If you are part of Generation X or older, and you grew up in East Tennessee like I did, you can remember a time when there weren't debates over which Mexican restaurant had the best salsa or the best margarita. There were no debates because there was nothing to debate: There was an El Chico, possibly in more than one location, and that was it.
It's possible that there was somewhere in those days in Chattanooga to eat Mexican food besides the Tex-Mex chain, and I was simply too young to know, but as a very small child, that's the only place I remember going. When Taco Bell came to town, I remember being excited because I knew I would soon have more opportunities to eat tacos than those occasional taco nights at home, nights when my mom always used the prepackaged hard corn shells from the grocery store.
I knew there was a cookbook high on the shelf, next to Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, called The Cuisines of Mexico. Yet as I grew up, I never thought to dig through its pages the way I did with The Silver Palate Cookbook or Marcella Hazen's The Classic Italian Cook Book. It's true Julia Child was a celebrity and the reclusive Diana Kennedy is less so, and it's true that the Silver Palate kind of defined 1980s cooking (in my mind, at least), and Italian was a much more trendy ethnic food in those years. But if I'm honest, the truth is that it never occurred to me there was such a thing as gourmet Mexican food. Even worse, as one after another Amermexican restaurant began to open in Chattanooga, it never occurred to me that my staple order, Vegetarian Combination Plate C (a bean burrito, a cheese enchilada, and a bean tostada), was almost as equally inauthentic Mexican food as Taco Bell.
But East Tennessee has come a long way since the 1980s and early 1990s. As the Hispanic population has doubled, and then doubled again and again, even most Amermexican places now have a swath of more-or-less authentic dishes on their menus. Salsa isn't always red, margaritas aren't always neon green, and Mexican beer doesn't always mean Corona.
Sometime over the winter I spent an hour or so interviewing this high school kid from Oak Ridge. He is Mexican, and he had lived in Mexico City for the first decade of so of his life, and so we were talking about that, but at some point during the interview, I went off topic.
"Hey, where do you go to get authentic Mexican food around here?" I asked. After a year and half in small-town Mississippi, where the tastiest margarita in town could be found at Chili's, I was desperately craving the good Mexican food I had been spoiled by in Atlanta—tender vegetable tamales, enchiladas with a really good sour cream sauce, and, my favorite dish of all time, potato tacos (on fresh corn tortillas, of course).
"Authentic Mexican food?" He laughed loudly. "There's no such thing as authentic Mexican food in Knoxville."
A few weeks later, I had the same conversation with a grad student at the University of Tennessee. He had grown up in New Mexico and lived there or in Texas most of his life. He complained about his inability to find authentic, real Mexican food in town. I asked him if he had been to any of the taquerias on Chapman Highway, ones which I drive past daily. "There are taquerias on Chapman Highway?" he replied. "I didn't know that. I never go that way."
Of course, I hadn't been to those taquerias either, despite driving past them dozens of times in a given week. I like to think of myself as an adventurous diner, and lord knows I eat out enough, often by myself, but when it comes to true hole-in-the-wall ethnic food, I'm easily intimidated. There's a reason why I'm not a travel writer.
Still, I kept thinking about those two conversations, and I kept wondering about those taquerias. Surely some of them served somewhat authentic Mexican food, right?
But when you aren't Diana Kennedy, when you haven't traveled all over Mexico eating regional cuisine from both trained chefs and vendors in open-air markets, when, in fact, you've spent only a few hours once in Ciudad Juarez (a long time ago, before it became a drug war zone), how do you begin to know what is and isn't authentic Mexican cuisine?
I decided to answer that question using the proven scientific method: I went out to eat. A lot. At every taqueria I could find.
A taqueria, in case your Spanish is lacking, means "a store that sells tacos." What this translates to in real life is generally a small restaurant tucked inside a larger Mexican or Latin American foods market. These are places geared toward a Hispanic clientele—you are likely to be the only white diner, and if you go during the week, often the only female diner. Some have all the ambiance of a generic Tex-Mex restaurant, while some just have a couple of tables in a corner under bright fluorescent lights. You're guaranteed a television or three, usually turned onto a telenovela (soap opera), or, if you're lucky, a futbol (soccer) game.
I can give you this generic description because I've been to almost every taqueria in Knox and Blount Counties. (I'm sure I've likely missed a taqueria or two tucked away somewhere in the suburbs, and I've still yet to eat at the vendors at Green Acres flea market; every time that was on my weekend schedule, something happened—rain, time, life.) Over the past few months, I have eaten out at two, three, four taquerias a week—sometimes twice a day. I have spent several hundred dollars. I have gained several pounds. And I have discovered that not all taquerias are created equal—that just like Amermexican restaurants, some are better than others.
But this guide—the results of my research—is still limited. As much as I did eat, and as many places as I went to, I still couldn't make it through all the menus of all the places by any means. Thus, this list should be looked at as just that—a guide for you to use as a jumping off point to explore Knoxville's growing taqueria culture on your own. These are not specific, in-depth restaurant reviews but more like suggestions—the beginning of a conversation, I hope, as to where the best Mexican food in town really is, as to what makes this food more or less authentic, as to whether Knoxville can embrace its true international flavors.
I don't pretend to have the answers, but I can tell you that the fresh, homemade tortillas at Las Amigas are some of the best I've tasted, and that while the fish tacos at El Tocayo are nothing like Baja style, they're better (and cheaper) than most I've had in town.
But if you know anywhere within an hour's drive that does have potato tacos, please let me know. I'm still craving them.