Restaurant Review - Dining down

Good eats from Inman Park to Decatur

DeKalb Avenue is a secret known only to the most reticent, best-connected, downtown-to-Decatur commuters. Traffic is light at all hours. Variable lanes keep cars moving. Stop signs are non-existent and signal lights few and far between. Truckers generally avoid the route. We happy souls who use it keep quiet lest word leak out. Having now revealed the secret of DeKalb's intown freeway, my life's no doubt at risk. But nothing is too good for CL's insatiable readers.

Being insatiable myself, I often stop for snacks and sustenance. What follows is an annotated guide to treats and good eats along the CSX and MARTA lines, from DeKalb Avenue to Howard.

Son's Place, 100 Hurt St. at DeKalb Avenue, opposite Inman Park MARTA Station, 404-581-0530. No secret to local lovers of soulful authenticity, this biracial meeting ground for politicians, intown activists, environmentalists, aging hippies, leisurely lunching bureaucrats and other crazies, welcomes first-timers in high style. Proprietor-cashier Lenn Storey rings a bell, announces the newcomers' names and calls for a round of applause. Customers generally drop everything, clap, whistle and cheer appreciatively. Soul food, not glad-handing, is the main thing at the meat-and-two cafeteria, however. Novices should opt for crisp, salty, pan-fried chicken, feather-light hoe-cakes (cornmeal pancakes to the uninitiated) and bracingly sweet iced tea. Collard greens glistening with identifiable pieces of fatback are surely the best in town. Steamed cabbage, okra, ribs, beef tips, catfish, mashed potatoes and gravy, mac and cheese and canned-peach cobbler, also delicious, can be saved for a second trip. But don't turn down a slice of homemade caramel layer cake if available. Breakfast and lunch weekdays. No alcohol. Good for takeout.

Gringo's, 1238 DeKalb Ave., 404-522-8666. As much a tequila-bar scene as a restaurant, the popular patio cantina is still a good bet for creative, moderately authentic regional Mexican food. Mole poblano de pollo, chicken breast topped with thick, smoky, savory, chocolate-and-chili-fired sauce, topped with sesame seeds and served with corn pudding, salad and flour tortillas, is a fine introduction to the kitchen's aspirations. Dr. Mackle, a Oaxaca-trained mole head, came away happy and satisfied. Mole de guajalote substitutes smoked turkey for the chicken. Cochinita pibil, Yucatan-style marinated pork loin wrapped in banana leaves, simmered in its own juice and served with chili-spiked mashed potatoes, orange-habanero pepper salsa and salad, is properly bland and accessible. A taco version is also offered at night, as are single tacos during weekend brunch. Starter chips are warm, salsas homemade and a choice of about 30 pure blue agave sipping-quality tequilas ready to pour. Items I want to try next time include a shrimp, cheese and corn tortilla casserole; green poblano chili stuffed with pork, nuts and fruit; Belize-style conch tacos, and Texas chili made with pork and Mexican dark beer. Service combines south-of-the-border friendliness with almost breakneck speed. Dinner Tues.-Sun., brunch Sat.-Sun. Full bar. Heated patio.

Radial, 1530 DeKalb Ave., 404-659-6594. The artsy-diner concept is cool. The customers are cool, too — guys in ties and gals in suits on weekdays, a lady wearing a fur coat and pushing a metal walker at Sunday brunch, jeans and sweats and saucy tees galore. Too bad the food's so drab and erratic. A Cuban-American sandwich — thin-sliced beef, caramelized onions, tomato, Cheddar cheese and relish on grilled Cuban bread — was equally delicious and weird. Why weird? Unlike a traditional Cuban sandwich, the filling as well as the bun is grilled, resulting in a sort of Havana-Philly-cheese-steak. But fun. So was a lunch special: penne pasta tossed with feta cheese, grilled chicken, black olives, fresh basil, chopped tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. So was a chewy brownie. But what to make of the tofu scramble — vegetables tossed with hunks of tofu? It's not a scramble in the usual sense but more like a topping for rice or pasta, except that toast, not a starch, is included. Boring. Vegetarian pea soup? Unseasoned, an unfocused mishmash, perhaps just leftovers hopefully combined. Dull. Red flannel hash — corned beef, onions, peppers, potatoes and two eggs — was kind of kicky, though. An updated look at Libby's corned beef hash, it tasted more like fried hot dogs than corned beef. The poached eggs were perfect. Then there's the leaden cinnamon roll, "a Radial favorite," heavy as a tire on a baby carriage. My classmates and I made better on our first try in baking school at Fort Lee, Va. Lunch and dinner daily. No alcohol.

Doghouse BBQ & Wing Shack, 1672 DeKalb Ave. at Clifton Road, 404-687-0031. Cops have already discovered this to-go-only shoestring operation near Candler Park MARTA Station. So have neighborhood families with kids. Both are early signs of success. We tried three specialties: barbecue pork two ways and a dog with everything, plus slaw. The slaw tasted commercial. The meat was fun if not memorable. Pork ribs are large, relatively lean, meaty and slathered with an acceptably tart, brown-red sauce. A chopped pork sandwich contained plenty of lean, tasty pork hunks. The bun-length dog with chili, cheese and mustard was twice as enjoyable — and tasted a lot less salty — than competing versions at Zesto and the Varsity. Items to try next time: hickory-smoked goat sandwich, lemon-pepper Buffalo wings, fried catfish sandwich. Service is polite and reasonably quick. Orders can be faxed ahead up to an hour before pick-up time (404-687-0061). Beware rainy days, however, as there's precious little covered standing room outside the former carwash. Tues.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. 1-9 p.m. Cash and carry-out only.

Diesel's, 537 W. Howard Ave. at Atlanta Avenue, Decatur, 404-378-3151. High-test, retro-matic American comfort food at this casual, family operation is arguably the best on the downtown-to-Decatur strip. Start with a shareable trio of crab-cake spring rolls served with homey, Houston's-style 1,000 island dip; the nam sod quartet — four large cabbage-leaf wedges heaped with minced turkey that's lightly sauteed with peanuts and spices, or the clean, crisp, classic baby spinach salad with warm bacon dressing, croutons, tomatoes, hard-cooked eggs and hunks of real, honest-to-Omaha smoked bacon. Sandwich-wise, the grilled shrimp po boy and a grilled Reuben (choice of corned beef, pastrami or turkey) on rye are tops. By night, grilled salmon with molasses-bourbon glaze and mashed potatoes should suit those who are healthy, wealthy and wise. Crisp, greaseless haystack fries are good any time. Homemade layer cakes baked by the owner-chef's mom shouldn't be missed, either. Decor's the latest take on folksy-industrial integrity (picket fences, butcher-paper tabletops). Service is assured and knowing. Lunch and dinner Tues.-Sun. Reservations and credit cards accepted.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hotmail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.??