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More than Margaritas

Huevos and beyond

There are restaurants I drive by frequently but haven't visited in years. One such is Las Margaritas (1842 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-873-4464). My only visits in the past have been with friends whose primary objective was to drink. The Mexican food was mediocre but, apparently, got better with each margarita. The restaurant has always had a loyal following.

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I was driving by the restaurant alone last Sunday and saw that the front was festooned with signs announcing a tapas menu and brunch. There was also some rather loud dance music playing. A DJ was on the patio. I decided to stop.

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I found the restaurant much changed, at least from my memory of it. The colorful interior is about the same, although the front patio has been enclosed. The difference is the menu, which has evolved from Mexican clichés to include some dishes from Spain and other Latin American countries such as Colombia, Argentina and Cuba.

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I decided to go with my longtime Mexican brunch favorite after pozole – huevos rancheros (also available at lunch weekdays). I also ordered one of the tapas – a Cuban dish of fried yuca stuffed with some ground, seasoned beef. Both dishes took me by surprise. They were colorfully presented on Fiestaware, well-garnished and tasty.

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The huevos rancheros featured three fried eggs (not two, as the menu said) surrounded by a red salsa. The yolks were coated with green sauce and some especially good frijoles refritos were on the side, along with the inevitable rice. It was better than the average version in our city. The yuca was just as good – crispy, slightly chewy, spicy.

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I decided to return a few days later with Wayne to try the evening menu. I noticed on the way in that the restaurant was displaying sample plates of some dishes, wrapped in clear plastic, on a table. Everything looked good, but in all honesty, our meal was a mixed success.

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The two problem dishes, both ordered by Wayne, were pretty unforgivable. The problematic starter was a "Latin salmon grilled pizza" – a salad of salmon, roasted-bell-pepper sauce, capers, white wine and garlic sandwiched between two grilled tortillas. The salmon was canned – the type you often find in patties in the city's soul-food cafes – and the filling was dry. I couldn't bear it, but Wayne ate every drop, declaring, "I love capers."

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His entree, a stuffed crabmeat burrito, suffered the same kind of problem. The crabmeat – all slivers with way too much filler – tasted canned or processed, too. At $16.95, I expect a lot better. Shrink the gigantic portion, cut the filler and improve the quality.

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My own dishes were good. Granted, my starter of a taco al pastor was misrepresented. There were no al pastor seasonings in the shredded pork at all. Instead, the juicy meat had been marinated in beer and wine. The taste was great, nonetheless. Maybe this is some nation other than Mexico's version of al pastor?

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My entree, new at the restaurant, was classic Cuban ropa vieja. It's called "mama's signature dish" on the menu. I'm not sure who mama is, but the shredded beef marinated in a criolla sauce was, like the huevos rancheros, better than the average around town (if a tiny bit sweet).

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The menu here also includes vegetarian dishes, soups and a few American-style sandwiches at lunch. If my two visits were exemplary, I'd stick to the tapas and avoid shellfish.

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Here and there

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When I told my friend Gregg that I'd had really good huevos rancheros at Las Margaritas, he insisted we visit Gato Bizco Café (1660 McLendon Ave., 404-371-0889). This popular, tiny Inman Park restaurant is across the street from the original Flying Biscuit.

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The restaurant's name means "cross-eyed cat," and there's a menu of burritos, quesadillas and tacos, as well as sandwiches and breakfast dishes, most without Mexican inspiration. But Gregg's partner Adam swears by the huevos rancheros, and I was commanded to compare them with Las Margaritas'.

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Sorry, they are too different to really compare. Bizco's is a more Tex-Mex version with scrambled eggs and cheese folded into corn tortillas beside pools of red and green salsas, with sour cream. Black beans, not frijoles refritos, accompany the eggs. I liked the dish, but I've never had huevos rancheros made without fried eggs before, whose yolks enrich the beans and blend well with green sauce.

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I also got a biscuit on the side. I figured the cafe must have some innovation to compete with the famous ones across the street. Sure enough, here they are maybe even more gigantic, and they are grilled with butter. So much for swearing off carbs.

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Gregg ordered a burger, insisting that the cook, who was a few feet from our seats at the bar, make it with Texas toast instead of a bun. Then he instructed her to "smush it real good with the spatula."

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The ambiance here is cozy, funky, retro and relaxed – a great place to kick back, as long as nobody else is waiting for one of the restaurant's few tables. ...

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We visited another neighborhood hangout, Cabbagetown's 97 Estoria (727 Wylie St., 404-522-0966), last week. This seems to have become more pub than restaurant. I've had decent burgers here many times, but the rest of the menu is iffy. A basket of buffalo chicken wings was passable, but a pita sandwich with falafel missed by a mile. Inadequately sauced, the sandwich's already-dry falafel, served barely hot, sucked every drop of moisture out of my mouth.

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A side of fries was better than average, even though it was served heavily salted, adding to the parching effect of the falafel.

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Food problems aside, I like the lowdown atmosphere of cigarette smoke, loud recorded rock and the young clientele here. I usually prefer the patio, which is less atmospheric even though you can breathe more comfortably there.



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