First Look: Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina

Riccardo Ullio's latest Mexican in Midtown

I haven't touched booze in a very long time. The stuff has a funny effect on me. One minute I'm sitting at the bar and two or three days later I'm trying to move into a dumpster. It's really quite magical.

This makes me somewhat out of my element in so-called gastropubs, which capitalize on the fact that many restaurants depend on liquor sales to make a profit. Think about it. It takes a kitchen full of people to produce good food but only one or two "mixologists" to prepare expensive cocktails with esoteric (expensive) brands of booze. Reel 'em in with the food and then get their wallets drunk. Par-tay!

Now, we have a few new gastropubish cantinas opening in town. Last week, I reviewed Big Tex Cantina and this week I visited Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina (800 Peachtree St., 678-666-5198). The former specializes in Tex-Mex food but the latter is truer to Mexican dining.

I've had one lunch and two dinners at Escorpion. The first thing you need to know is that the restaurant, owned by Riccardo Ullio of Sotto Sotto and Fritti, has been slammed and, on a Friday night, was so noisy it was impossible to hear normal conversation across a table. Ullio is working on this. Of course, it's not a big deal if you drink. A couple of shots of tequila will make you willing to scream.

The lineage here suggests the state of the restaurant business in our town. Escorpion occupies the space that was formerly Eno, Eno by Zaza and Fifth Street Café. Escorpion itself reproduces the style of Lupe, a Mexican spot that Ullio owned and closed on Juniper Street. Before that, he operated it as Cuerno. He also operated Beleza next door to Lupe, which has also closed. Got that?

Ullio has created an impressionistic décor at Escorpion, one that suggests Mexico without total kitschification. The food does recall Lupe. It's mostly small plates such as ceviche and tacos. There were seven entrée-sized portions during my visits. But don't expect the usual free Mexican rice and refried beans. All sides are extra. That's OK. I don't want them, anyway.

There is one popular standout among starters here — the octopus ceviche compellingly spiced with lime, habanero chiles and grapefruit. Among the five other ceviches, I've tried only the tuna with watermelon, serrano and smoked sea salt. The tuna and watermelon looked disconcertingly — creepily — alike, both in color and knife work. They both melted in the mouth, too.

Another favorite of friends has been the queso fundido made with traditional Cotija cheese and Monterey Jack and bits of chorizo, along with a few strips of charred chiles. Drag chips through the nearly bubbling brew. It grows cooler and stickier and more delicious as you reach the bottom of the iron pan. A simpler queso dip includes the same cheeses but, while pleasingly creamy, doesn't have the spicy edge of the fundido. So get some salsa to dump in it.

I've also tried the Caesar salad with fried jalapeños and radishes. It was delivered without the jalapeños but was garnished with radish slices — four of them. When I pointed out the missing jalapeños, they were delivered ... 10 minutes later. And you will need those to add some sharp acidity to what turns out to be a bowl absolutely drenched in dressing. This is the only thing on the menu I urge you to avoid.

I've tried most of the eight tacos, which range from $3.50 to $5 each (with discounts for ordering four at a time). They are made with corn tortillas — singles, not doubles — and I found most of them palatable but honestly on the bland side. That's a subjective evaluation. I don't blame restaurants for cooling the heat after constantly hearing people whine as they order, "It's not too spicy, is it?"

My favorite taco was the one made with portobellos, poblano peppers, corn, onion and Cotija. I liked the carne asada, too. You'll also find fried tilapia, braised tongue, shrimp (fried and sautéed) and braised goat.

My absolute favorite dish was the chicken mole. It was a juicy Springer Mountain breast surrounded by a very competent red mole over rice. I also liked the grilled Scottish salmon over arugula with chayote, avocado and roasted jalapeños.

I've tried both chiles rellenos — one filled with ground beef, Cotija cheese and Monterey Jack, and the other filled only with cheese. I much preferred the latter, although the chiles rellenos itself was overcooked. The beef version did not turn up the raisins and other surprises I expect.

Dessert? Classic tres leches cake — a bit drier than usual — with whipped cream and strawberries.

Verdict? Lots of noisy fun if you swill tequila. The food, taken on its own, could be spicier to suit me and the service was even more confused than I've described here. I doubt the former will change but the latter, knowing Ullio, will radically improve.

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