Restaurant Review - Indentity Crisis

Our frantic waiter rushes the table, sweating so profusely his stringy hair is matted to his forehead. "I'll be with you in one minute," he spurts as a greeting, before scrambling away. Oh, boy. Somebody hook me up to a margarita drip. It's a busy Sunday night at the new Zocalo on Decatur square, and I sense we're in for a bumpy ride.

I vanquish thoughts of our sweaty server by relaxing into the surroundings. The Martinez-Obregon siblings — Lucero, Luis and Marco — have a talent for conjuring earthy, sensual settings in their restaurants; their second Zocalo location is no exception.

Overhead light dapples through swirling patterns in pressed tin sheets, evoking faraway constellations in the nighttime sky. Quirky signs and other knickknacks fill crevices and corners. I recognize several of them from Oh ... Maria!, the owners' defunct Buckhead venture into Mexican fine dining.

A busboy whizzes by and drops off a basket of chips and salsa — an offering the Martinez-Obregon clan once balked at serving customers. Their inaugural mission in this town, with Oh ... Maria! and the first Zocalo in Midtown, was to introduce Atlanta to more authentic, sophisticated tastes of Mexican cuisine.

But the dining public never fully embraced the vision. The tender, intricately spiced corn patties and snapper with huitlacoche went largely unappreciated. Folks around here still want chips and salsa and fajitas at their Mexican restaurants, and that's that.

Unfortunately, in an effort to please the crowds, Zocalo now finds itself in a culinary purgatory. Much of the food at this location smacks of lowered standards and conformity, as if the spirit behind the food has been banished from the kitchen.

There is certainly one thing that should not have left the hands of the kitchen, and that's the guacamole. It's made tableside. I notice a shadow of consternation pass over servers' eyes every time I order it. They soon lug over a large tray holding a basket of avocados and ramekins of guac fixings that they mix in a heavy molcajete.

It's an appealing contrivance, but the end result in the four times I've tried it has never been satisfying. An element is always off. The guac invariably needs more salt, more lime, more heat — something. When the sweat-soaked fella takes a stab at it, he doesn't even mash it up thoroughly, partly because the avocados are so under-ripe. Rethink this strategy, gang. Whip the stuff up in the back so a seasoned palate can balance it properly.

And what would I like to eat my guac with? Some decent corn tortillas, please. My heart aches for the dense, fresh tortillas they used to make at Oh ... Maria!, flavored with chipotle or epazote or black bean. Here, they dispense flaccid, tasteless white corn numbers obviously from a package. I wish the problems would stop there. They don't. Tacos de pescado come with shredded fish unpleasantly pungent from overcooking. A salad of cactus and mesclun greens, dominated by an overabundance of pinto beans, stings the tongue with an acidic vinaigrette. Cochinita pibil, the marvelous dish of marinated pork cooked in a banana leaf, is cottony and dry when I try it. Happily, the traditional accompaniment of onion-habanero salsa has the burning jab it should. With a bit of tinkering, I'm sure the meat could be served moist and voluptuous.

The same cannot be said for ostion burion — oysters in a tequila-arbol salsa, covered with two kinds of cheese. I thought it might be akin to a South-of-the-border rendition of oysters Rockefeller. Nope. The oysters taste almost pickled in the salsa, and the barely melted glob of cheese on top has no sense of connection to the oysters. It's two great tastes that do not taste great together.

Though the food at Oh ... Maria! went through torrid ups and disconcerting downs in its four-year run, I remember the chile rellenos as being one of the few dishes you could consistently count on. That tradition, thankfully, carries on here: The poblano pepper's sharpness is tempered by its molten cheese filling; the batter's thickness is just right; the blanket of tomato sauce soothes and brightens.

The grilled pepper-cheese combo works to equally good effect in the arrachera entree paired with a strip of tender, thin steak and grilled mushrooms. There's a cup of piquant pinto beans on the side and tortillas for build-your-own tacos. I'd choose it over the tampiquena, a similar but less compelling combination of steak with a dollop of guacamole (yes, worlds better than the tableside counterpart I had), rice, beans and a "mole enchilada" that's nothing more than a folded tortilla dunked in too-sweet mole sauce.

Not in the mood for meat? Pescado Zocalo, a torrential downpour of crispy tortilla strips and queso fresco swathing a nicely seared piece of snapper with tomato-olive sauce, is a mad clutter of ingredients that somehow coalesce and complement one another. Wait, is there something else under the pile? Why, yes there is — a black bean quesadilla covered in achiote, the tangy seed that lends its color to margarine and other goodies. It's the bottomless dish!

Service, like the food, needs tuning. On that fateful Sunday night with our perspiring staffer, employees drop dishes. The hostess wanders off to chat with friends while would-be diners scan the room with hungry, hound dog eyes, hoping lingerers will leave. Our drinks are a long time coming. The explanation? "The bartender has never made a tequila sunrise before. He had to look it up." M'kay ...

The margaritas, by my reckoning, fall somewhere north of Nuevo Laredo's but substantially south of Sala's. By the time you get a couple slurped down, you start to make peace with the rhythm of the restaurant. The appetizers and entrees may come out too quickly, or you may be sitting awhile, licking the salt off the rim of your drink for nourishment.

While you're waiting, you may as well people watch. At prime time dining, Decaturites show up in droves: straight couples, straight couples with kids, gay couples, gay couples with kids. They're a patient, relentlessly friendly bunch who don't seem to mind the aura of barely organized chaos the restaurant takes on when in full swing.

By the time we reach dessert, though, the crowds have thinned. Our harried server has mopped his brow. We savor the Rompope liqueur underneath the spongy tres leches and sigh happily over the silky flan. We get the check in time to dash home and watch the season finale of "Alias." We're content.

And yet, in the big picture, it's hard for me to overlook the restaurant's shortcomings. I know this crew to be capable of finer, truer food than they're churning out here. I get it: A restaurant is a business, and ultimately you have to deliver what customers want, what sells. It seems a shame, though, knowing the Martinez-Obregons' worthy aspirations. So much of the passion to bring us fine Mexican fare has been lost in favor of catering to the masses.

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