Restaurant Review - Dream house

Casa Vieja offers excellent food in an exuberant atmosphere

It's hard to predict what surprises can be found in a restaurant whose name means "old house" in Spanish. The strip mall in which Casa Vieja is located looks little different from the many others populating nearby Buford Highway. From the external view, the Colombian eatery appears dark, even a touch dingy. But take one step inside, and you feel as if you've walked into a shining, life-sized diorama of a Columbian village. Murals cover the walls, giving guests the appearance that they're dining in a plaza, surrounded by shops, houses and a bar. The bar happens to be a real, functioning one called "Bar La Ultima Lagrima" ("the Last Drop Bar"). Tabletops are inlaid with brightly painted tiles, and the ladder-back chairs are painted brilliant shades of blue and yellow. Bamboo shades and blinds heighten the sensation that you're enjoying a meal in a sparkling, joyful courtyard.

Fiesta, fiesta, fiesta: Casa Vieja's owners did a most impressive job of turning a run-of-the-mill retail space into a supremely charming setting. At night, the atmosphere is pure party: a spotlight trained on a single, small disco ball dangling in the dining room throws a twinkle into the air. The cologne-dispensing machine in the men's restroom intensifies the rock-until-daybreak mood. Nary a word of English was spoken or heard during our meals, but menus are in English and Spanish, and service is so gracious non-Spanish speakers should have no problems.

Buenísima: There aren't really any appetizers at Casa Vieja, just bountiful plates of food mounded high with combinations of meats, vegetables and rice. A number of soups are offered, from oxtail to young hen with rice, but most are so hearty they are better taken as meals than starters. The Ajiaco Santafereño ($8.95), a cream of chicken soup, is one such item. Velvety, dotted with corn and peas, and dressed with capers and a drizzle of heavy cream, the Ajiaco boasts a tender chicken leg and is closer to a stew than soup. Consumed during a bout of the flu, it works restorative wonders.

The Bandeja Paisa ($8.50 at dinner, $6.50 at lunch) is a platter heaped with grilled steak, rice, a fried egg, beans cooked to a creamy softness, fried plantains and best of all, chicharrón — a strip of pork rind. It may be hard to go wrong with pork rinds, but here the chicharrón is a thing of beauty: pure flaky, crispy-fried porcine goodness.

Good to the last drop: Lunch specials are an astonishingly good value. A slice of beef braised in a tomato-rich broth, served with fried plantains, rice, salad and soup comes to a bargain basement $5.50. The meat is as tender as the Atlanta summer is long, and the soup is a lusciously rich chicken broth spiked with tumeric and cilantro. Cubes of potato melt into the soup. All desserts are homemade, and the postre de tres leches, a wedge of cornmeal cake drenched in custard sauce ($2.50), is outstanding.

"Gracias, vuelvan pronto!" our server tells us as we leave. We know we'll take her up on her invitation to return soon, as Casa Vieja is one of the brightest spots of sunshine we may see all winter long.

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