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Eating at Raul's 

"One, and I was feelin' fine," says my friend, his speech still slurred from the previous night's outing, about the libations at a Puerto Rican joint he'd just found. "Two, I was real good, and three ... well, three and I needed a wheelchair to get out to the parking lot and into a cab." As major salsa enthusiasts, he and his girlfriend stumbled across Raul's one Friday night as the pumpin', thumpin' and bumpin' got underway with live music. The sweaty dancefloor was packed, and mojitos were flowing as freely as tap water.

Mojito mind eraser: Located in a largely vacant Marietta strip mall, Raul's exterior yields no clues as to its cool, dark, beach party interior. A lengthy mojito menu catches your attention first. This Cuban favorite of rum, mint, lime and soda is offered in many permutations ($5.50 each). In addition to getting the party started fast, the mojitos prove perfect companions to the dishes we tried.

Take a pass on the tapas: A Saturday night outing to Raul's winds up being as much fun as legally possible. Even though the drinks could not be any cooler or more refreshing, the service is a little out-to-lunch, and the tapas we try leave something to be desired. Puerto Rican-style tamales with pork ($3) are cement-heavy and musky in all the wrong ways. There's barely any pork in the thick-as-a-brick tamale and what bits we can find are tasteless.

Coco mahi-mahi ($6) sports a toasty panko crust, but there's no discernible coconut flavor -- just an overpowering fishiness. Shrimp empanadas ($5) would be delightful if sold at a street-side stand for $1, with their flaky, lardy crusts and savory interior. But we couldn't find shrimp anywhere in the filling. Bacalaitos ($5), however, are delicious drinking snacks. Flat, chewy, crusty cakes of salted cod, the little treats are served with a guava salsa whose freshness and sparkling flavor tantalize us into ordering one helping after another.

Can't go wrongo with mofongo: The atmosphere during a Sunday lunch is more subdued, but the potential for serious throw-down partying is still in the air. Grilled chicken breast ($10) sounds like bland diet food, but is a wonderfully succulent prize of "mojito-marinated" fine white meat with a zesty sautee of tomatoes, onions and garlic. Accompanying black beans are firm and creamy, and the side of yellow rice is aromatically perfect.

Usually served as a side dish, at Raul's the mofongo ($11) is a main course with chunks of fried pork topping the nutty plantain-pork rind mixture. Beef broth is served with the dish, to pour over the meat and plantains, creating a starchy, hearty delight. It's superb eating, restorative after a long night, or as a solid base for extending your night until midday ... should the music and mojitos inspire you to do so.

cynthia.wong@creativeloafing.com

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