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Cheap Eats - Frijolero flashback

Retro-modern Moe's makes burritos while you watch

An enterprising student of sociology could probably squeeze an honors thesis out of a visit to Moe's Southwest Grill in Buckhead. The Tex-Mex cantina is a miniature study in ironic and unexpected pairings brought about by late '90s pop culture.

First there's the building itself, a space formerly home to a coffeehouse and a bagel shop, and Moe's doesn't do much to cover that up. The dining room retains a decidedly Pacific Northwest atmosphere, with an exposed granite fireplace and rampant woodwork.

Then there are the idol-sized paintings of late '60s pop stars, each paired with a faux quote on Mexican fare. (Bob Marley says, "Let me roll my own," while John Lennon urges us to "Give beans a chance.") The chuckles are endless. Music from the same set of rockers is piped throughout the restaurant, reinforcing the nostalgia bit but still not explaining it.

Add to this mix a menu that also taps pop culture but, for some reason, abandons the whole retro thing by offering dishes like the Other Lewinsky or the Sherman Klump.

Luckily, the food itself is enough to make you forget the restaurant's idiosyncrasies. Specializing in freshly made burritos and a handful of other Americanized Mexican creations, Moe's is one of the few places in town where you can have your tortilla custom-stuffed while you watch. The restaurant, which opened in December on Peachtree Road, is a prototype from the same folks who brought us Planet Smoothie (also known for oddly named menu offerings) and does not stray far from their casual counter-centered concept.

The Subway-esque approach to burrito construction might be tough to get used to at first, but this assembly line lets you customize your meal to the last drop of salsa.

On a recent visit to Moe's, I tried the Triple Lindy (rice, beans, cheese, salsa and guac) on a flour tortilla with steak, a scrumptious package complemented by salty tri-colored tortilla chips and a chunky, sweet red salsa. The steak, marinated and grilled, was a little bland and somewhat tough, but blended well with the robust black beans and better-than-average guac. At $5.29, it was an ample meal for one, not quite as overwhelming as Burrito Art's platter approach.

The I Said Posse quesadilla was surprisingly heavy on sauteed veggies and was topped with the same red salsa. Heavy in this case was not a bad thing. Moe's boasts that it doesn't even own a freezer, and the fresh vegetables add an extra burst of flavor, especially in the quesadillas, otherwise a typical mishmash of cheese and tortilla.

Tacos are a steal at less than 3 bucks each. Unsure what male nudity has to do with tacos, I opted anyway for the Full Monty and the Ugly Naked Guy. The Monty on a soft shell resembled a loosely wrapped burrito, its best part being its, ahem, juicy beef filling, which, mixed with a healthy dollop of tangy salsa and soupy pinto beans, eventually led to a soggy and hard-to-manage mess.

The Naked Guy, a veggie offering that came skinny-dipping in sour cream and guacamole, was closer to a taco salad with its heavy topping of shredded lettuce, black beans, cheese and the ubiquitous red salsa. Still, it's one streaker I'll definitely see again.

My friend's Homewrecker was the penultimate Moe's burrito, a concoction of most every possible option on the menu, but still a bargain at $5.69. With zesty grilled chicken and black bean innards, this juicy log of starches was everything a burrito should be: Not too dry, not too soggy and just spicy enough to remind you why you wanted Mexican in the first place.

Though not as bohemian as Burrito Art or as in-your-face as Raging Burrito, Moe's does carve a retro-modern niche in Atlanta's Tex-Mex market. And besides, where else in town can you wolf down a Blind Willy Vanilly while listening to Janis Joplin???