South of the border - No Mas Cantina

A mixed bag of Mexican cuisine

A decorator friend was telling me about No Mas Cantina (180 Walker St., 404-215-9769) over coffee last week.

"You really should go. It's gorgeous," he said. "And the food is great too."

"What kind of food is it?" I asked.

He rolled his eyes. "With the name No Mas Cantina, what do you think it might be?"

"Is it Mexican, border cuisine or Southwestern?" I snarled.

"What's the difference? They all taste the same," he barked in return.

Let's begin with that delusion, shall we? It's the main point of confusion you are going to encounter with the cuisine at this very strange, huge restaurant in Castleberry Hill, the oh-so-boho, gentrified section of downtown Atlanta once only known for the Peters Street U-Haul Center where, in my young career as an underemployed poet, I made emergency rentals to escape eviction.

How is it that in a city with an enormous Mexican population, No Mas Cantina manages to produce a menu that feels like it belongs at a Tijuana Disney World? It's not really Mexican and it's not the border cuisine we call Tex-Mex. It's not creative Southwestern. But, gracias a Dios, there is hope: I pored through the menu and did not find that midnight stoner munchy I used to encounter in Houston: chili and cheddar dumped over Fritos.

Perhaps we should call the menu "Mexican-inspired." Calamari, a starter, was probably the best thing we ate. It, along with juicy slices of jalapenos, was flash-fried in a light flour coating and served with avocado cream dip and, um, chipotle-ranch sauce.

Guacamole is piled on a lettuce leaf stuffed in a goblet. It is "hand-mashed," a description that evokes images of a very messy game of Patty Cake. In any event, it's virtually pureed, no better than average and will certainly make you pine for the luscious, chunky stuff at Rosa Mexicano.

I might mention that you will be eating your hand-mash with very greasy fried tortilla chips which are also served with a decent chipotle-spiked salsa.

Wayne ordered tacos made with fried tilapia. He considers himself something of a connoisseur of fish tacos, preferring the ones at Sundown Café above all, but lately enjoying the ones at Six Feet Under. Honestly, it is something of a stretch to call these tacos in any ordinary sense. These tacos weren't in that class. They are made with giant flour tortillas and a jicama coleslaw moistened with "pink chili mayo." No salsas were offered.

But I actually found the fish tacos superior to my own order of fajitas. I chose a combination of steak and shrimp. The menu included the de rigueur description of them as "sizzling." In fact the steak was room-temperature and the shrimp were little hotter. The shrimp were round, greasy and tasteless.

Sides were the usual mound of orange rice and enough lettuce to make 12 BLTs, along with some decent refried beans, more of the guac, sour cream and a dollop of salsa fresca.

Sigh. Dessert was "cuatro leches" — a version of the classic tres leches cake. The gigantic slice of cake — more than enough for two — had more in common with strawberry shortcake than tres leches, which should have a very moist texture. Here, it is dry and topped with a Kahlua frosting that will make you imagine a serape-clad Loretta Lynn spreading Crisco on a cake. There were lots of sliced strawberries.

As if that weren't enough, you can buy the restaurant's furnishings, glassware, even casual clothing in a showroom next door. This is actually a project of No Mas furniture importers on Huff Road.

I have to admit that the restaurant makes a strong, cinematic first impression and there's a long, well-stocked tequila bar. The patio, with a fountain and a view of a towering, Burning Man-style figure, is very pleasant. If only the food were not an afterthought.

Comida Buena

Cross the Rio Grande into Mexico from Laredo, Texas, and you land in Nuevo Laredo, one of those towns where you encounter a powerful hybridization of Texas and Mexican culture, right down to the Spanglish you also hear in Tijuana.

Nuevo Laredo Cantina (1495 Chattahoochee Ave., 404-352-9009) has been dishing up the cuisine from that region since 1992, often earning awards for best Mexican food in the city. I've never been when I didn't have to wait an hour and I've never failed to have a good time in the kitschy, festive dining room with terrific servers.

But I have a new complaint. I'm still recovering from surgery on both my knees. When the hostess led us toward the downstairs dining room, I told her I could not manage the stairs. She told me, then, that I'd have to wait longer for a seat upstairs. (There were only a few stairs on the exterior of the restaurant and I did manage those.)

I always order the same thing here: the cebollitas, grilled scallions with lime juice, and the chicken mole. The mole here, served over boneless chunks of chicken, is super-dark and slightly sweet. As far as I know, none in the city surpasses it. (But I'm open to hearing other opinions.)

Wayne ordered a starter plate of nachos made with chorizo, beans and white cheese. The chorizo is nearly greaseless — an important quality to anyone with a sensitive stomach familiar with this sausage. His entree was barbecued brisket — a Texas speciality that the restaurant may well have been the first in town to serve.

Tacos are the real deal. And here's good news for those who believe meat is murder: There's a section of vegetarian dishes, including the "Holy Tacos" sold outside a church in Nuevo Laredo.

Sorry, you can't buy the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the wall.

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