Zocalo: Mi Queso, Su Queso

Art of the Meal

Named for the Mexico City town square that serves as its historic heart, Atlanta's Zocalo is a glorified patio, with the yawning awnings and zippered plastic enclosures that make the place livable in Georgia's summers and winters. Still, the spot holds some of the vibe of real Mexican open-air restaurants. The art and handicrafts covering Zocalo's tables, walls and ceilings - tacitly and effortlessly emphasize the authentic Mexican spirit.





Owned by the Martinez-Obregon family, Zocalo was the little sister of Buckhead's Oh! Maria, a more upscale and serious tribute to fine Mexican cuisine. The family's efforts were so ambitious that in its first days, this little patio restaurant didn't serve anything so familiar (or Americanized) as salsa and endless baskets of chips, or warm, gooey queso dip. In a sign of the times, however, Oh! Maria closed, and Zocalo now has a sibling of its own - a gaily decorated narrow sliver on Decatur's square. Both serve affordable but creative, true Mexican dishes - as well as some of the best salsa and queso dip you're likely to find. My only quibble: The servers are friendly, but occasionally forgetful. Arrive with time and patience.





Many of Zocalo's dishes are classically Mexican - without some familiar Tex-Mex twists. You'll find well-made enchiladas, chile rellenos, fajitas, taquitos and, at lunch, tacos, quesadillas, burritos and the delicious little Mexican sandwiches called tortas.





But like a quirky friend, Zocalo's best features are unique: For one thing, Zocalo's margaritas are the best in town, and the tequilas are as varied as French brandy. Try a mug of every cantina's standby, a Michelada - beer on ice, with hot sauce and lime juice. Zocalo proudly stamps its imprimatur on such standards as guacamole - here, it's made at the table, in the three-legged volcanic stone "bowl" called a molcajete, so long a part of Mexico's cuisine it's found in ancient Aztec ruins. The vessel is put to use in another of my favorite Zocalo dishes, Molcajete Carmelita. This casserole of shrimp (by request, instead of the standard beef strips), whole scallions, grilled nopales (cactus), serrano peppers, pleasantly sour tomatillo sauce, dotted with white asadero crumbles, is served bubbling hot. Use the grill-browned white tortillas to make your own tacos.





Mole, the deep, dark, rich red sauce made using Mexican chocolate as a spice, is a house special, and Zocalo's is thick and redolent over chicken breast, enlivened by nuts and several varieties of dried pepper. The lovely crema poblana soup is its polar opposite, fresh-tasting and creamy, with an undertow of mild pepper. The salads could easily make light lunches - such as organic red leaf lettuce with cactus and pinto beans, red onion and oregano vinaigrette. You could also make a meal of side dishes like rajas con crema - sauteed poblanos, corn and onions, laced with sour cream -or sauteed mushrooms, with just enough cheese to coat them. Breakfast is served Sundays and includes a wide range of egg dishes, including chilaquiles (eggs with tortillas broiled in red or green salsa and asadero cheese).





Don't forget dessert - Zocalo's creamy flan is a family recipe, but if you're in the mood for Mexican chocolate, be sure to try the towering chocolate cake, part mousse, part truffle, part cookie-crumb crust.





Even if you never get to visit Mexico, you'll experience a taste of it.





Krista Reese is Georgia Trend's restaurant critic. Contact hergtcritic@mindspring.com.





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