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'Hood wink 

Happy returns to Pura Vida and Buckhead Diner

While you're stirring mayo into tuna fish to eat in front of the television, I'm driving around aimlessly for an hour, looking for new restaurants or those I haven't visited in quite a while. Wayne puts a hand on the window like a cat and begs for me to make a decision.

The result is never as random as you'd think. This week, for example, I landed at two rather upbeat spots that epitomize their neighborhoods but are far apart in many ways. The first is Pura Vida (656 N. Highland Ave., 404-870-9797) and the second is Buckhead Diner (3073 Piedmont Road, 404-262-3336).

I decided to return to Pura Vida because I'd received numerous reports that the food had improved. After an auspicious opening a few years ago, the quality of the all-tapas menu seemed to decline. The restaurant was often empty. Frankly, I didn't expect it to survive. But chef/owner Hector Santiago has turned his restaurant into a hotspot of Latino dining and culture. Now there are waits for tables.

If you go on the second or fourth Thursday of the month, you can hear tango and watch dancers from a local group. On Fridays at 9 p.m., a DJ plays salsa, mambo and merengue. You can dance and swill sangria. On Monday nights, you can play dominos and drink rum. The first Wednesday of each month is "gallery night," when you can attend a wine tasting and meet Latin American artists whose work is featured in the restaurant.

All of that adds up to a continually festive atmosphere, but it is Santiago's cooking that is most enjoyable. All tapas are $5.50 and quite adequate for sharing. I'll get my one complaint out of the way at the outset: Here and there, Santiago has a heavy hand with the salt. No doubt, mofongo is meant to be salty -- after all, it's plantains mashed with cracklings -- but it was almost inedible to me. It's a mysterious dish, featuring steamed pork and ginger-cilantro oil, too, and I want to love it. My arteries say no-no.

I most like Santiago's tapas featuring slow-roasted and stewed meats. Potito palta is lemon-lime pork confit and avocados layered between slices of Chilean bread. A tangy dipping sauce is on the side. There's a Napoleon made of roasted duck layered with caramelized plantains. But I really liked the most prosaic-sounding item -- a burrito of tender, chile-saturated chicken served with a killer tomatillo sauce and some light sour cream.

A special of salmon seviche served with banana chips was light and luscious, but a dish I suggest you not miss is the skewered hanger steak pinchos in an Argentine chimichurri sauce. I do suggest you skip the malanga chips with cremini mushroom dip or avocado aioli, not because they aren't tasty, but because there is so much more of greater interest.

The restaurant is also serving paella on Sundays only -- expect a 40-minute wait -- and ice creams homemade daily. You may want to order the churros con chocolate, the "doughnuts" with chocolate that you find in every cafe in Spain but not yet in Krispy Kreme.

Fashion tip

We landed at Buckhead Diner on a Sunday evening after some aimless driving following my workout. I suppose I should be more mindful of the way I dress when I am going to mix and mingle in Buckhead, but I do think of Sunday night as strictly casual. And the Diner certainly doesn't have the eclat it once did. So I was a bit surprised when a beautiful young woman led me to our table in my apres-sweat gear and, after I sat down, said sternly: "Remove your hat, sir."

Without even thinking to protest, I dutifully threw my Braves cap on the banquette without replying with, "You next. Take off your blouse."

"Very good," she said.

"Thanks, Mom," I replied.

Apparently, I was in the mood to be infantilized. When our waiter suggested we start with the "famous" homemade potato chips with warmed Maytag blue cheese, I reflexively said yes, even though I didn't want them. Greasy and fatty, even half a dish spoils my appetite. But they are, like, a classic, you know? The calamari is a better choice.

Generally, I like chef Mat Harris' food. I ordered the fried chicken, available only Sunday and Wednesday, and it was yummy. The chicken is soaked two days in buttermilk with some raspberry vinegar. It sounds weird, but it tastes very nice inside a firm flour coating. The chicken was served with whipped potatoes surrounded by a light chicken gravy. A decent biscuit was on the side. This isn't the fried chicken Scott Peacock cooks at Watershed, but it's very good.

Wayne ordered Peruvian sea bass, lightly encrusted with herbs and served over Israeli couscous with a black olive vinaigrette. The Israeli product is actually not couscous, but an extruded, toasted pasta that resembles tapioca pearls. Saffron onions finished off the dish full of unusual flavors.

For dessert, we avoided the "famous" white chocolate banana cream pie -- which really is delicious if you haven't eaten it 10,000 times -- and opted for the peach bread pudding, which we cleaned off the plate.

Originally designed to look like a car on the Orient Express, Buckhead Diner has been considerably spruced since my last visit. By all means visit, but wash your hair before you go.

Here and there

Plan to eat at Wisteria April 19 when the restaurant will donate 20 percent of its sales to the Inman Park Neighborhood Association's Urban Nirvana playground in Freedom Park. The project honors the memory of my former neighbor, the wonderfully wacky artist Christine Sibley, whose business place was called Urban Nirvana. ...

Stacie Meehan of The Clubhouse writes to correct my statement that the chain is owned by Kevin Costner, Jack Nicklaus and two other celebs. They were only associated with the restaurant for marketing purposes, he says. Mea culpa maxima!

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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