, shrimp, mushrooms, zucchini, rice, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes) is marvelously executed, combining its many ingredients masterfully to form a unified, delicious whole. Sauces, whether your basic red salsa, a cooler creamy green or a habanero-inflected thinner red, are tasty stuff, too, although not necessary. The menu is large, with plenty that will please the pickiest eater (and a small kids’ menu) but also many areas to explore, as with the section of soups that includes a beef soup cooked with zucchini, potatoes and corn and the lunch specials that promise molletes (a sort of Mexican bruschetta).
It’s also extremely inexpensive, with most of the tacos priced at $1.69 each. Two people can struggle to spend $15 for a large and filling meal. The staff promises delivery is coming soon, and take-out is already available, as is paying with a credit card. Los Reyes is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and until 9 p.m. all other days. Go!
Overlooked: Somehow I missed the opening of Morning Glory Bakery & Coffee House (1431 Capital Ave.), which is in the same weird Watkinsville faux-neighborhood as Taqueria La Parrilla and Dominick’s, but the place is worth noting. For one thing, its proprietor does pour-over single-cup brewing, which produces good results. For dine-in, she also serves it sweetly, with a tiny cup of cream and a long spoon presented on a pretty tray. To attract customers during the slow hours of the day, the shop has recently begun offering some lunch options from Marti’s at Midday, including pimento cheese, chicken salad (tarragon and curry), tuna salad and hummus, all served with pita chips, veggies and a small green salad. Soups are on the menu, too, including a well-made loaded baked potato soup. The baker seems to be having fun experimenting, with vegan Thursdays and gluten-free Fridays, and the case is full of cute things. Mini-cupcakes, priced at $1.26 each, reiterate the varieties of the larger sizes but let you try an array. The vegan chocolate is a stand-out, strong with the flavor of high-quality cocoa. The shop is open from 7:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and takes credit cards.