Restaurant critics often seek out extreme culinary experiences at the expense of focusing on where most people want to spend their time and money when they go out to dinner. We routinely ignore factors such as creature comforts and convenience, willingly driving to the ends of the earth to collect unfamiliar flavors. We put up with egomaniacal chefs whose performative drive piques our curiosity without satisfying our taste buds. Increasingly, I’ve found myself exhausted by this search, and in need of a pleasant meal. My first visit to El Valle—a modern Mexican restaurant in the old Escorpión space, a few blocks north of the Fox Theatre (800 Peachtree Street, Midtown)—had nothing to do with reaching for a deeper understanding of cuisine. I just wanted to have a good time.
As it turned out, my evening was remarkably free of the usual annoyances. Free parking? Check! Friendly staff? Check! Well-printed menu, sexy cocktails, enough space at the bar for an army, hospitable terrace on two sides of the building? Check, check, check, and check. Also: pleasant acoustics, pretty food, complimentary carbonated water, and, best of all, rarely seen Mexican wines from the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja. I was, if not hooked, then reasonably grateful and eager to return.
When Escorpión opened a little over a decade ago, it was easily the best tequila and mezcal bar around. The food was ambitious, too. But eventually, things started to slip, and I lost track of the place, not even realizing when it closed. The floor plan hasn’t changed in the new El Valle—there’s still a large rectangle of a bar, an intimate and colorful dining room, a casual corner with high-top tables—but the decor, fresher and brighter, is now easier on the eyes. A dizzying number of people, most of them young, are involved: chef Luis Damian and bartender Miguel Chavez, two longtime friends who worked together at Escorpión in its prime; Faye Jonah, who has her own chocolate business and acts as both pastry and savory chef; the Naraghi family (the father, who is in commercial real estate, invested money, and two sons work in the restaurant); and Jennifer Smith, who until recently worked at Lazy Betty, and who delves into her own Mexican heritage here as the lead bartender.
It is the only place in town where you can sample a large number of frequently exquisite Mexican wines, such as LA Cetto’s nebbiolo—made from a finicky grape that grows only in Italy, Northern California, and Mexico. There are plenty of sipping mezcals, upmarket tequilas, and lovely fresh cocktails named after old Mexican boleros, but the focus is on the little-known vineyards of a country where wine production is the oldest in the New World.
Besides the wine, the most interesting thing to me about El Valle is the delicacy of its food—and the lack of heat. Neither fork-tender boneless short ribs with black garlic mole nor the branzino filet, which is wrapped in a bright-green hoja santa leaf and set on poblano mashed potatoes, even mildly tickled my throat, but they still managed to evoke the more refined aspects of Mexican cuisine. Fresh guacamole comes with tortilla chips that are baked rather than fried, plus spears of raw jicama, carrots, and celery; the fluffy grilled bolillo is a joy to dip into a bowl of mussels in brick-red guajillo broth; and scallop crudo (doused in aguachile marinade and surrounded on the plate by segments of clementine and slivers of celery), halibut ceviche (with charred avocado and prickly pear), and fried soft-shell crab over polenta are all dishes one is happy to nibble on during the cocktail hour.
Some dishes don’t succeed as well, like a flabby octopus tentacle that’s cooked sous vide, grilled, then served with a small dollop of sweet plantain puree and a big swish of pipian sauce. The only texture in the soupy mac and cheese comes from a dusting of chicharrones crumbs. I could be a fan of the cauliflower al pastor tacos, but didn’t like their thin, almost leathery corn tortillas. On the other hand, I look forward to returning to try some of the other dishes I watched whizzing through the dining room, like thick sopes de carnitas and tamarind-marinated steak from one of the owners’ favorite home recipes.
Desserts are a must here, especially the fun deconstructed s’mores with homemade marshmallow fluff, churro puffs, and a huge disc of dense dark chocolate mousse. Figgy toffee pudding, hidden under a cumulonimbus of vanilla ice cream, doesn’t have quite the same visual appeal—but its texture and taste are amazing.
Kernel of truth
The menu’s masa section demonstrates the kitchen’s facility with tacos, sopes, and more.
Sopes de carnitas, topped with pork belly, epazote beans, and pickled onions
Tacos “al pastor”—but filled with cauliflower rather than pork
Delicately decorated sincronizada de pulpo—aka octopus quesadilla
This article appears in our July 2022 issue.
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