It's a Sunday night, and despite the lively salsa piping out of the speakers, the vibe at Coco Loco is decidedly mellow. The hostess makes the rounds, her heels clicking on the black-and-white checkerboard tile, and then ducks out for a cigarette break. It's that kind of night. Our server brings us a round of Mexican beers and a basket of stale Cuban bread (the Sunday night curse, I suppose).
I take a sip of my beer, admiring the vibrantly colored murals painted on the walls. One wall depicts a sidewalk cafe on a brilliantly starlit night; on the opposite, a couple dances a sultry flamenco. Copious potted palms are meant to enhance the tropical vibe, no doubt, but let's face facts. We're in a strip mall at the busy intersection of Piedmont and Sidney Marcus. All the palm trees in the world aren't going to disguise it. You have to give the folks at Coco Loco props for trying, though. The place is sunny and welcoming.
Many of the best Cuban dishes are deep fried, a fact that is borne out in Coco Loco's menu. Empanadas -- with flaky pastry crust encasing spicy ground beef (picadillo) filling -- are piping-hot and glistening from the fryer, as are crispy, golden wedges of fried yucca, a starchy cousin of the potato.
A Cuban specialty that I continue to try and continue to dislike is croquetas de jamon -- minced ham that's been shaped into a log, breaded and deep-fried. I just can't get past the odd, squishy texture of what's essentially fried ham pâté. Coconut shrimp are tough little knobs, their flavor breaded and fried to oblivion.
The pageant of fried delicacies continued with chicharron de pollo, Dominican-style fried chicken. A ginger and bitter orange marinade left the meat tender and tangy, but the crust was so greasy it left smears on hands, face and napkins. A side order of tostones, green plantain slices that have been flattened into disks and (you guessed it) fried, were bland and lacked the flavor of their sweet counterparts, maduros. Pollo a la parilla, Cuban-style grilled chicken, suffered the fate of many a grilled bird: dried-out white meat. But the succulent dark meat, ensconced in its charred skin, was a treat.
After all that fried food, it was all we could do to drag ourselves home. I wish I could say it was worth the caloric expense, but truly, we had a rather forgettable evening. Maybe it was just Sunday; maybe, after 17 years in business, complacency at the restaurant has set in. Whatever the reason, Coco Loco could use a healthy dose of Latin feistiness ... and maybe a break from the deep fryer.
PARADE Magazine and Share Our Strength, a leading hunger relief organization, are kicking off their third annual Great American Bake Sale to end hunger -- and Aria in Buckhead is joining in. Until the end of September, when guests order dessert, a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the fundraiser. The money benefits after-school feeding programs. 490 E. Paces Ferry Road, 404-233-7673. www.aria-atl.com.
Sample the South
Canoe continues its month-long 10th anniversary celebration with a lineup of guest chefs from around the South. Next up is Hugh Acheson of the Five and Ten in Athens on Sept. 22; Chris Hastings of Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham on Sept. 29; and Michael Kramer of McCrady's in Charleston on Oct. 6. Each chef will create his own four-course, prix fixe menu (Canoe's regular menu will also be available). 4199 Paces Ferry Road, 404-432-2663. www.canoeatl.com.
Beer 'n' Beef
Stop in the Buckhead Morton's on Fri., Sept. 23, for a Samuel Adams autumn beer tasting. The evening will feature four Sam Adams brews, each paired with hors d'oeuvres, such as Creme Stout paired with mini sirloin burgers. A representative from Sam Adams will be onsite to conduct a brief brewmaster class. The evening will also feature a raffle. $25 per person. 3379 Peachtree Road, 404-816-6535. www.mortons.com.
If you're in the mood for Italian, head over to Sotto Sotto for its monthly Tour of Italy dinner on Tues., Sept. 27. This month's focus is Tuscany. The four-course menu is $39 per person. 313 N. Highland Ave, 404-523-6678. www.sottosottorestaurant.com.
Nobody feels like cooking on Monday nights, right? Now, Einstein's in Midtown is offering a tasty deal: $10 steaks. For just 10 bucks, you can choose between a New York strip or rib eye with a side dish. The special runs every Monday, 5-11 p.m. 1077 Juniper St, 404-876-7925. www.metrocafes.com.
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