No Tex-Mex on the Menu? Caramba!

There’s barely an inch of intown Atlanta that hasn’t been deformed by “gentrification.” Gentrifiers hate the word because it alludes to a prosperous class that drives traditionally poorer residents from their neighborhoods in order to create precious enclaves of privilege that don’t reach old-line Buckhead standards but exude the irresistible charm of over-priced Belt-Line beehives and arts-and-crafts bungalows. Every time I take notice of this, even as a Grant Park resident myself, I get hate mail. But I understand. The poor will always be with us … but better they be a bit farther away. Like in Jonesboro. Right?


I still do love Little Five Points and Candler Park, but, even there, the shabbiness is more studied than actual at this point. A perfect example is the Flying Biscuit on McLendon. It opened over 20 years ago, catering to novice gentrifiers, and now it’s a chain. Directly across the street is Gato (1660 McLendon Ave.), which has long been less trendy in its weekday incarnation as an inconspicuous and very inexpensive breakfast-and-lunch diner. However, about eight years ago, the restaurant began hosting remarkable pop-up dinners Friday–Sunday nights. The most recent was Talat Market, which prepared brilliantly conceived “Georgia Thai” food for a year. The Talat people, who have been lauded everywhere, are opening their own place next year in Summerhill.


Now, Gato owner/chef Nicholas Stinson is himself, taking over with “Gato Nights,” an exploration of regional, fairly complicated Mexican cuisines. Gracias a dios, his changing menu will be absent Tex-Mex dishes — even tacos, for that matter. Stinson began operation two weekends ago and my verdict is mainly good, with one notable exception. The menu included only six dishes. One, a tamale, was sold out. A few of the plates were readily shared, others not so much. So, you’re likely to spend $25–$30 per person. That includes no alcohol. It’s BYOB at Gato.


What’s good? My favorites were the two sort-of-kind-of entrees. One was a lushly tender chicken leg and thigh cooked sous-vide, then set on the grill to brown and crisp the skin. We enlivened the flavor with a dense salsa macha, typically made with fried chipotle peppers suspended in an oil. The rim of the plate was dusted with “burnt jalapeno powder” — a pale, slightly stinging novelty to me. Don’t sniff it. The chicken shared the plate with a rice that was almost risotto-like in its texture. Tear the chicken up and roll it into sunflower tortillas.


My next-favorite entrée was a small bowl of chunks of roasted pork shoulder over a delicious green mole with multiple layers of clean flavors, further accented by slices of apple, avocado, and radishes. Roll the caramelized pork into bright orange achiote tortillas. I should note that this seems like a small portion until you grab a spoon and devour the mole like soup.


Speaking of soups, we also tried one with smoked oyster mushrooms. Despite the presence of cilantro-esque pipicha and slightly bitter epazote, the soup was nearly flavorless except for the ’shrooms. A better starter choice, quite enough for two, was an earthy dip made of ground pumpkin seeds. The texture bordered on a weirdly wonderful grittiness. You dip into the stuff with strips of jicama, cucumber, and fried plantains.


Now, I’m sorry to say dessert, atole, was one of the biggest misses I’ve eaten in a long time. It had the texture of dense but watery pudding with almond milk, pepper foam, and, I believe, ground corn. I can’t even begin to describe its unpleasant taste, which was underscored by an appearance that resembled … well, don’t ask.


I hate that our meal closed on that unpleasant note, because I think the rest of the food was good. Generally, however, the plating could be improved. My understanding is that Stinson will be integrating some of these dishes into his daytime menu. Let me know how you like it.