by Candice Dyer
Eddie Hernandez is part of a generation of immigrants who landed in the American South, where they explore their culinary roots using locally sourced ingredients.
His restaurant, Taqueria del Sol, specializes in playful, flavorful mashups of Mexican food with homegrown fare.
His spicy turnip greens, Memphis pork barbecue tacos and weekly blue plate specials draw crowds stretching to the sidewalks at seven locations in Atlanta, Athens and Tennessee.
“I care deeply about Southern food,” he says, “and I love cooking. It’s that simple – I really do.”
Hernandez grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where he learned his way around a kitchen with his grandmother, who operated several restaurants. At 16, he moved to the United States, where he tried to make it as a professional drummer. He finally ended up at an Atlanta restaurant, where he met Mike Klank, his current business partner, who introduced him to Memphis barbecue.
Hernandez saw creative possibilities, and he didn’t have to work hard to meld cuisines. Most of the differences are a minor matter of semantics, anyway. Mexicans eat corn tortillas; Southerners favor cornbread. Mexicans render pork fat and conserve the lard; Southerners cook bacon and save the grease. Mexicans make barbacoa; Southerners call it barbecue. So why not stuff tacos with fried chicken, and smother it all with lime jalapeño mayonnaise? Wash it down with an “Eddie Palmer,” iced tea spiked with tequila.
“The country is irrelevant to me,” he says. “It’s what’s available and what you can do with it.”
So he notoriously does not fret too much about “authenticity.”
“In Mexico, we eat what we like and don’t worry about what is authentic to this cuisine or that,” Hernandez says. “You make do, and you make it taste good.”
Early on, a customer gave him a bag of turnip greens. At first, Hernandez didn’t know what to do with them, but he recalled the way his family used to cook lamb’s quarters. So he simmered them in a pot with chicken stock, tomatoes and garlic, and added chile de arbol. The dish is now a beloved staple at the restaurants, and the recipe is included in his recently published cookbook, Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen.
For these efforts, Hernandez and Klank have been named semi-finalists in the James Beard Foundation Awards for Excellence’s Outstanding Restaurateur category for four years in a row.
Hernandez feels hopeful about Georgia’s restaurant industry, but believes it still can do more to reach a broader customer base. “I think it is very important,” he says, “but it needs to be pushed even further. We are beginning to become a food destination, and I think once we establish ourselves further we will be able to thrive even more.”
For more on Eddie Hernandez and Taqueria del Sol, read “Mixing It Up.”