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Revisiting Pozole in Virginia-Highland 

From Nuevo Latino to Tex-Mex, Pozole has regressed

Time flies when you're crippled.

Pozole (1044 Greenwood Ave., 404-892-0552, www.pozolerestaurant.com) was the second restaurant I visited after emergency surgery five years ago on both my knees. My legs were in braces and I was using a walker. At the time, just sitting down was like assuming the pose of a Cirque du Soleil contortionist.

Too bad my two weeks in the hospital, six weeks in braces and 10 weeks of physical therapy ended with the realization that my surgery had been botched. I still can't walk downstairs without turning sideways and that will never change.

But I digress. Pozole was a pleasant experience during that difficult time and I really appreciated the help the staff gave me in manipulating my body into a chair. I liked the food I ate then. The menu still describes the cuisine as "Nuevo Latino," a phrase that has become virtually meaningless. In some places, it refers to a menu of different Latin American dishes. In others, it refers to Santa Fe, N.M.-style or Miami-style fusion cooking.

At still others, it is simply somewhat interpretive Mexican and Tex-Mex cooking. That's the case at Pozole, where the tequila bar — open until 2 a.m. most nights with an abbreviated menu — seems to be the main marketing feature. That and $1 tacos on Wednesday nights.

We paid two visits in the last few weeks, prompted by the news that the restaurant had added some new items to the menu. I was most intrigued by the chiles rellenos, one of my favorites dishes on Earth. I'm sorry to say that Pozole's is neither authentic nor an interesting riff. Its overall mediocrity is typical of much of the food I sampled.

First of all, the chiles rellenos was served splayed open dissection-style — not the traditional plump, roasted poblano fried in a light egg batter and served over a piquant tomato salsa. The large size of Pozole's poblano may have something to do with the odd presentation, but I think it has more to do with the peculiar filling. Instead of the usual solitary cheese or pork picadillo slightly sweet with raisins and nuts, Pozole uses chicken with potatoes, queso fresco and Jack cheese. Hand me some chips and let's make nachos.

During our first visit, Wayne ordered the same thing he did five years ago — half a chicken roasted with lime and coriander, served with brown rice and a cucumber salad. Back then, it was moist and crispy. This time it was on the dry side. I did like the flavor better this visit, having developed more of a taste for coriander.

My second-visit entrée headed me in the direction of Texas — three enchiladas stuffed with unremarkable chicken, beef and cheese with beans, served under a heavy sauce made from fire-roasted tomatoes. On the side: the usual rice and unusually bland beans. I'm getting the strong feeling that Pozole is after the Taco Cabana crowd. Where is the plate of short ribs with mole served over creamy grits that I ate five years ago?

A plate of three tacos beat the enchiladas. Stewed pork with salsa verde was my favorite, and the Angus brisket with chipotle mayo was still good. The "crispy" tilapia in the third tasted like it had been fried that morning. Avoid it. You try the $22 lobster tacos and let me know. Overall, I would be happy eating the tacos on $1 night, especially if I was afloat in tequila.

Generally, starters were better than entrée dishes. The pozole verde — full of hominy and chicken, served with a side of roasted chiles — is still flavorful. The little fried "taquitos" ("flautas" in Mexico) feature chicken, cilantro cream, pico de gallo and queso fresco. Chomp away. A goblet of ceviche, a new dish, was made with shrimp, calamari and scallops. It was probably the best dish we ordered.

There's certainly no lack of talent around the restaurant. The owner is Joey Masi, a respected chef who has worked at some of the city's best restaurants. He originally opened Pozole with Jason Hill of Wisteria, but is now sole owner. The restaurant's head chef for the last two years is Jesus Mendoza from San Marcos, Mexico. He worked with Masi at Midtown Kitchen and Atlanta Fish Market and I'm told also has an "extensive background" in traditional Mexican cooking.

I think it's commendable that Pozole, a small restaurant, has managed to survive five years in this economy. It's clear, though, that one way it has done that is by offering the same-old-same-old Mexican fare — there's even a taco salad on the menu now — and hyping its tequila bar. I have pleasant memories of the place, but it has regressed. The staff remains great, however. Drink plenty and be happy. C

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com

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