Hatching chili peppers, Jamaican cuisine is testing Atlanta’s palates
This week we are visiting a few hot spots. The first is the annual six-week tribute to the famous Chili Hatch at Taqueria del Sol (2165 Cheshire Bridge Rd., 404-321-1118, and other locations, taqueriadelsol.com). I’ve been writing about this for over 10 years – ever since the restaurant started buying a few tons of chili peppers during their brief harvest in the Hatch, New Mexico area.
What makes the Hatch a world favorite among chileheads? For me, it’s partly its robustness. It generally resists roasting and frying, without losing its crisp but subtle flavor, including a vaguely sweet note that plays with spiciness. The Hatch sometimes engages the delicious masochism of reaching the limits of its tolerance. Its pungency is unpredictable, but usually much less than that of a habanero or a Scottish beanie.
Taqueria del Sol incorporates fresh chili peppers into the specialties, but there’s one I always order. It’s not on the menu, but you’ll see a flyer posted on the wall behind the bar. It’s chili relleno. This isn’t your typical Mexican version made with a poblano pepper filled with meat and / or cheese, fried in a coating that goes from thin to spongy.
La Taqueria del Sol’s is filled with a creamy, melt-in-the-mouth cheese and served over a roasted tomato sauce. It is a kind of southern fry to produce a crispy panko-like coating. They don’t appeal to everyone. A dyspeptic friend wrote: “I absolutely do not understand the enthusiasm. Tasted like a giant jalapeño popper for me pushed inside a stick of fried mozzarella. I have no idea what a mozzarella stick is, but I know very well that the flavor is not that of a jalapeño, unless you react only to the heat. Taste the flesh!
The disappointment this year is that the rellenos are not available for lunch. I recommend you go to dinner early, like 6pm, to try them out. I don’t know why, but the chili itself seems more robust then. They cost $ 6 each and two will satisfy most diners. Get a side of corn chowder if you need more. Please. Overcome your fear of burning your tongue and anus. Take a half and half pint and extinguish the flame as soon as it reaches your mouth, if that is unbearable. Vodka supposedly prevents intense spices.
I also visited this week the 2 month old baby Jerk Chicken Grill Festivals in Glenwood Park (925, rue Garrett, 404-549-9828, festivalsjerk.com). I love Jamaican cooking jerk seasoning, which ideally contains atomic Scotch bonnet peppers. Unfortunately these are rarely available in town and the owner told me his clientele wouldn’t be able to tolerate them anyway.
I understand that, but the jerk chicken and (extremely dry) pork at festivals is about the sweetest I’ve ever tasted – even sweeter than at the non-Jamaican restaurants in Ponce de Leon. I told the owner about it and, again, he said he had to turn the spice “down” for his customers. I hear that everywhere. He said that the spiciness can be amplified by sauces. The hottest was indeed intense, but also unpleasantly sweet. Sugar is an ingredient commonly used to temper heat, but it was too syrupy.
I also tried deliciously iced plantains and callaloo, a mysterious green blend popular in the Caribbean. I prefer the coarsely chopped leaves with the creamy texture of Festivals spinach, but I’ve only eaten them a few times before.
The restaurant obviously tries to please everyone. There’s a kids’ menu, jerk pizza, jerk flatbread, jerk sandwiches, jerk tacos, even jerk eggrolls – and so much more. By the way, the name of the restaurant refers to a dumpling popular in Jamaica. The owner told me that its function is to temper the heat, but hey, it’s still delicious. Amplify it, guys!