I'm not sure why Creole and Cajun food waxes and wanes in popularity here or why most restaurants stick so close to cliches instead of creative interpretations of one of America's most vibrant regional cuisines. Maybe it's the association with Mardi Gras that has made New Orleans-style food mainly a party and drinking cuisine at restaurants like Fontaine's and Front Page News.
The latter, on Crescent Avenue in Midtown, has opened a second huge location in Little Five Points at 351 Moreland Ave. (404-475-7777). The restaurant, in a former appliance warehouse that was a factory before that, is certainly a radical departure from the acid-tripping look of most of L5P. Like the Crescent Avenue location, the new one features a pleasant French Quarter-style patio. I'm tempted, in fact, to call it the most pleasant patio I've encountered in years.
Wayne and I dined there at the end of a hot day last week while it was trying to storm. We sat next to the courtyard's central fountain, under a green umbrella that sheltered us from the occasional sprinkle but, I kept thinking, might draw the lightning streaking across the sky. On the opposite side, where the outdoor bar is, tipsy women hurled coins into the fountain. When one bounced onto our table, Wayne announced: "I think they like us."
"Well," I said, "we're worth a nickel to them, anyway."
Drinking is probably going to be your favorite thing to do here (and the interior, all brick and dark wood, features a bar that would do any ancient watering spot in the French Quarter proud). The food, alas, is less gratifying than the experience of hanging out and, if I were you, I'd stick to the decent and inexpensive menu of burgers and sandwiches.
Our sampling of Cajun offerings was not satisfying. Crawfish fritters, a starter, were fat and greasy ($7.95). Despite the menu's claim of "lots of crawfish tail meat," we mainly bit into mouthful after mouthful of seasoned batter. Entrees come with a salad or soup. Gumbo ($2.95 separately) isn't bad, even has a nice bite to its dark roux, but lacks the complexity the delicacy can have. A special soup -- some kind of potato puree -- tasted straight off the Shoney's salad bar.
My shrimp Creole ($14.95) was made with tiny, utterly tasteless shrimp. The menu's promised "hint of lemon zest" was actually four large slices of lemon, a surprising but not bad effect, because the tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and celery were as bland as the shrimp. Wayne's dish, "Crawfish Monica," prompted a riff on Ms. Lewinsky thanks to its excess of cream and butter. There's not much to dislike about the dish ($12.95). It's crawfish swimming in tarragon cream sauce, served over rotini pasta and garnished with Romano cheese. If you like cholesterol, you'll love it.
For dessert, we tried the bread pudding in whiskey sauce ($4.95) and wept nostalgically for the version Carloss used to serve. Here, it's a stingy portion with too homogenized a texture, though its flavor is just fine. "It's not that good and the portion is too small," Wayne said, quoting our favorite Bazooka bubble gum comic.
The food is basically identical in quality to that of the Crescent Avenue location. Stick with the light items or straightforward dishes like the peel-and-eat shrimp and you'll enjoy yourself. The restaurant also hosts a monthly crawfish boil the last Saturday of each month at 2 p.m. A Mexican restaurant will be moving into the same complex in a month or two, by the way.
In Decatur The long-awaited second location of Taqueria del Sol opened last week (359 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., Decatur, 404-377-7668). Like its sister on the Westside, the new one is owned by the Sundown Cafe folks.
On the first night it was open, the restaurant was already packed. Unless you sit at the bar, you order your food at the counter, and the line was almost out the door. The new Taqueria is a bit larger than the Westside one and includes a big patio under the awning that used to shelter the gas pumps at this former service station. The decor, minimal, amounts to blue paint on white walls, windowed garage-style doors and sunburst-shaped lamps.
The menu, designed by Eddie Hernandez, is identical to that at the other Taqueria. There are two regularly changing entree specials, a special taco, three enchiladas and a group of the restaurant's most popular tacos.
Hernandez is a master of sauces and you should not miss ordering the chips with a trio of salsas ($2.95). There was a slightly sweet salsa fresca, a roasted chili one and a creamy green one the night we visited.
For an entree, Wayne ordered "pescado en cerveza," fish in beer. It's tilapia fried in a beer batter, served hot and crispy under a dose of lemon-roasted tomatillo sauce ($11.95). It's one of the best dishes I've sampled by Hernandez in quite a while.
I chose the other special, one of Hernadez's classics, pork loin rubbed with spices and roasted until fork tender ($10.95). It was served under roasted tomatillo gravy with ancho-mashed potatoes.
I've never had a bad dish at Taqueria del Sol and, among the tacos, I most like the carnitas, the fish and the Memphis -- a take on Southern barbecue. Of the soups, I like the green chili made with pork and the corn chowder with shrimp.
Here and there
Bad Service Award: I love Cafe de Nice in Buckhead but I've seldom been treated with the indifference I encountered there a few weeks ago. Just getting a glass of water from a smiling waitress was a major ordeal. After we placed our order and had waited 10 or 15 minutes without so much as a crust of bread appearing at the table, we asked how long our entrees would require. When we were told it would be another 30 minutes minimum, we left.
Weird Service Award: A couple of friends decided recently to have their birthday dinner at Las Margaritas on Cheshire Bridge. I hadn't been in the restaurant in years and actually did not eat, but just getting the server to bring me a glass of tonic water made me feel like Ponce de Leon demanding the fountain of youth. "Plain tonic water," I said. She came back and said the bar didn't understand. "Tonica sola," I said in Spanish. She went to the bar, she came back empty-handed. "They still don't understand." I bit my lip. "Do you know what a gin and tonic is?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "Well, make me one but leave out the gin!" I said. Her face lit up. My friends yelled, "Virgin Gin and Tonic!" Geez.
Another friend, Trey, dragged me to another of my least favorite places, Roasters on Lenox Road, last week. The staff there is friendly and efficient, but why does a restaurant specializing in rotisserie chicken serve birds that taste like the avian equal of beef jerky? Two mouthfuls sucked every bit of moisture out of my mouth, including the over-salted juices of black-eyed peas.
Bien Thuy on Buford Highway remains my favorite for Vietnamese. We did takeout from there last week -- flawless vermicelli topped with imperial roll, roasted pork and incredibly seasoned, grilled shrimp. If you've never visited, you've missed one of the best meals for the money in Atlanta.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.