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Memories of Mexico 

A meal at Zocalo has the power to transport

I visited Mexico for the first time earlier this year. We were on an "eco-cruise" that sailed up the coast of Baja California, visiting a series of pristine, uninhabited islands. We swam, we looked for whales, we hiked, we snorkeled in the clear blue water. The landscape was breathtaking, but after about day three, I needed some culture. So when our ship docked for an afternoon in the picturesque town of Santa Rosalia, I was more than ready to explore.

Lovely as Santa Rosalia was, after about 30 minutes in the desert-like heat, all I could think about was finding a shady spot and having a beer. We ducked into a café on the main thoroughfare and collapsed at a table in the shade. A breeze blew in off the ocean, and Mexican top 40 blasted from the stereo. Within minutes, we were sipping Tecate and nibbling chips, and all was right with the world.

I say that because when I sat down at Zocalo the other night, I was transported back to Mexico. No more honking traffic and bad attitudes: just music, chatter, and the clink of margarita glasses. Zocalo's staff seems genuinely devoted to the place. Our server raved over the chef's culinary prowess ... before revealing that the chef was her sister. I can't say I blame her -- if my sister were the talented Lucero Martinez-Obregon, I'd brag, too.

Zocalo was one of Atlanta's first really authentic Mexican restaurants, and they haven't slipped, as far as I can tell. The focus is on fresh ingredients and bold preparations. Kooky presentations add to the fun. Two dishes we ordered, Molcajete Carmelita and Camaron Maya, arrived in hot lava rock bowls. The former, a mix of steak, chiles, cactus and tomatillo salsa, bubbled away in its sizzling bowl like a witch's brew. Wrapped up in fresh corn tortillas, the mix made deliciously offbeat tacos.

Camaron Maya looked like something you'd order at Trader Vic's: A lava rock cauldron brimmed with plump bacon-wrapped shrimp, chunks of pineapple and melted cheese. It was far-out and utterly irresistible. After we finished the shrimp, we proceeded to spear pineapple chunks and gobble them up with the last caramelized bits of cheese scraped off the bottom of the bowl.

To start, we ordered the Diez Diez Diez, a goofy-named appetizer of black bean cakes and crunchy chicken taquitos. The taquitos made perfect vessels for tangy tomatillo salsa and sour cream, but the black bean cakes stole the show. The addition of masa (Mexican cornmeal) gave the cakes a pleasantly meaty texture. The only real disappointment of the evening was a frightfully bad "Atlanta-rita," a margarita made with peach schnapps. Opt instead for a yummy pomegranate juice margarita. And if you're able, save room for a piece of dense, sweet tres leches cake for dessert.

I love that Zocalo is completely open-air; a wrought-iron railing encloses the dining room, turning it into one big covered patio. Having only eaten here in warm weather, I can't say what it's like to dine here on a blustery winter night, with nothing between you and the elements but a thin sheet of plastic. But it sure is fabulous when the weather's nice.

Autumn on the Menu

MidCity Cuisine has introduced a new menu for fall. Featured dishes include the creamy onion "latte," Mediterranean whole fish baked in salt crust, pepper-crusted Niman Ranch pork chop, and blackberry pot pie with vanilla ice cream. 1545 Peachtree St. 404-888-8700. www.midcitycuisine.com.

Crazy for the Q

Every Sunday night is barbecue night at South City Kitchen. October features Virginia-style barbecue: Look for hickory-roasted salmon, grilled ham steaks with pineapple-brown sugar glaze, garlic butter-basted pork ribs, collards, horseradish slaw, and blackberry crisp. All courses are served family-style for parties of three or more. $19.95 for adults, $9.95 for kids. Coming up in November, South City will feature Kentucky-style 'cue. 1144 Crescent Ave. 404-873-7358. www.fifthgroup.com.

Sophisticated Sipping

Spice will host a Silver Oak wine dinner Thurs., Oct. 20. Silver Oak is known for its palate-pleasing Cabernets. The dinner will include cocktails and appetizers followed by a five-course dinner paired with wines. The price is $95 per person. 793 Juniper St. 404-875-4242. www.spicerestaurant.com.

Halloween Eats

Sala in Virginia-Highland is offering a three-course "Day of the Dead" menu from Oct. 28-Nov. 2. It will be offered alongside the regular menu. The cost is $29.95 plus tax and gratuity. Featured dishes include roasted pumpkin soup with red chiles, pork carnitas served in a roasted pumpkin, lamb T-bone chops grilled in ancho adobo, pan-roasted duck breast in green molé, and chocolate-chile bread pudding. 1186 N. Highland Ave. 404-872-7203. www.fifthgroup.com.

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