Visits to newly opened McCray's in Midtown and exiting Mambo in Morningside

It's bizarre how quickly Atlanta's neighborhoods change in character. I watched Midtown go from hippie heaven in the late '60s to a Cuban refugee community in the early '70s. Then it became an inexpensive gay neighborhood and now, fully gentrified, it's a pricey metrosexual ghetto. Meanwhile, the Morningside area has gone from older folks to young marrieds with big disposable incomes to families on budgets.

So if you look anywhere in Midtown these days, you see rampant building, and if you look at the small Morningside commercial district, you see a lot of closed businesses. Last week I visited both areas.

Midtown's newest pub is McCray's 6th Street Tavern (98 Sixth St., 404-249-1506). It actually fronts Peachtree and butts up against the rear of Loca Luna. Plan to pay $5 to park.

McCray's is named after Scott McCray, owner of trendy lounges Lava and Cosmopolitan. Co-owner - here's the good part for foodies - is Tony LaRocco, who used to own Fratelli di Napoli, which gave Atlanta some of its best tastes of Southern Italian cuisine when it opened more than 10 years ago. The menu here, mainly Italian, is not as exotic as Fratelli's, but the food easily beats that of the average burger-and-fries pub.

The interior of the renovated warehouse-style space is warm and woody. You get your brick wall and your faux-distressed look. You get your urban view through windows of Sixth Street trannies, young businessmen and out-of-towners wandering around the block looking for the closed Backstreet. There's an enormous, endless mahogany bar, with more beer spigots than I've ever seen.

And there's a staff of adorable young women so pleasant you will feel guilty, like you're bossing your sister around. I started my dinner with grilled slices of portobello mushrooms layered with fresh mozzarella and roasted peppers over some light salad greens. Were the cheese of better quality, I'd give the dish an A for its admirable simplicity. Wayne started with the day's soup, which, despite its nice carroty flavor, was far too sweet. Carrot cake soup?

My entree, a special of chicken marsala, featured a whole breast halved and served in a wine-spiked tomato sauce with lots of mushrooms. The chicken itself was killer - fat, plump, juicy - and the sauce was nicely balanced, without the marsala overwhelming it. Granted, marsala is a sweet wine, but the dish tasted like the same sugar lover who made the carrot soup wasn't content with the natural sweetness of the wine, either. Tone it down one sugar cube, dude.

Wayne's entree was my favorite dish and much like Fratelli's cuisine - rigatoni in garlicky olive oil with sauteed escarole and whole white beans, shot up with a dose of crushed red pepper.

Desserts were not as gratifying. The tiramisu, served in a goblet, needs more bitter cocoa. (Maybe I was feeling too sweet that night.) A plate of little cannolis was, contrarily, not sweet enough for Wayne. I liked their filling, but the pastry definitely had that frozen-and-thawed flavor I recognize from my squandered youth of midnight munchies sated by Pepperidge Farm.

The restaurant is not all Italian. Specials, like corned beef and cabbage, also show up some nights. Honestly, considering this is a pub and that all regular entrees are under $10, McCray's is a great deal.

Mourning in MorningsideIt's been 15 years since Mambo (1402 N. Highland Ave., 404-876-2626) opened and gave Atlanta a taste of gourmet Cuban cooking, along with home-style favorites like ropa vieja and arroz con pollo. But skyrocketing rents and declining business in the Morningside neighborhood have convinced Lucy Alvarez and Hilton Joseph to move their restaurant.

I'm not allowed to disclose the new location - there may actually be two new restaurants - but look for it to reopen next month under the name Mojito. Mambo's menu in abbreviated form will continue to be served at the new restaurant, which will feature a huge patio as well as indoor dining. The new, secretly guarded space has been under construction since August. Indeed, when Wayne and I stopped by Mambo for dinner last week, the new restaurant's architect and kitchen designer were both there.

Wayne waxed nostalgic about the super-graphic of a Carmen Miranda look-alike (called "Carmen Mulatta") and the many meals we've eaten there. The restaurant has been novel among Cuban venues in our city because of its Chino-Latino dishes, a fusion cuisine popular in Cuba because of its Chinese immigrant community, but little known in our city until Lucy began cooking it.

I started with a plate of the restaurant's chorizo sauteed with sweet peppers, onions, garlic and tomatoes - almost a Cuban fra diavolo. Wayne skipped a starter and ordered the evening's Chino-Latino special: mahi mahi with a guacamole mojo and black-eyed pea fritters, y'all.

I hope that in its new incarnation the restaurant will continue to serve my favorite dish - the menu's most expensive at $20 - of arroz negro. This dish, which I first began eating in my 20s when I was briefly married to a Cuban woman, has remained one of my favorites throughout my lifetime. I don't allow myself to eat it very often because I don't want it to lose its magical appeal. It's rice served with squid, turned purple-black by the squid's ink. The ink gives the rice a velvety texture, not unlike a risotto but with a distinctive flavor. Lucy also adds other seafood to the mix, like shrimp, lobster and mussels.

Hurry and visit, before Mambo is history.

Taco Nazi exiledI've received a handful of suicidal notes since announcing that Sundown Cafe is converting its evening operation to a taqueria. I have more awful news. George, affectionately known as the "Taco Nazi" because of his take-no-shit counter service, will no longer be at the bar. As manager, he will be on the dining room floor, sweeping the entire room with his rolling eyes and snapping his tongue at errant diners. Mothers, hide your babies!


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