Mexican, Malaysian and more

An excursion into economical eats around the ATL

This week, I'm featuring your favorite flavor: inexpensive. Let's take a tour.

There's good news at Zocalo (187 10th St., 404-249-7576). Lucero Martinez-Obregon has returned as chef to the restaurant she opened with her brothers Luis and Marco. She left a few years ago to open Orange and Scarlett's while her brothers also took over management of Oh ... Maria!, their attempt at serious gourmet Mexican cooking. It has since closed.

Zocalo, a festively decorated cantina that adjoins Nickiemoto's, brought Midtown its first taste of authentic Mexican fare without requiring a trip to Buford Highway. It remains a reliable choice and my favorite at the now restaurant-dense intersection of Piedmont and 10th. Lucero has redesigned the lunch menu, which I sampled last week, and is adding new dishes to the dinner menu.

A don't-miss dish at lunch is a creamy soup of pureed roasted poblano peppers with melted white cheese and occasional corn kernels. It produces a nice burn in the throat but won't have you putting your head under water. Tacos, only $1.95 each, are unbeatable. My fave is the cochinita, pork marinated overnight in a perfect balance of citrus juices spiked with achiote. It's served shredded and is deliciously juicy. I also like the "baja," which features barely battered fried shrimp in a remoulade-like tartar sauce flavored with chipotle.

Lucero, an artist whose first restaurant job was with Paul Luna at Bice, has quite a whimsical imagination. Thus the Cuba-Mex hybrid sandwich that combines roasted pork loin, ham, chorizo, white cheese, lettuce, avocado and tomatoes. A layer of pureed black beans lines the bread.

Dinner menu additions include grilled chicken in a tamarind glaze with chorizo and mussels in a tequila cream sauce. Now, if I could just get her to put chicharrones in salsa verde on the menu, I'd be happy.

Vickery's (1106 Crescent Ave., 404-881-1106) is another old fave. It's one of our town's first restaurants to set up shop in a cottage and feature outdoor dining. Its patio remains one of the city's most pleasant.

The menu itself needs a bit of rejuvenation, however. Bollitos — fritters made with black-eyed peas — may be palatable eaten with huge quantities of beer, but as an appetizer of six or so, they function like saliva sponges. A salsa of tasteless slimy mango slices and a dollop of sour cream doesn't help. On the other hand, fried green tomatoes layered like a Napoleon with herbed cheese is a tasty take on the Southern fave. Marinara and basil oil sauce the plate.

My grilled marinated flank steak was tender and accented with cilantro-almond pesto. Browned potatoes and green beans shared the plate. A longtime favorite here is the half-chicken roasted Cuban-style with mojo seasoning. The skin of Wayne's portion was crackly and nicely salty. Unfortunately, the flesh itself was as desiccated as the two bollitos served on the side.

To be safe, you may want to stick with sandwiches and soups, including a killer black bean. Or hang out at the bar, which is open until 3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

I'm not sure how I've missed Little Malaysia in Asian Square (5150 Buford Highway, 770-458-1818), which I think predates Penang's opening as our city's most comprehensive Malaysian restaurant. But a big lunch there last week has me daydreaming about the place.

Decor is the usual nonexistent one. You won't mind because of the very picturesque assortment of diners. Expect to hear two, probably three languages at once. Kids were pushing a big cartoony object around the dining room during our lunch.

We did not order from the abbreviated lunch menu but from the longer dinner one. Sotong keropok is calamari lightly batter-fried and served over big shell-shaped shrimp crisps in pastel hues. The sauce is far too sweet for my taste but a substantial shot of hot chile peppers solved that problem.

Belacan prawns are seasoned with Malaysia's ubiquitous shrimp paste, which features bits of finely chopped ginger and red peppers. Do not order these out of the shell, even though they are available that way. If you can't bring yourself to eat the shell, you do want to lick the seasonings. The little feet are quite tasty, by the way! Wayne continued the squid theme and ordered Chinese-like salt-and-pepper squid. The squid was creamy-tender from baking followed by dry-sauteing it. The seasoning that coated the squid had a bit more of a peppery kick than the Chinese variety.

The Thinking Man Tavern (537 W. Howard Ave., Decatur, 404-370-1717) is decorated like your elementary school classroom: maps, anatomy posters, a telescope, ratty taxidermy and flags from around the world. On Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. the pub has the slowest-moving trivia contest in Atlanta and, believe me, you don't have to think too much to come up with the answers if you're into pop culture.

Angel Sutor, who first became know around town for her quirky fare at the old St. Agnes Tea Garden, is the chef here. Her menu mainly consists of straightforward sandwiches, soups, salads and some vegetarian dishes that must endear the restaurant to Decatur's heavy Birkenstock crowd.

Vegetable samosas were hot and juicy, full of curried potatoes and veggies, served with a side of seasoned yogurt. Lentil soup was less successful, though it might have been more palatable had it not been served barely above room temperature. Sandwiches rock. The Agean burger features a patty of Angus beef topped with feta cheese on a Kaiser roll. Kalamata olives and pepperoncini are on the side.

I also liked the cilantro chicken sandwich served on big slices of Texas toast. The flavor of cumin was a bit strong for my taste and I have to admit I did not find a single sprig of cilantro on my sandwich but I like the chipotle mayo.

Dessert, a slice of pecan pie, was tiny and weirdly plated. The bereft little piece of pie looked like it was wearing a whipped-cream beard.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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