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Squared off

Zocalo successfully replicates itself in Decatur

"I love Lucero," I'm thinking, as I unfold a tortilla briefly to see the globs of pork fat stewed in green sauce, a little ribbon of meat attached to each one. You can comb the most authentic taquerias of Buford Highway and you won't find chicharrones en salsa verde, but Lucero Martinez-Obregon, the chef of Zocalo, cooks them for her staff in Decatur and Midtown and will now and then share them with customers who aren't sickened by the thought of eating tacos stuffed with slimy fat clinging to pig skin.

I acquired a taste for chicharrones, more often available in their fried form and resembling what Southerners call "pork rinds," during my years in Houston and Mexico, where they are a favored street snack. I've complained for 12 years in this space that you can't find them anywhere in Atlanta but Lucero gave me a simple explanation a few years ago: "They gross most people out."

The occasion of my most recent consumption of Lucero's knots of fat was a visit to the new Zocalo in Decatur (123 E. Court Square, 404-270-9450). Lucero and her two brothers Marco and Luis, who opened the first Zocalo on 10th Street in Midtown in 1995, have done more than anyone in Atlanta to provide a taste of authentic Mexican cooking that goes beyond the usual taco-stand fare available on Buford Highway. For a few years the trio offered a gourmet Mexican menu at Oh ... Maria! in Buckhead. That restaurant closed almost a year ago. Meanwhile, Lucero had left the family business to operate Orange and Scarlett's with a partner. Then, last year, she returned to the Midtown Zocalo (and now, incidentally, the two Orange and Scarlett's have closed).

On returning to Zocalo, Lucero revised the restaurant's menu and joined her brothers is planning their new location in Decatur. They've taken the space formerly occupied by the deservedly dead Raleigh's BBQ and turned it into a charmer. If I had to summarize the decor, I'd use two words: "perforated metal." Sheets of it are suspended from the ceiling; a wall is full of moons, stars and suns — all of it illuminated from the rear.

The food is rico. If you can't get a couple of pork-fat tacos to start, order the guacamole, which is made tableside. Our server Fernando rolled out a cart holding a couple of peeled avocados and the usual additions — onions, tomatoes, chilies. He smashed them all together in a lava-rock molcajete. We scooped the delicious stuff up on chips but, in truth, I'd rather have had soft flour tortillas to spread it on.

Pescado Zocalo, Wayne's entree, was pan-seared red snapper finished in a charred tomato and caper sauce with green olives. It was nicely tart and served with pieces of a very thick, achiote-seasoned black bean quesadilla.

My own choice was the menu's most expensive at $16 — 10 oysters on the half-shell spiked with a sauce made of tequila and hot arbol chiles, then topped with two Mexican cheeses melted by a quick trip under the broiler. Loved it.

We sampled two desserts. The tres leches — cake soaked in three kinds of milk and topped with whipped cream — is the city's best. Crepes poached in caramel sauce, served with vanilla ice cream, will infantilize even the grumpiest diner.

The restaurant is already a hit, crowded at night and swamped at lunchtime. "Zocalo" means, basically, "town square." Ain't it cool that the restaurant is located on Decatur's square?

Here and there

Despite what the Bush administration tells us about the expanding economy, the restaurant business is far from booming. Recent closings include Blue Trout in Midtown, Gringos in Inman Park and Ruchi in Alpharetta. Now, Gregg Herndon announces he is closing Tiburon Grille at the end of April after 10 years. An e-mail announcement hints that a new culinary venture is in the works but no details were available. ...

Ami, the sweet cafe buried behind the Biltmore on West Peachtree in Midtown, has also closed — about a month after I reviewed its new menu by Stephan Leed. It, however, will reopen under a new name, Toast, with prices pared significantly to attract diners in the immediate area. Takeout will be emphasized. ...

I've had two great lunches at Twist lately — both with out-of-town friends who were impressed. Indeed, my friend Brad Lapin, who lives in Rome and is back in Atlanta for a few months, is a regular at Tom Catherall's popular Phipps restaurant. My friend David Jablonowski of Chicago compared it favorably to his town's restaurant by the same name, which is also a tapas venue but serves pizza, too, as will Catherall's planned new venture, Shout. I finally had the pleasure of meeting biker-chick turned extraordinary tapas chef Nancy Delgado Mathews. Whenever you visit Twist, be sure to check out anything she's preparing special. ...

Wayne and I have been spending a good bit of time at Unabomber Acres, our place outside Highlands, and our favorite meal there is from Penang on Buford Highway. The Malaysian restaurant's food freezes pretty well and costs about a tenth of the average meal in Highlands. ...

I know I confessed my general lack of enthusiasm for Louisiana cooking last week, but I'm receiving positive reports about the lunch fare at Cajun Creole, which replaced the Somber Reptile at 842 Marietta St. (at the intersection with Northside Drive). ...

The 814 Juniper St. location of Orange and Scarlett's, mentioned above, is scheduled to reopen April 1 as Babs (404-541-0888). The cafe is billing itself as a "great place to gather" and will offer free WiFi for laptop users. It will open weekdays at 6 a.m. to serve breakfast. Masochists can take an early "power walk" through Midtown with trainers from Peachtree Center Athletic Club on Tuesdays before breakfast. Babs also plans to serve lunch and light dinner. Nothing will cost over $10. ...

Jake's in the West End has undergone a transformation to become West Egg Cafe, forsaking ice cream for egg dishes. Shades of Edith the Egg Lady!

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



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