Smoke shop 

Neighborly Asada dishes out easygoing eats and stout margaritas

I'm well into my third margarita on a Friday night at Asada when I notice a couple of kids gathered in the corner of the restaurant's sprawling patio. What are they up to? It looks like ... hopscotch? Wow. And here I thought GameBoy had usurped all the less technically savvy pastimes of America's youth.

On the other end of the patio, a rowdy group of twentysomethings are chain-smoking and downing beer between bites of quesadillas. Two tables away, a gorgeous couple giggles and whispers to one another, incognizant of anyone else around them.

It's clear from this democratic assemblage that the neighborhood was starving for a restaurant like Asada.

Chef Michael Hosp and partner Liz Callison, both veterans of Atlanta's restaurant scene, have opened their fledgling venture in the former Gringo's location off Moreland Avenue, in an area of town still teetering between tenaciously funky and grudgingly gentrified. The restaurant is partially hidden behind a wall and a fence, so be on the lookout -- it's easy to mistake it for one of the half-abandoned buildings on DeKalb Avenue and zoom right on by.

But once you've found your way inside the compound, you'll quickly see why the neighbors have embraced this place. Asada is refreshingly uncomplicated, a colorful little spot where you're served straightforward food by equally colorful characters.

Hosp has loosely trained his focus on the friendly flavors of the Southwest: What it lacks in blue corn and cactus authenticity it makes up for with easygoing appeal. Hone in on the Tex-Mex fundamentals and you'll leave happy.

Order a pitcher of margaritas and you'll depart extra happy (if a bit cross-eyed). Limey, bracing and notably strong, they rank as a serious new contender in the 'rita competition around town. I'm a sucker for the up-sell on tequilas, and servers are quick to ask if you'd like to upgrade your drink with a brand called Penjamo Reposado, which indeed imbues a vivid, smooth edge to your drink. Go for it.

If you drive here, though, you'd better get something in your stomach quickly. Dig into some chips with salsa and guacamole. Forgive my heresy, but the guac reminds me of the variation made by dearly departed Tortilla's. Of course it isn't the same, but it has the same dusky smokiness. I could slather it on just about everything that lands on our table.

Smoky is a quality that plays into several dishes here, and not always effectively. The kitchen smokes its own red peppers and blends them into hummus that tastes like a mouthful of liquid smoke. Ditto a smoked corn black bean chili sauce that overpowers tender slices of grilled pork tenderloin. The kitchen should be more gentle with this element: Haunting is much more seductive than imposing.

Where smoky does work is in a big, unctuous bowl of cheese grits crowned with shrimp and slices of chorizo. There are so many components at play -- the sweetness of the shrimp, the legato creaminess of the grits, the spicy roar of the chorizo -- that the smoked peppers sound a welcome bass harmony with the chorus of other ingredients.

Sweet is the other taste that Hosp can be overly fond of. The sauce poured over maple and chile cured salmon is syrupy and makes the fish nearly inedible. I'd gladly take the accompanying three-pepper corn bread home and dunk it in the same sauce for breakfast, though. An arugula salad is dressed with so much ancho-honey vinaigrette (long on honey, short on ancho) that it obliterates the spicy punch that makes this green a palate-cleansing pleasure. And crunchy shrimp coated in breadcrumbs are served with marmalade pungent from horseradish that comes off cloying.

My favorite entree, the carnitas tamales, is also the simplest: Collapsing chunks of cinnamon and cumin-scented pork give way to a polenta-like masa filling inside cornhusk wrappings. They're balanced and comforting. I'll certainly be back for these when the weather cools.

And honestly, I could make a meal of the sides here alone. Decent flank steak comes with a poblano relleno that oozes a slow pool of molten goat cheese. You get the spicy jolt of the poblano with the soothing earthiness of goat cheese in each bite. I've also got a perpetual jones for the surprisingly light mac-n-cheese made with goat cheese and (judiciously employed) smoked poblano.

And for dessert? I'll take the Leche Asada, Hosp's not-too-sweet version of créme caramel. The caramel over the custard even has a slight innate smokiness to it, giving the meal an unintentional but apt sense of full-circle closure.

Servers contribute to the familial vibe here. Everyone I came into contact with was down-to-earth friendly. One woman exhibited great patience with my friend, who asked a barrage of questions about her tattoos. It's a group that seems to know how to roll with the punches.

Which is exactly the mind-set needed for a restaurant that looks to be the new weekend hang for the 'hood. What will they do with their outdoor seating when the weather turns wily and cold? Over the phone, Callison tells me they'll soon be covering two-thirds of the patio. Smart move. If I were them, I wouldn't let the kids play hopscotch around all those expensive bottles of tequila.


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