Hecho en Mexico 

Mexico City Gourmet's menu goes from guac to mole

As a cross-cultural training table, Mexico City Gourmet's Emory-area branch has educated and satisfied generations of jalapeño-hungry Atlantans. Long before the proliferation of taquerias and cantinas along Buford Highway and Powder Springs Road, the restaurant was the unofficial headquarters for chunky guacamole and cilantro-laced bean soup. Chicken topped with mole (pronounced MOE-lay), sometimes known as "chocolate chicken," was all but unknown hereabouts until it appeared on Mexico City Gourmet's menus, first as a special, then as a standard entree.

Is the restaurant itself still special? The question crossed my mind one recent lunchtime. I was hungry. Mexico City Gourmet was just a block away. I turned into the parking lot at Decatur Plaza. (The other branch is in Dunwoody. It's so popular that reservations are advisable on weekends.)

After being seated and provided with a Coke, a menu, a basket of warm chips and a bowl of mild but tasty salsa, I got up and nosed around. The restaurant consists of three storefronts in a strip center. Walls are painted kicky shades of flamingo pink, lime green and plum with yellow, green and exposed-brick accents. Framed crafts, posters, twinkle lights and a bandstand serve as decorations. Bouncy music cascades out of sound boxes at a reasonable level. Live music has been known to happen.

In the grubby hall leading past the kitchen to the cramped restrooms, I discovered a stack of produce boxes, including a wooden crate of dark green poblano peppers. The roughly made crate was stamped "Hecho en Mexico." The imported poblanos were as fresh and tight-skinned as any newly recruited ball player.

Poblanos tweaked my tongue that day in a rib eye quesadilla, one of several $5.95 lunch specials. The grilled, seasoned beefsteak is sliced, tossed with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and chopped poblanos, folded into a flour tortilla and served with a throwaway salad and a choice of refried beans with cheese or seasoned red rice. (For 95 cents extra, I got both vegetable sides.) The beans are as tasty as always, the rice still little more than a nutritional boost to the beans.

The combination is indeed a bargain, nutritionally as well as monetarily. On the regular menu, beef fajita platters are priced at $11.25, almost twice as much. The rib eye quesadilla, which provides more animal and vegetable protein than most people need per day, tastes as much like filled and folded fajita wraps as to make no difference. By night, the rib eye quesadilla, called steak taco poblano, goes for $9.25. An appetizer version costs $6.75 (or $1 less, minus the beef).

On another day, I enjoyed Specialty of the House No. 1. -- chile relleno ($9.95). This time, the fresh poblano was stuffed with chopped beef, almonds, raisins, potatoes and spices, then lightly battered and fried. Topped with tomato sauce, it is served with a meat-and-lettuce taco, refried beans, rice and salad. For the money -- chiles rellenos can cost twice as much at fancier places -- this delicious, relatively greaseless version is also a bargain, especially with the taco side.

Mole? The complex, slightly bitter range of flavors, velvety texture and darkness that I remembered are still authentically reproduced. Mole is currently served over chicken enchiladas -- not an ideal presentation ($7.95). The chicken I had was dry and tough; the sauce was topped with shredded cheese. And the red rice works less than might a pristine mound of plain steamed rice. For the money, though, it's another bargain, albeit minor.

Keep in mind that Mexico City Gourmet specializes neither in Tex-Mex food nor in sweetened Mex-American Taco Bell fodder. Although levels of chile-fired hotness are not as high as they'd be in Oaxaca or Puebla, flavors stay on the right path. Jalapeño bean soup, for instance, is a pleasant combination of pinto beans, tomato, bacon, sauteed onion and cilantro ($3.45). But my tongue was tickled not a twitch by any discernable trace of jalapeño pepper.

Details are sometimes missed that might lift a dish from OK to olé. Guacamole properly contained chunks of avocado as well as chopped tomato ($3.25). Unfortunately the avocado was under-ripe and seasonings scarce, thus undermining the lush complexity of this traditional dip.

Service is polite, good-natured and neither fast nor slow. Servers address their customers genially as "amigo." When summoned, they rush forward, all smiles.

I plan to rush back soon -- while poblanos are still in season. I might add a plate of huevos rancheros (fried eggs on a corn tortilla with tomato sauce). And I'll start with bean soup -- but with added jalapeños. Because, like so many of us, I've learned how hot I can take it. And I like it hot.

elliott.mackle@creativeloafing.com

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