Last Friday, my regular dining pals and I headed to Nuevo Laredo Cantina (1495 Chattahoochee Avenue). It’s been several years since I dined there and I’ve always liked it. It’s not for purists in search of so-called authentic Mexican fare, although it was as close as we got in Atlanta 20-plus years ago. The food, like the city of Nuevo Laredo itself, occupies the border of Mexico and Texas, but it’s not what we think of as Tex-Mex. It’s more nuanced, like the surprisingly complex chicken mole, which has always been my favorite there.
Alas, when we arrived, we were told there was an hour wait. That’s actually half what it can be on a busy night, but whining queens don’t wait. So we headed to Collier Road to try out a New Orleans spot that turned out to be discouragingly empty. Then the boys forced me to eat at the neighboring Verde Taqueria (1193 Collier Road).
This is a local chain of two taquerias — a third closed fairly recently — and the food is quite clearly directed at gringos. We started with the usual chips and (a very good) red salsa, plus (mediocre) guacamole. The tacos, made with flour tortillas (corn is available) were over-stuffed to the point they were hard to pick up. We ordered a broad variety: steak chimichurri, sweet chili shrimp, pulled pork, ground beef, Baja fish, and chicken fajitas. There was also a special taco impersonating the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi. The table’s favorite was the shrimp, although I found its aioli way too heavy. Next fave was the chimichurri, despite the over-marinated, chewy meat. The rest were good enough to satisfy your inner teenage bro who is more into quantity than flavor. I should note that the banh mi taco was just plain terrible. It featured a heap of very dry meat and pickled onions and carrots, with a weird sauce.
There are also the usual quesadillas and nachos. Those who avoid tortillas can order a bowl of taco ingredients over rice and beans. The overall vibe of the place was quite positive and the wait staff was sharp. If you just want to swill margaritas with your friends and graze on fajitas, go. But, really, man up and wait an hour at Nuevo Laredo instead.
Our meal a week earlier was also devoted to Mexican flavors, this time at Casi Cielo (6125 Roswell Road). This new casual, fine-dining restaurant, located in a maddeningly over-developed stretch of Sandy Springs, features dishes inspired by the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which has an almost impossibly multicultural indigenous population. The diverse cooking styles are attracting chefs from all over the world. Casi Cielo’s chef, Luis Arellano, has an A-plus resume, but honestly, we found the food inconsistent and somewhat overpriced. Four of us spent $200, tip-included, without any alcohol.
My favorite dish was roasted “duck carnitas” with a complex but somewhat overly sweet mole negro. Second was grilled, sliced ribeye with a cilantro-chimichurri sauce. All other dishes fell behind. Carnitas made with suckling pig weren’t the least crispy. A starter of charcoal-grilled octopus was bizarre. Our $18 bought a small, lone tentacle with five bites and utterly no flavor. It was accompanied by three dots of pureed green olives, some mashed potatoes, and a dollop of red Veracruz salsa. The table’s most shocking dish was sliced halibut. This amounted to maybe half a dozen thin slices curled up to look like nipples. No, señora, not for $27.
If you go for nothing else, sample the restaurant’s Mezcal collection, the city’s largest, and order the ribeye. The décor is sleek and kitsch-less. The entire staff is friendly. If you’re feeling lonely and motherless, go and suck on a halibut nipple. Things will get better. After all, the restaurant’s name means “Almost Heaven.”