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Two Mexican newcomers fail to impress

Hola. Welcome to my little corner of Mexico. Yes, I visited another two Mexican restaurants last week. I have no idea why we are in the middle of a south-of-the-border boom, but, being a fanatic for that cuisine, I'm not going to complain about the trend.

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Notice that I said "the trend." I didn't say I wasn't going to complain about the food. This latest pair of Mexican restaurants, El Mezquite and Blue Frog Cantina, are dishing up regrettable mediocrity despite the numerous e-mails I've received urging me to give both a try.

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El Mezquite (4005 Buford Highway, 404-320-7589) is located next to Com, everyone's favorite Vietnamese restaurant these days. Open about eight months, Mezquite has utterly no décor but a staff so friendly they even walked me to my car with an umbrella when my meal was over.

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The owner-chef, Oscar Gonzales, is Mexican and has worked in a variety of Atlanta restaurants, so I'm at a loss to explain the peculiar lack of subtlety in his cooking. Wayne and I were joined at the restaurant by my nephew Carlton, my niece Jocelyn and three of their friends, so I gathered enough impressions of the food to be sure that the mediocrity of a few dishes wasn't a fluke.

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Oddly, the restaurant has two menus and I don't mean an English and a Spanish one. One is more oriented toward Tex-Mex while the other spotlights Mexico-style seafood and a few dishes off the beaten path.

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An example of the latter was my entree, flattened chicken breasts fried in a coating of pumpkin seeds. The chicken was way too dry and served without any kind of sauce. I finally dumped some green sauce on it and the added moisture let the flavors bloom. On the side, as with most dishes, was the usual tangle of lettuce with a dollop of overly pureed guacamole and some beans.

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The best dish I sampled was a starter of shrimp ceviche atop a tostada with lots of fresh avocado chunks. Among entrees, Wayne ordered the best at the table, fish a la plancha — a grilled white fish of some sort under a spicy red sauce. Some dishes, like Clay's shrimp a la diabla, defied our palates to describe them. Apparently, the chef is using chili powders because what our server described as the spicy effect of guajillo chilis had the sandy texture and vague flavor of paprika.

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My brother's beautiful children both ordered chimichangas — shrimp for Jocelyn and vegetarian for Carlton. (His girlfriend in Orlando, where he lives, has converted him, a former chef, to a tree-hugging lifestyle.) Other dishes at the table included Taylor's carnitas and Andrew's fried fish under a red sauce with shrimp. Andrew insisted repeatedly that he thought his food was good, but admitted he didn't want to be depicted in print as an unhappy diner.

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Weirdly, the restaurant offers no desserts.

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Not long after visiting El Mezquite, we headed to Blue Frog Cantina (469 Flat Shoals Ave., 404-658-6108) in the location of the defunct Heaping Bowl and Brew in East Atlanta. We arrived at 5 p.m. for maybe the earliest dinner I've eaten in years, and the staff of kooky but charming women was still setting up.

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As much bar as restaurant, the Frog has a regular menu dominated by the usual burritos and quesadillas. However, the chef does prepare specials daily and the server told us that a new menu featuring more complex choices is in the works.

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Our meal, again, was mediocre. A cheese dip was watery and insufficiently heated. A ceviche starter, featuring mainly fish chunks and squid, was served in a big goblet whose rim had been dipped in salt-and-pepper seasonings. These, combined with the powerful lemon juice used to marinate the fish, tasted very unpleasant to me. Further, there was way too much onion in the goblet for my taste. Fortunately, it was in rings that could be removed.

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For entrees, we both ordered from the specials menu — shrimp a la diabla for me and a tilapia filet in the same sauce for Wayne. The sauce tasted more of onions than chilis and, after my experience at El Mezquite, I'm tempted to go in search of the city's best diabla sauce. Let me hear from you, if you have a favorite somewhere.

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Desserts are the usual, such as flan and rice pudding.

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Blue Frog Cantina has retained the basic architecture of the Heaping Bowl, but has partially knocked out the wall separating the bar and dining room. It creates a more open feeling of course, but we miss the huge map of the world that was painted on the wall.

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Still in recovery from recent surgery on both knees, I went to both restaurants in leg braces, with my super-sleek walker. El Mezquite was easy to negotiate, but the Blue Frog was less so. The men's room could never be used by anyone in a wheelchair, that's for sure.

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Redfish Feedback

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I knew when I dined at Redfish that "authenticity" was going to be an issue with some diners. I receive this e-mail from Dan Loker:

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"Just wanted to say that the jambalaya I had at Redfish is in no shape or form related to what is served in New Orleans (or even what I get when I open my frozen Zatarain's).

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"What I was served had the sauce in a pool at the bottom of the bowl and the rice was lily-white. Jambalaya should be cooked down with the rice in the sauce so that the rice absorbs the sauce (turning red in the process), and you'll have just a little bit of sauce left at the bottom of the pan.

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"Go to Fuzzy's, Gumbeaux's or Chef Henry's to see a great jambalaya. And I really miss Baker's Cajun Café. Their version was fantastic."

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Baker's was a fun restaurant. I miss it too, although I didn't always eat well there. I did not try the jambalaya at Redfish but it was clear to me that some of the food at the new restaurant on Memorial Drive is interpretive and I don't have a problem with that, really. My etouffee did not taste exactly classic — it was much spicier than the usual in my experience, for one thing — but I liked it very much.



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