LOS PRIMOS TAQUERIA EXPRESS (7990 Macon Hwy., 706-705-6195): If I were to tell you that some of the legitimately best tacos in the Athens area can be had at a drive-through restaurant in Oconee County that looks like a national franchise, you would probably laugh in disbelief. But reality doesn’t care about your expectations or mine.
Los Primos took over the former Golden Chick, near Waffle House and a sign that urges people to call their legislators and ask them to investigate the results of the 2020 presidential election. Owned by the same folks who run La Cabana, Los Primos is more quick-service and less sit-down, although you can do either. If you go inside, you can get a beer or a margarita, but you also shouldn’t expect to see much in the way of acknowledgement of an ongoing pandemic. There’s a patio for outdoor dining, which could work, but the drive-through is also speedy, pleasant and safer.
The menu isn’t as huge as the usual American Mexican place, nor is it as streamlined as something that’s a pure taqueria. Instead, it borrows from numerous sources, offering rice bowls (topped with proteins and veggies—totally fine but not particularly exciting), tortas (available in some very solid combinations, such as chorizo, rajas and steak; the bread is a little too floppy, and the fries, although well flavored, are pretty soggy), big salads, nachos and big burritos that require a fork. Your best bet, however, are the tacos, both the more traditional Mexican-style ones and the more fusiony ones that come in flour tortillas. The former, double corn-tortilla-ed, manage not to fall apart despite being pretty packed with fillings. Often, even a taqueria that caters mostly to Spanish-speaking clientele will fail to balance the seasoning of its fillings against the tendency of corn tortillas to bland everything out, but that’s not an issue at Los Primos. The al pastor includes niblets of pineapple, the tongue is cubed small and cooked slowly to make it beautifully tender, the carnitas have enough bark without having too much, and even the grilled fish marries softness with bite. Everything is dressed with lime, onions and cilantro, with more limes alongside, plus a couple of impressively hot sauces (one green, one habanero) should you need to add more flavor, but the point is that you likely won’t. There’s tripe, too, and barbacoa, as well as American tacos in a crispy corn shell with ground beef, lettuce and cheese. Don’t snooze on the flour tortilla section of the menu, either. I was extremely skeptical of a quinoa, arugula and black bean taco in a whole-wheat tortilla, but it’s quite tasty, with red onions, tomato and an avocado lime sauce. Likewise (although slightly less so), for a steak and plantain taco with a mango sauce. If I had to nitpick, I’d say the latter is a bit too sweet, but it’s also hearty, with plenty of flavor. The tacos run between $2.75 and $3.50, making them slightly higher priced than average, but they’re sizable, meaning you might need fewer than usual.
Los Primos also has a kids menu, empanadas, gorditas, desserts and specials that can include quesabirria and soups. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day.
JINYA RAMEN BAR (351 E. Broad St., 706-478-0880): Jinya is similar to Los Primos in that it provides a surprisingly good product but, unlike that restaurant, it is an international chain with locations as far away as Vancouver. The interior is busy with seating options also outside, but its take-out experience is speedy and well thought out, with noodles packed separately from hot broth to keep them from disintegrating. Combine them when you arrive at your eating destination, wherever that might be, and you’ll end up with a fresh bowl of hot, delicious variety.
Although I normally prefer a meatier ramen, the collagen-rich broth being the most appealing aspect of the dish, Jinya’s spicy, creamy vegan ramen is one of the best things it offers, with a deeply flavorful vegetarian broth and all kinds of hot and crunchy ingredients: thin-sliced wood ear mushrooms, raw and fried onions, sesame seeds, chili oil. The classic pork tonkotsu is a close second, in either red (spicy) or black, with a broth that can be almost jelly-like and a softly boiled egg. The menu also includes many late-night-type snacks: takoyaki, shishito peppers, gyoza and caramelized cauliflower. The only one that transcends quick service is the steamed bun with pork, Kewpie mayo, cucumbers and lettuce, which is also available in an Impossible version which is a salty, sweet, sticky, nommable morsel. There are rice bowls and curries, a kids menu, poke, salads, spicy tuna tacos, mochi ice cream and so on. It’s a big menu, with regular limited-time specials and sortable by vegetarian and gluten-free options. Jinya might be a chain, but it’s a polished one with a reliably good product.
The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner every day, with a full bar that includes hot and cold sakes and Japanese beer. You can order take-out on its site at jinyaramenbar.com.
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