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Latin lovers

Pura Vida, Tierra and Pozole

It's been one of those weeks when I couldn't get enough Latin flavors in my mouth. I blame my frequent lunch spot, Sundown Café, for this. They're still closed for transformation into a Taqueria del Sol, so I've been in withdrawal.

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I was also motivated by the news that Hector Santiago, chef/owner of Pura Vida (656 N. Highland Ave., 404-870-9797) has created a new menu for his popular tapas restaurant.

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When Pura Vida first opened, it offered a fun, kinda kinky take on tapas, featuring a strong influence of Santiago's native Puerto Rico and other Latin countries. In the years since, the restaurant has far surpassed any other tapas venue in the city.

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True, Santiago does not adhere to the cuisine of Spain and traditionalists could technically accuse the menu of being inauthentic. But in fact, Santiago, who has traveled and cooked in Spain, has adopted the experimental techniques of that country's avant-garde. The menu is truly pancultural and features flavors you won't find anywhere else in town. "Authenticity" is a word that has all the weight of goat-cheese foam these days.

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The restaurant is packed nearly every night. Wayne and I went on a Monday and there was no wait for a table. We sat down and proceeded to eat nine dishes. We could hardly stop, the food was so good.

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A standout was the comically named "bikinis de foie" — triangles of ripe plantain bread with pumpkin-seed butter, topped with "rum foie gras terrine brulee" (whew). It's an exemplary demonstration of the current Spanish zeal for changing the forms of food. The foie gras brulée is as deeply flavorful as a fresh slice of the stuff but given a surprising accent with the sweet caramel glaze of a traditional brulée.

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Another favorite for us was "chivo al coco." This is a generous serving of shredded goat cooked in coconut milk, topped with mofongo (fried, mashed green bananas). A bottle of fiery coconut vinegar accompanies the dish. No, the goat isn't the least bit gamy. It's all about earthy flavors, piquantly spiked, with a crunchy garnish of fried plantain.

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A tamal is stuffed with chicken barbacoa, steamed in a cabbage leaf and served with goat-cheese foam and a spicy green sauce with a poblano base.

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Wayne insisted we order the smashed Colombian gold potatoes in order to see their "pink Bolivian salt." We could not discern the pink salt, but, my God, what an amazing dish. The potatoes, flavored with Peruvian aji chili powder, were topped with a perfectly poached egg and scattered with fried garlic chips: two lusciously creamy textures punctuated by garlicky crunch, with a slightly stinging aftertaste.

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Obviously, to describe everything we ate would take two columns. Santiago's cuisine, including desserts, is brilliantly witty and without comparison in the city. Service is great and well-educated — no small feat considering the complexity of this food. Our server, Michael, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, was very helpful in identifying ingredients.

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Dos mas

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I also visited Tierra (1425 Piedmont Ave., 404-875-5951) last week with my curmudgeonly friend, Gregg Chandler. Once he had finished his worried inquiry about the cuisine's level of spiciness, he came to admire this restaurant that takes its inspiration from the cuisines of South and Central America, as well as Mexico and the Caribbean islands.

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I started with mussels in a pasilla-pepper broth with corn, jicama and cilantro. The broth was spoonably good and the mussels were satisfyingly plump. Gregg ordered a salad. It was very, um, salady. I don't understand why anyone would go to a rather exotic restaurant and order the most mundane dish available, but then I happily eat jellyfish and floss the flesh from chicken feet.

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My entree — the reason I visited — was a Brazilian-style lamb shank, a Flintstone-sized one with a sauce heavy on parsley. Flawless. Gregg polished off a plate of grilled pork medallions with tropical-fruit relish and chipotle mashed potatoes. And I do mean "polished." Even Wayne, who imagines that any speck of food left on the plate will insult the chef, falls short of Gregg's polishing skills.

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Because chef/owners Dan and Ticha Krinsky take turns cooking and managing the dining room, the service at Tierra is always good. And, like Hector Santiago, they frequently travel in search of new flavors for their regular seasonal menu and for frequent, special prix-fixe, three-course dinners that feature the cuisine of an individual country. There's always something new to try.

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Pozole (1044 Greenwood Ave., 404-892-0552) continues to attract crowds with its menu of Nuevo Latino cooking and a bar that features 50 — count 'em — tequilas. We decided to ignore the entree menu and graze on starters.

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My favorite dish was the tostada with mole-roasted duck and a citrus-spiced crema. Next, we favored the pork ribs roasted in chipotle-spiked honey and tossed with cilantro and mint. Calamari, fried in a coating of blue cornmeal, was just right, although the blood-orange-and-habanero sauce was not my favorite.

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Two dishes fell short of the mark. A charcuterie plate of Spanish cheeses and cured meats lacked inspiration. It wasn't bad. It just didn't measure up to the rest of the meal. I found the grilled shrimp borracha (drunken) with stone-ground grits and roasted-chili pico de gallo as bizarre as I did a year ago when I first visited. Presumably, the shrimp are cooked in a boozy marinade of some sort, but this gave them a very odd flavor — unpleasant to our palates.

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We did not order the signature pozole, a pork and hominy soup, this trip, but you should not miss it. It is one of the city's best versions.

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Service is friendly and frazzled. Rebekah shares the Waitron of the Week award with Pura Vida's Michael.

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Finally, I paid a lunchtime visit to El Molino (2000 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-8714). This taqueria in the back of a grocery store serves one or two specials every day. During my visit, it was spicy albondigas (meatballs), delicious broken up and rolled into corn tortillas.



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