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Si, seafood

Costa Verde specializes in South American seafood dishes

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At what point does the term "south of the border" stop being a helpful expression? Unquestionably, Norcross' Costa Verde restaurant serves food indigenous to areas due south of the Rio Grande. But since the cuisines in question are of Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, perhaps the Panama Canal or the Equator would be better lines of reference.

Certainly Costa Verde's cuisine has little in common with Mexican cooking, with some dishes proving at home in Cuba, while others being somewhat less familiar. Since Columbia, Ecuador and Peru are neighbors along the Pacific coastline, it should be no surprise that Costa Verde has a flair for seafood, often serving dishes of unusual flavor combinations.

The brick plaza of Norcross Village, just south of Jimmy Carter Boulevard on Buford Highway, is far more aesthetically appealing than most of the area's strip malls. It's a crowded little development, with various restaurants standing shoulder-to-shoulder with such intriguingly named places as Disco Rodeo and Uncle Doug's Fresh Cuts. Costa Verde's dining room has a plain, boxy shape, with travel posters and several inflatable fish hanging from the walls.

Some of the menu items can seem a bit foreign to less cosmopolitan U.S. diners. Described as a "mashed potato ball with chicken or tuna stuffing," the causa rellena ($4) appetizer is about the size of one of those one-hand, plastic promotional footballs, only more egg-shaped. My wife and I tried the chicken stuffing, which was essentially a mayonnaisey chicken salad surrounded by bright yellow mashed potato. It's a cold dish and tastes fine, but seems less like "restaurant food" than something you'd bring to a company picnic.

Other appetizers share Caribbean origins. The empanadas Columbianas ($2) are baked beef patties in a kind of pastry pocket, and taste partly like a corn fritter, partly like a hearty samosa. The maduras platano frito are mild plantains -- soft, sweet and cool -- but fade into the background compared to the other dishes. The yucas fritas ($2) make excellent finger food, akin to squat french fries, and a terrific dipping vehicle for the sharp, spicy "aji" green sauce.

French fries appear in places Yanks wouldn't expect. The lomo soltado stew ($9) very much resembles a stir-fry dish with brown sauce. Chewy beef morsels are cooked with sliced green peppers, onions, tomatoes and ... french fries, all mixed together. And it works. The crispness of the potatoes adds another dimension to the stew's texture.

Fries also accompany the Milanesa de carne ($8), a big flap of breaded meat very akin to Southern chicken-fried steak. It proved a little dry, and although squeezing lemon on it helped, I found myself wanting gravy with it. More satisfying is Costa Verde's seafood, which include ceviche dishes from each of its three home countries. I've sampled the ceviche de camaron ($9.50), with generous quantities of shrimp marinated in lemon juice and onions. It's tart without being sweet, with deep-cleansing forkfuls spreading across your palate.

The jalea ($12) fried seafood platter includes bite-sized bits of grouper, shrimp and an abundance of squid, with a breading that's crunchy without being too oily or smothering the flavor of the meat. The plate includes a bowl of marinated onions and tomatoes that's so vinegary it'll make your eyes water, but will appeal to those who like extreme flavors.

The sudado de mariscos ($12) is a rich tomato-based seafood stew lightly garlicked and swimming with shrimp, squid, mussels in the shell, slices of yucca and appealingly topped with nearly half of a modest-sized crab. Tasting like a seafood diavola entree at an Italian restaurant, it can be eaten as the chunkiest of soups, or mixed with the accompanying serving of rice.

Costa Verde's hospitality can have quirks. Arriving for dinner one evening, we were almost blown back out the door by the volume of the Spanish language newscast blaring from its two televisions. At another visit, seemingly none of the drink options on the menu were available but Sprite and Christal beer. Despite the occasional language barrier, most of the servers are friendly and eager to please, and Costa Verde's seafood speaks for itself, once it lands at your table.

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