Ethnic exploits

Two Mexican joints and a Greek bakery

"Good taste is the enemy of creativity," Picasso said. It's so true. In the rarefied world of the gourmand, taste can become so abstracted it loses its capacity to awaken feeling - like a painting kept in a museum vault or a lover whose body is so perfect that touching it feels unreal.

No, the best things in life are imperfect. Imperfection throws perfection into a higher relief and humanizes its subject. This is probably why I understand Beauty's choice to screw the Beast and why I generally prefer ethnic dining.

I've been visiting International Bakery (2165 Cheshire Bridge Road, 440-636-7580) most of the 20 years its been in existence next to Sundown Cafe. Athanasios Kasidakis, his wife Veneta and their daughter Georgia certainly don't operate the toniest bakery in town. You won't, for example, see a Barbie doll inserted into a cake at the Buckhead Bread Company. But it's just this kitschiness that is part of what makes International Bakery lovable.

The bakery's Greek specialties - like several varieties of baklava, including a chocolate dipped one - are unique in Atlanta. Indeed, as far as I know, nobody comes close to that nation's specialty of walnuts and honey encased in filo pastry. Kasidakis' version is always fresh, the pastry always still slightly crisp, the nuts whole or in large chunks.

My principal addiction here - one that I satisfy after regular lunches at Sundown - is not Greek at all. It's a crescent-shaped pastry filled with almond paste and encrusted with slivered almonds, drizzled with a bit of caramelized sugar. I won't even tell you how many of these large pastries I can eat at a time, alternating bites with the strongest espresso I can find.

The bakery also sells Greek cheeses and staples, including grape leaves and olives, along with freshly baked bread and cookies. The classic Greek wedding cookie is the best you'll ever have.

Heading south

The Chicken House (or Casa de Pollo) in East Point (2999 Main St., 404-768-2511), recommended by many readers, is indeed one of the most authentic Mexican restaurants I've encountered in our area.

Ramon Restori and his wife are from Mexico City. They have taken a rather ramshackle building that was home to an earlier Mexican restaurant, scoured it for a month and turned it into a sunny, yellow jewel. All manner of funky chicken art decorates the walls but the ambiance is mainly set by the gregarious Ramon and his staff who swear to you before god and Our Lady of Guadalupe that you are going to love your meal.

I confess things got off to a bad start when I ordered chicharrones, "pork skins," my main reason for visiting, and was informed they weren't available. They had been on the lunch buffet that day but were not available that night. I groused angrily at Ramon and our server. They looked at one another like a monster had come into their midst. I was all the more heartbroken when I learned that they serve not merely the common fried chicharrones but the soft variety, stewed in green sauce, with which I fell in love in Mexico. The only time I've ever had them here before was when Lucero Obregon cooked them for the kitchen staff at Zocalo and offered me a taste.

I recovered from my disappointment. The restaurant does serve excellent tacos of carnitas and al pastor, frequently available only on weekends at other taquerias in our area. Weirdly, though, they are not served with a salsa. I asked Ramon and he explained that many of his customers have a low tolerance for very spicy food, so the salsa has to be requested on the side. The tomatillo salsa is wonderful.

My special of roasted pork ribs was killer. Cooked in a light, lemony marinade, the ribs were served with frijoles refritos and rice. The meat falls in large chunks from the bone. Wrap it in tortillas with some of the beans and give it a shot of the green sauce. Wayne also ordered a special — plump shrimp in garlic sauce with lots of dried red chiles and mushrooms.

Ramon told me that the hottest dish on the menu is pork with red chili sauce. "Even I can't eat it," he said. We will soon return to try it.

By the way, you should call for directions unless you happen to know East Point. Streets seem to change names there two or three times. We could never find our way back onto the freeway coming home. Our winding tour of Atlanta neighborhoods between East Point and Grant Park reminded us of how much of our city remains poor, out of sight and fond of pig ear sandwiches.

Back to Cheshire Bridge

As I mentioned above, I often lunch at Sundown Cafe where the menu of daily specials becomes more interesting - more California-ized - each week. But I confess when I want to eat ultra-cheap authentic Mexican food, I go to nearby El Molino (2000 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-8714).

Carlos, the cook there, is an artist in a baseball cap and apron. He speaks very little English but you should not hesitate to point at the blackboard menu or enlist someone to translate for you. I have astonished people at Starbucks when I carried a sandwich, a torta, from El Molino to eat there. Nearly big enough to fill a dinner plate, the sandwiches are filled with your choice of spicy grilled meats. They cost — sit down — $3.50 each. My favorite daily one is the al pastor but on weekends, I get the carnitas. It is, hands-down, the best lunch deal in Midtown.

If you are feeling rich, you can spend a whopping $4.50 for a huge plate of enchiladas or grilled pork, chicken or beef with rice and beans. You'll easily build five tacos out of a plate. On weekends, Carlos serves the best pozole in our city, along with menudo.

The cafe is in the back of a grocery store. Decor, of course, is nothing more than a calendar and a plastic tablecloth. You can eat in or take the food out. While you wait, check out the roasted specialities at the meat counter in the front of the store.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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