Billy Goat's rough

Plus a raucous Mexican joint on Buford Highway

It's probably a bit impolite to bring up a person's words from the past, but let's start this week by reviewing something Michele Niesen, owner of the Supper Club, wrote one of my readers who complained about her prices last year:

"Value,'" she wrote my reader, "is the most ridiculous word to use in conjunction with ... The Supper Club or any place that puts creativity or interest on a plate. Price is relative (I personally don't go out for a value. If I wanted value, I'd stay home and steam some broccoli). Atmosphere and mystique are part of the cost, as are imagination and creativity."

Niesen's new restaurant, Billy Goat's Cantina (653 East Lake Drive, 404-687-0007), certainly has atmosphere and mystique but I have to say that the prices, for the quality, have here and there thrown me for the same loop my reader experienced.

The best part of Billy Goat's is the ambience. Located in Oakhurst in the space vacated by Margie's Pantry, it is the best breath of Mexico I've encountered in our city. I don't mean that it's "authentic" in the sense Niesen has replicated a cantina. I mean that it is an aesthetic commentary on Mexico as we perceive it, with her usual flashes of wit. Huge clay pots filled with flowers line the sidewalk. The interior is hung with colorful fabrics and pieces of furniture are exhibited like art beneath a burlap ceiling. The bar is large and inviting, festooned with lovable kitsch.

The men's room, if you read Spanish, will cause you to laugh out loud. A gloomy painting of the virgin adrift in the air is captioned with this prayer: "Forgive me, Saint Mary. I did not want to mess up the bathroom. I promise next time to clean up after using it — even if I am drunk."

In two visits to the restaurant during its four weeks of operation, I've had plenty of atmosphere but very irregular food. Among starters, I've been most happy with the soups. There's a blended gazpacho with a tangy kick from green apples ($3.95) and a classic chicken soup with garlic, hominy, avocado and tortilla strips ($4.95). Chips and salsa ($2.95) are average. The chipotle salsa had a nice kick, but the salsa fresca was watery. A chipotle cheese dip is way too mild ($3.95). You'll be craving chile con queso.

Chile relleno, an appetizer, was a remarkable disappointment, especially at its $7.95 price. Overcooked and splayed open like a dissected frog, it was topped mainly with corn and squash. Completely lackluster. A shrimp-salad tostada with salsa verde was better but — I'm sorry — not innovative enough for its $7.95 cost either.

Entrees are similarly inconsistent. Pork mole stew ($11.95), a special, featured a rich mole but desiccated chunks of meat. But a pair of pork mole tacos ($7.95), a special on another evening, had no such problem. A Yucatanean chicken stew ($10.95) was savory with chicken falling from the bone and tender whole cloves of garlic, topped with toasted pumpkin seeds. The plating could be improved — it was too much sauce in a bowl with mashed potatoes — but it was the best dish I've sampled yet.

The grilled ribeye with salsa fresca is hormone-free Australian beef and that's a good thing, isn't it? But the flimsy little piece of beef we were served was a few mouthfuls for $14.95. (We wondered if we'd been served the $7.95 half-portion in error.)

Desserts were disappointing too. A wine glass of arroz con leche, though arguably authentic, is watery instead of custardy ($2.50). A demitasse of dark chocolate, contrarily reduced to near dryness, is a better choice ($3.50).

Service is friendly and educated. Our server from Ecuador, Radames, ran to the kitchen when he could not answer a question about an ingredient himself. I'm happy to declare him Waitron of the Week. I believe, knowing Niesen's work at The Supper Club, that Billy Goat's will improve. But in a city that has more and more sophisticated Mexican cuisine, the restaurant won't get by on good looks and inconsistent cuisine.

Out Buford Highway

I seem to be on quite a Mexican kick lately. Last Sunday, I cruised out Buford Highway and pulled into Cafe Mex (3376 Buford Highway, 404-248-1333). There wasn't a single other Anglo in the restaurant and, apart from the staff, there were no women. Nobody spoke English. Hola, y'all.

Booths and tables were full of men slurping up tripe from bowls of menudo, so I took a seat at the bar next to a young man who rhapsodized in Spanish to me about the culito, the butt, of one of the women on staff. I agreed that her culito was muy rico and, hoping to avoid further discussion, ran to the restroom, which reinforced my feeling of being in the third world.

I was specifically out on Buford in search of some pozole, the pork and hominy soup that many Mexican restaurants there serve on weekends. Unfortunately, Cafe Mex had sold out and I ordered the combination seafood soup instead ($8.95 for a medium bowl that no average human could finish). It was surprisingly good, with a bracing broth heavy with the flavors of the sea but not a drop of fishiness. Coolio. A staggering amount of shrimp, octopus and squid were in the bowl, with a big chunk of fish — tilapia, I think — and half a crab.

I might have been able to eat more of it had I not also ordered a taco al pastor ($1.95), quite yummy, and, well, a tostada topped with octopus ($3.95), and, um, you know, a couple baskets of chips. I can't say, frankly, that Cafe Mex is among my top Mexican spots on Buford, but I had a great time at the bar conversing with the increasingly inebriated men, whose wives and girlfriends were all back in Mexico, leaving them horny as hell with nothing to do but rhapsodize the derrieres of the good-natured staff.

If you need a raucous experience, give it a try.

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

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