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Night vision

Gato de Noche purrs with spicy simplicity

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It all started with the fish tacos.

Incredible, I heard. The best thing I ever had.

Fish tacos? What could be done to fish tacos to make them incredible?

And what about the rest of this cafe's menu? Well, there were a few more things, but I never heard about anything but the fish tacos. I know one man who has yet to try anything else, despite the fact that he eats here every other week.

That is how I came to be at Gato de Noche in the first place. My job was to order the other things so my informant could see what they were like. He dearly wanted to try the tamales, for example, but could not bear not ordering the ambrosial fish tacos.

Ambrosial?

Yes. And that isn't the half of it.

Gato de Noche (which means night cat) is what happens at the tiny breakfast-and-lunch spot Gato Bizco (cross-eyed cat) Cafe when the sun goes down. But only Wednesday through Saturday nights. Then, 6-10 p.m., when Mike Geier and his dog, Moses, are in residence, something special is going on. (That will be Moses waiting outside, a dish of water and a plastic container of dog treats by the bench.)

The menu is limited. The imagination behind it is not. The prevailing culinary sensibility is Mexican with Cajun touches thrown in. Although it is difficult to think of a high-end French restaurant that would not be delighted to offer the dense, refined (as in slightly dry rather than sweet) flourless chocolate cake at the end of a classic meal.

If you want wine or beer with dinner, feel free to bring your own -- Gato de Noche will happily supply the glasses and the corkscrew if not the spirits. Or you may take the pairing suggestions of the tabletop card and choose one of the wines at Mr. Lee's Grocery (aka Candler Park Supermarket) three doors down. My own experience, however, has been that the food is so good and so interesting that I do not miss either wine or dessert. Frankly, both dull the pleasurable aftertaste.

So loving and knowing is the seasoning and execution of the dishes here that the most mundane of ingredients becomes a revelation. The brown rice and green beans served with everything, for instance. That would be plain, ordinary green beans, not the haute dainty French haricots verts. They are sauteed, that's all. Just about everything is sauteed here since there is not enough room behind the counter for an oven. Crisp-tender and bright green, the beans snap and melt in the mouth at the same time.

That is also the secret behind the acclaimed fish tacos (tacos de pescado, $8.25). Nothing more exotic than whitefish filets is rendered crunchy on the outside while still satin-textured on the inside. Tucked inside warm, crisp but not hard tortillas, they are simply splendid, juicy and flavorful. Herewith, the written description taken from the back of the menu: "I can still hear the rushing waters of the great Aktun Chen River in the rain forest of the Yucatan. This is the home of the elusive and mysterious pie grande, the Mexican Bigfoot. Although I have never seen one, nor can I vouch for its existence, I'm pretty sure that if we could catch one, teach it our customs and language, it would say, 'These are the best dang tacos de pescado I do believe I've ever had.'"

As I said, the imagination is not limited.

Thus one reads that migas ($6.75) are "the perfect corn tortilla, torn mercifully into little pieces and scrambled righteously with three eggs. I was blessed by this dish one day in Juarez, Mexico, after a night of raucousness and debauchery."

Diablo Confuso ($8.50): "When I was 9, I was bitten by a poisonous serpent. The fever that ensues warped my mind and caused me to have a horrible vision. The devil appeared to me in the form of Daniel Boone, my hero. Very confusing." This in reference to eggs mixed with curried sausage, spicy tomato sauce and cheese. Huevos Barbaros ($7.50) is another variation on the eggs and tomato sauce theme, these with toasted corn tortillas and black beans.

The tamales de pollo ($9.25) -- "the gustability of this gastronomomous from my bean down to my espadrilles" -- turn out to be a spicy chicken and tomato blend with a vaguely smoky aftertaste.

Note that when I say spicy, I do not mean hot. I mean that an array of top-notch herbs and spices are employed intelligently to enhance the humble basic ingredients. The result is fried plantains that are moist yet hearty and with black beans and rice ($4.25). Potatoes, peas and tomatoes become the throaty empanada vegetal ($4.25). Dried cherries, slivered almonds and spices turn ground pork into zesty empanadas de picadillo ($9.50).

Rosemary garlic chicken ($9.75) is just what it sounds like, only better, thanks to deft technique: sauteeing as it should be -- quick. More excellent technique -- this time marinating -- transforms a pair of thin pork chops into mojo pork chops ($9.95), moist and scrumptious beneath a tomato chipotle sauce.

Whatever the soup of the day is (sopa del dia, $3.50), get it. One evening it might look like a bowl of canned stewed tomatoes, but in reality, it will be roasted tomatoes with garlic and oregano.

One also can never go wrong with the day's featured entree. Especially if it is the gloriously tender ropa -- shredded flank steak -- prepared so that it tastes like the world's most upscale barbecue.

The thing is, there are cooks and there are chefs. And then there are artists. The fun of going to Gato de Noche -- aside from the certainty of discovering some really good food -- is experiencing the artist Mike Geier at work.

amy.jinkerlloyd@creativeloafing.com

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