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Food issue restaurant guide

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MEXICAN/TEX-MEX

CANTINA LA CASITA, Located in a charmingly shabby converted house, Cantina boasts a large, comfortable bar, two dining rooms and a spacious patio. It's all about affordable Tex-Mex here. An ideal place to hang 'n' chill in the East Atlanta 'hood. L, D. $. 560 Gresham Ave. 404-622-8081. www.cantinalacasita.com.

Nuevo Laredo Cantina, From its obscure location on Chattahoochee, Nuevo Laredo offers home-cooked Mexican food that is as

sabroso (delicious) as it is sano (healthy). The food on your plate looks fresh, not as if it's sat under a heat lamp for even a second. L, D. $$. 1495 Chattahoochee Ave. 404-352-9009. www.nuevolaredocantina.com.

POZOLE, *** Named after the Mexican pork and hominy stew, this über-casual Virginia-Highland restaurant boasts excellent margaritas, mussels in a broth of tequila, and squiggly churros with chocolate dipping sauce. $$. 1044 Greenwood Ave. 404-892-0552. www.pozolerestaurant.com.

PURE TAQUERIA, *** Suburbanites weary of schlepping to Midtown for a little scenester action can now trot over to their very own hot spot. The menu is a close fusion of Mexican tradition and American inclination: Hone in on the queso fundido with chorizo, the beef cheek tacos and ceviche. L, D. $. 103 Roswell St., Alpharetta. 678-240-0023.

ROSA MEXICANO. Atlanta's first attempt at high-end Mexican has some pleasures you won't find elsewhere, but the cooking is uneven and corporate-inflected service is annoying even to the servers. While the pomegranate margaritas and fresh guacamole made tableside are great, they are diminished by lackluster entrees. L, D. $$. 245 18th St. 404-347-4090. www.rosamexicano.com.

Sala: Sabor de Mexico, *** The seared swordfish, carne asada, chile rellenos and snapper filet at this swanky Mexican spot are dependably delicious. Some dishes are still in need of reinvention, but the deftly crafted drinks alone are worth the stop. L, D. $$. 1186 N. Highland Ave. 404-872-7203. www.sala-atlanta.com.

Taqueria del Sol, Taqueria del Sol is decidedly short on glitz, and guests order at the bar and carry their own drinks. Seafood specials can be really special. Old favorites -- spicy turnip greens, jalapeño slaw and carnita tacos -- are still worth saying "ole" to as well. $$. 1200 Howell Mill Road. 404-352-5812. 359 W. Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-377-7668. www.taqueriadelsol.com.

Zapata, ** Zapata serves authentic Mexican with a side of fantastic art. Reliable dishes include queso fundito; concoctions of chicken, beef or shrimp with tangy tomatillo sauce in molcajete; and cochinita pibil. L, D. $$. 5975 Peachtree Parkway, Suite 2. 770-248-0052.

ZOCALO, More than just a taqueria, Zocalo offers a substantial menu of creative, homemade Mexican dishes, including chile en nogada, a stuffed poblano pepper with walnut-cream sauce and a garnish of pomegranate seeds. Winner of "Best Mexican" 2007. 123 E. Court Square. 404-270-9450; 187 10th St., 404-249-7576. www.zocalocreativemex.com.

MIDDLE EASTERN

IMPERIAL FEZ, Take off your shoes, lounge on pillows on the floor, and eat a multicourse prix-fixe Moroccan meal. While you enjoy sweet-savory b'stella and fragrant tangine, belly dancers undulate about you. D. $$$. 2285 Peachtree St. 404-351-0870. www.imperialfez.com.

MEZZA: A LEBANESE BISTRO, ** You can easily go overboard at Mezza ordering lots of the Middle Eastern appetizers for which the restaurant is named, but don't fill up before you've had the stewed lamb. Winner "Best Middle Eastern" 2007. D. $$. 2751 LaVista Road. 404-633-8833.

Rumi's Kitchen, ** This Persian eatery offers such treats as kashk badenjoon, a warm, blended eggplant and onion appetizer; mast mousir, a garlic and yogurt dip; and shirazi salad, a medley of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley with a citrus dressing. L, D. $$. 6152 Roswell Road. 404-477-2100. www.rumiskitchen.com.

NEW AMERICAN

5 Seasons Brewing, *** 5 Seasons Brewing quietly slips organics into the rotation of its all-American brewery menu. Chef David Larkworthy uses local farm produce on the regular menu as much as possible, but the ever-changing specials are where the freshest food and the most innovation can be found. It helps that it's served with the city's best-brewed beer. L, D. $$. 3655 Old Milton Parkway. 770-521-5551. www.5seasonsbrewing.com.

Apres Diem, While you await your food -- we recommend any of the daily specials or regular pastas -- you'll enjoy the taste of your fingernails, which you'll be chewing as you watch the beautiful, exotic servers. 931 Monroe Drive, Suite C-103. 404-872-3333. www.apresdiem.com.

Aria, **** Expect respectfully prepared, seasonal accompaniments for classic luxury ingredients like lobster, foie gras and jumbo soft-shelled crabs, and save room for Kathryn King's delactable desserts. B, D. $$$$. 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-7673. www.aria-atl.com.

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