Curry and cojones

Two worthy additions join Atlanta's eclectic ethnic eateries

Atlanta really is a paradise for ethnic dining. This week I've visited two restaurants — one Thai and one Mexican — that crank up the quality of two of my favorite cuisines. Both are worth your immediate attention.

Thai Palate Cuisine (265 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-685-9988) has opened next to MF Sushi, in the complex that wraps itself about the temporarily closed Krispy Kreme donut shop. Like its Japanese neighbor, Thai Palate has a unique interior that is modeled after a child's playroom — a very postmodern and grown-up one. Primary colors and geometric forms decorate the small dining room where a cobblestone wall, topped with orchids, hides the kitchen. It's casually glamorous and, lest you miss the playroom theme, the owners' young sons may come post themselves at your table and stare at you, smiling.

The menu is killer. Besides the Thai standards, you'll find some creative specials and quite a few Malaysian dishes. When I expressed my surprise at this aloud, Wayne, who loves maps the way other people love their dogs, hastily explained (drawing a map in the air) that Thailand and Malaysia border one another.

"Well," I said, "I know that but I've been to many Thai restaurants and do not recall ever going to one that chose to feature Malaysian food."

I repeated the same question to our server.

"It's because Thailand and Malaysia border one another," he said.

Wayne smirked. Fine. I'm happy it's on the menu. We only tried one Malaysian dish, sambal sotong — impossibly tender rings of squid in a very spicy red sauce made with shrimp paste, served over raw cabbage. It was absolutely as good as similar dishes I've had at Penang, my fave for Malaysian, and plated with unusual artistry. All of the food is beautiful here, served on square white or cobalt plates.

I do worry if the restaurant will retain authenticity of flavors. At least three employees asked us if the food was "too spicy" and I heard two nearby diners complaining that they didn't want anything "too spicy."

I ordered a special — not too spicy — of two fried soft-shell crabs in a green curry sauce with sugar peas, red peppers, asparagus and basil, served with rice. Every ingredient glistened and the crabs were the best I've had this season.

To sample some of the restaurant's more traditional dishes we ordered an appetizer plate that included larb, fried cheese rolls and fish cake. Again, everything was fresh and skillfully seasoned.

It takes balls
Atlanta's blessed with some very fine taquerias, Mexican seafood cafes and Anglo restaurants that interpret Mexican food through a Southwestern lens. Since the closing of Oh ... Maria!, we don't have any gourmet Mexican restaurants.

La Feria (1860 Corporate Blvd., 404-728-0830) is not a gourmet restaurant but it does offer more authentic and challenging dishes than any other Mexican restaurant in town that I know. Opened by the folks who own Marisqueria 7 Mares, La Feria is located in an old Denny's where Buford Highway intersects with Corporate Boulevard. Look for the Pink Pony. You're there.

The restaurant is sprawling. You get a lot of orange color, crepe paper ornaments and recorded music. Mexico's music is the only thing that I dislike about its culture. To me, it is like the world's country music. I hear fingernails scraping across the global blackboard. You do get a divine staff of pleasant servers who speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. The menu is in English.

I hesitate to confess that my first visit was for the daily all-you-can-stuff-in-your-face-for-less-than-$7 lunch buffet. Typically, I loathe buffets but I found some really delicious food among some not-so-impressive dishes. The chile rellenos and chicken enchiladas were especially good, as was a dish of shredded chicken in a red sauce. (You need to ask for tortillas to build tacos out of some of the meats.) There's also a dessert table that includes those big cookies with the Pepto-Bismol icing I love and probably mean I should turn in my critic's card.

The dinner menu is staggering. Any regular reader of this column knows that I will happily eat just about anything from any eco-system. But I'm sorry: I ain't ordering La Feria's bull testicles. I hope that gives you an idea of how extensive and odd this menu is. There's also rabbit and goat, quails and Cornish hens.

We ordered less adventurously. I picked lamb cooked barbacoa-style. I've actually not seen lamb on a Mexican menu in town before. I liked it but its flavor, even for me, was a bit gamy despite a powerful red sauce. I made tacos out of it — corn tortillas are the standard here — with pico de gallo. Charros beans were the best around.

Wayne ordered a better dish: pork (rib meat cooked and served on the bones) flavored with a fabulous guajillo sauce and garnished with salty nopales (cactus). He complained that it was not enough pork, but it was plenty for any normal eater. Frijoles refritos and rice were on the side. The restaurant could leave off the pile of lettuce but it seems unavoidable everywhere.

Go, eat the bull balls, and get back to me.

Gone but not for long
Coincidentally, Krispy Kreme on Ponce was in its last 30 minutes of serving when we dined at Thai Palate last week. It will reopen in a new building in October.

I haven't eaten a doughnut in years but decided to seize the opportunity and order a dozen glazed for nostalgia's sake. Many's the early morning years ago when I stumbled out of a nearby club and devoured the sticky things on the way home.

I was happy to see among the farewell crowd Armando Monge, manager of the Ansley LA Fitness Disco and Torture Chamber where I work out. Armando claimed to be there protesting the eating of doughnuts. Right. I was there buying them for a science experiment.

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

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