Restaurant Review - Gimme some skin

Loads of fresh seafood make Casa Blanca's shells-on Salvadorian dishes worth the fight

Not one thing has changed at Casa Blanca Restaurant since my first visit three years ago. Not the restaurant's interior, with its odd coral and gray color scheme. Not the low lighting. Not the habit of draping sheets of plastic over the tablecloths. Not even the prices of the lobster dishes.

Not that the lobster is cheap, mind you. That, perversely, is something to be happy about. Fresh lobster, like all fresh seafood, costs money: $39.95 in this case. For that, you will get a whole lobster, shell intact.

That single dish illustrates the best and the worst of Casa Blanca, an outpost of Salvadorian cuisine in Sandy Springs. The good news is that the soups and main dishes are loaded with fish and shellfish. The bad news is the shell in shellfish, which makes certain things a chore to eat. Once you've exhausted yourself prying the relatively scant amount of sweet meat loose, you may no longer be in the mood to appreciate it. On the other hand, the fact that the shells are intact means you will be eating as the natives do — a plus since the shells add extra flavor to the broth.

Fortunately, however, Casa Blanca has a built-in remedy for the less than patient among us: a menu with a split personality. Casa Blanca serves both Salvadorian and Mexican food, and if you aren't paying attention when you open the menu, you may think you've missed the Salvadorian dishes altogether. Keep hunting; the Salvadorian portion of the menu is inside the Mexican part.

Service at Casa Blanca is not exactly efficient due to the leisurely pace of the kitchen, but it is attentive. When my guest was struggling with his crab and shrimp in their shells, our server thoughtfully swapped his Siete Mares (Seven Seas) soup for a stress-free — and deliciously tangy — ceviche of mixed fish pieces. (We were not charged for the soup.)

It is possible to order soup with peeled shrimp among the veritable feasts in a bowl offered. The aforementioned Seven Seas, for one, includes half a lobster, octopus, mussels, clams, shrimp and crab along with chunks of fish (snapper, I think); there's a soup of catfish, clams and mussels; and a soup with nothing but flounder.

There's still more boiled shellfish on the seafood platters: oysters, clams, octopus, shrimp, lobster and fish filet on the wonderfully named Festival of Seafood ($30). There's paella with or without lobster and a mountain of shrimp in an elegant wine sauce that is much lighter in taste and texture than its creamy appearance suggests.

It is also possible to eat much more simply than this, however. There are plenty of chicken dishes — from the tender roasted chicken to chicken sauteed with onions to chicken in a cream wine sauce. And if you flip to the Mexican side of the menu, you'll find a dozen familiar combinations of burritos and enchiladas and fajitas, plus plates of steaks — albeit thin ones — served grilled, breaded or sauteed. With all the Mexican restaurants in the area, though, and so few Salvadorian restaurants, I stick with the shellfish soups and stews that are the hallmark of the Salvadorian half of the menu.

That said, I can never pass up the flan for dessert. But you won't have room for it if you choose as your entree Casa Blanca's lone breakfast dish: the $6.25 plate of beans, eggs, ham, fried plantains and cheese.