I spent most of a year long ago in San Miguel de Allende. Then, the Mexican town four hours north of Mexico City was very much a boho retreat for lazy North American artists and writers. Soon, it was "discovered" by jet-setters, and, like Italy's once hidden Cinque Terre, ended up becoming a major tourist attraction.
My time there and my two years in Houston turned me into a Mexican-food fanatic. When I came back from Houston in the late '80s, it was still difficult to find anything but bad Tex-Mex food in our city. A sudden wave of decent taquerias on Buford Highway changed that, but it was not until the opening of Zocalo on 10th Street that Atlantans could sample the occasional gourmet Mexican special. (The owners of Zocalo in fact attempted a gourmet operation in Buckhead at one point. It didn't survive.)
Another restaurant that has attempted a more adventurous Mexican menu is Sala: Sabor de Mexico (1186 N. Highland Ave., 404-872-7203). I confess I've never been a big fan of the restaurant. I've found flavors at Sala muddy, predictable and a little too cozy with Tex-Mex style.
Well, that has certainly changed. Say hola to Jeff Smedstad, the restaurant's new executive chef, who has debuted a Mexican menu that is the best our city has ever seen (and certainly blows Rosa Mexicano out of the water). Smedstad has traveled extensively throughout Mexico and studied at Susana Trilling's famous school in Oaxaca, a Mexican state with an amazingly complex culinary tradition. He is the former owner of the widely acclaimed Los Sombreros in Phoenix.
His menu at Sala is complex and lengthy, divided into small plates, street tacos, entrees and desserts. You can't read the menu without feeling Smedstad's enthusiasm. I might as well lodge my only complaint, which is really a compliment. You cannot order tacos individually. You can only order a plate of three, all the same kind. That's frustrating. I ordered the Springer Mountain chicken mole tacos – three luscious, small compositions of slow-roasted meat in a dense mole peppered with smoky pumpkin seeds. There were flashes of hot chiles I couldn't identify. Extra mole, unfortunately tepid, was served on the side with a fat jalapeño.
Wayne ordered a salad I expected to be a snoozer. Jicama and orange is showing up on menus here and there, but this was the best I've encountered. Fat slices of oranges scattered with radishes and cilantro were nestled with thick slices of jicama – not the usual shredded stuff. The dressing was a red chile-lime vinaigrette.
For an entree, I chose roasted pork in a tomatillo-cascabel sauce with Oaxaca cheese. The cascabel is a dark, nutty, moderately hot chile that gave the tomatillo sauce a mole-like depth. The wood-roasted pork was falling-apart tender, almost like pot roast. Sala has installed a new pecan wood-burning grill that is used to roast many of the meats.
Wayne chose wood-grilled Gulf snapper served in a tomato-olive-chile broth with capers. All entrees are served with your choice of sides. I chose rice and frijoles refritos while Wayne selected some sauteed vegetables and a cup of black beans.
We ran into our friend Lulu and her companion Walter at dinner and shared three desserts. The best was a sweet corn cake layered with whipped cream and cajeta de cabra, goat's milk caramel. A lime crème brulée was a distant second, with vanilla-bean ice cream coming in third.
Service at the restaurant was, as usual, excellent. Jed is Waitron of the Week as well as Good Sport of the Month for enduring our inquiries about the origin of his name.
Back in town
Richard Blais, the bad-boy genius of molecular cooking, is back in Atlanta after a brief stint in Miami. Word is that he's doing private catering until he finds the right place for his own restaurant.
Around Cheshire Bridge
Our long lunchtime nightmare is over. Sundown Café on Cheshire Bridge Road has finally reopened as another Taqueria del Sol. You won't recognize the place after its month of remodeling. The famously dark and rather depressing dining room is now a bright space with white walls, blue trim and sunlight pouring through the windows.
The bar, to nearly everyone's shock, has been moved to the main dining room so that it can seat more people. The only disadvantage, as my voyeuristic friend Gregg remarked, is that eating at the bar now means you face the wall without a view of the dining room. I did find myself swiveling frequently to see who was there. ...
Here's a find: Saigon Basil on Piedmont Avenue near the intersection with Cheshire Bridge, in the former Einstein Bagels shop. This is fast food, Vietnamese- and Thai-style. I've only stopped by once and ordered a bun (vermicelli) dish with roasted pork, grilled shrimp and spring roll. Although it didn't feature the sometimes esoteric herbs you find in Buford Highway bun dishes, it was surprisingly good. Advice: Order extra fish sauce.
The restaurant also serves pho. I didn't see the Thai barbecue it advertises, but steam trays held familiar dishes.
There's little on the planet as healthy as Vietnamese food. I'm really happy to have it on the way to my gym! ...
Further down Cheshire Bridge is the Landmark Diner. While I was having my car's oil changed across the street, I hung out there an hour with my laptop – there's free Wi-Fi – and had a light breakfast of two perfectly cooked scrambled eggs and bacon.
But here's what got my attention: The Latino cook had tortured my two biscuits. They were smashed and grilled until brown on one side. They weren't bad, but someone might want to tell him we ain't eat our biscuits like that.
The whiners on AtlantaCuisine.com are begrudgingly crediting me with an improvement in service at Popeyes on Boulevard. And then there's the gentle soul known as "Home Run Cal Vulcan," who blames the universally acknowledged bad service on ... me:
"Maybe the answer lies in the attitude of the individual customers. I just don't think that Popeye's tolerates idiots.
"How would it be if Wayne kept Cliff all tied up? They are really gentle, with gentle people that is."
Meet me in the charm school admissions office Monday, Cal.