If you search Zabiha.com, a halal restaurant locator, for halal burgers in Atlanta you’ll find at least a dozen different restaurants.
Salsa Taqueria is located inside a Shell gas station off Buford Highway in Brookhaven. Mehvish Chaudhary, originally from Pakistan, and her husband, from Bangladesh, are the owners of the gas station.
In 2020 they decided to convert a section of the Shell convenience store into their very own restaurant, something they had always wanted to do. Their goal was to provide a new halal food offering - something outside the standard halal South Asian fare you get in so many Atlanta restaurants.
“There was a need, this was not available, it’s something different. We wanted options for everyone,” said Mehvish.
I met my dad there for lunch. Salsa Taqueria is across from an apartment complex and sandwiched between “Ruby’s Coin Laundry” and “Latina Supermarket.” It was clean, the staff was masked, and most of the patrons were too. There’s a decent looking outdoor space with red tables and chairs and strings of light hanging above.
We ordered what Mehvish told us was their most popular item - the Birria beef tacos ($3.99 each). We also ordered the Birria chicken tacos ($3.49, and second most popular), a regular shrimp taco ($2.99), and a regular vegetarian taco ($2.99).
I’d never heard of birria tacos before. When I asked Mehvish about them, she told me they were popular...and not much else. To my South Asian eye and ear, “birria” sounded easily like a Punjabi dish my relatives would force me to try against my will (my tendencies, which are the butt of many jokes at family gatherings, are more salady and vegetarian). The birria taco is very fried looking (“looks like a puri” my dad said) and is stuffed with lots of meat, and lots of cheese.
Birria tacos, according to the Internet, hail from the western part of Mexico from a state of Jalisco. One of the cooks (who was Mexican) at Salsa Taqueria said they were from Guerrero and Mehvish said they were from “all around Mexico.”
Anyways. The point is, a birria taco consists of stewed meat (traditionally goat or lamb), a tortilla that’s been dipped in that same stew, and a generous helping of cheese all grilled together to create a puri panini taco thing. There’s a little container of “consomé,” or the broth of the stew (me and my dad thought it was shorba, I swear I tasted garam masala in it!) for dipping.
I have to admit, it was tasty. The shell was crunchy and crisp. The cheese and the meat melted together giving it this rich, comforting, almost buttery taste. The consomé - the perfect accompaniment. (That consomé really tripped us up btw...my dad asked a fellow South Asian patron if it was chole). The cilantro and onions on top added some color and freshness.
The shrimp taco was a hit with my dad. I was hoping he would really relish every bite and give me some New York Times food critic level feedback. But the most I could get out of him was “very good, very good” between the three bites before the taco was finished.
The vegetarian taco I ordered (I know, what am I doing ordering vegetarian food at a halal restaurant) was fine. I was expecting beans in it. Instead I found some carrots. I dipped it in the red sauce it came with hoping to give it some needed flavor. A fire seared my throat. I exploded into a coughing fit, my eyes watering. My dad and I ran inside looking for water. I looked over at Mehvish and asked, “what WAS that sauce?” She shrugged, “Salsa.”
Before leaving, I made one last attempt to get some more words out of Mehvish. I asked her what she wanted people to know about her restaurant. “It’s full halal menu, authentic, and everything is made in the restaurant.” When I pressed her on what she meant by authentic, she said it meant it was from Mexico. When I asked her where in Mexico, she again told me, “all around Mexico.”
I can’t say I learned a lot about Mehvish and her husband’s story or how they’ve been faring since the pandemic, but I did see the beauty of Buford Highway in action. They've taken a traditional taco and opened it up to a whole new part of the population just by making it halal. For the hour I was there, I watched a steady stream of mostly South Asian and African American customers order tacos.
I left fuller than I usually am after lunch, somewhat surprised by the tastiness of the food, and happy to have spent an hour with my dad in the middle of the week.