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Third Place is the Charm 

Zocalo owners open an authentic taqueria in Grant Park

It's been 10 years since three siblings from Mexico opened Zocalo on 10th Street in Midtown. Luis, Marco and Lucero Martinez-Obregon gave many intown residents their first taste of Mexican food that wasn't highly inflected by Tex-Mex border cuisine.

"Our original intent was to create a Mexico City-style taqueria," Lucero told me last week. "But people didn't get the idea of ordering tacos separately. Everyone thought they should get a basket of chips and salsa and that if they ordered three tacos, they should automatically come with beans and rice. They wanted fajitas. They wanted enchiladas. We had so many people leaving before they even sat down that we had to abandon the idea."

How well I remember. Because I'd lived in Houston for a few years and had spent a good bit of time in San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, I was constantly seeking "authentic" taqueria food back then. I was elated when Zocalo opened. Finally, I could eat the stuff I'd had for lunch almost daily during my years in Texas. Then, when Lucero and her two brothers decided to create a more conventional menu, I was extremely annoyed. True, they created some stylish dishes, even operating a gourmet restaurant in Buckhead for a while. But I wanted carnitas and chicharrones.

"The time is finally right," Lucero said when I asked her why they recently opened Zocalo Taqueria (465 Boulevard, 404-635-9930) in Grant Park. "We've watched some taquerias that cater strongly to American tastes do well and we've seen people broaden their tastes, too, so we decided the city was finally ready for something more like a real Mexico City taqueria. We're not cooking tongue or anything else weird, but the menu will definitely push the envelope for some people."

Walking into the new restaurant is a bit like entering a piñata. "You've probably noticed that Mexicans like color," Lucero said, laughing. "You won't find any beige spaces in the restaurant." You sit amid the riotous colors at classic Corona beer tables. The walls feature Mexican movie posters. The music makes your hips vibrate and there is -- gracias a Dios -- no mariachi band in sight. You order at the counter and salsa-shuffle back to your table. Take a detour by the open kitchen and inhale to get your saliva flowing.

By and large, the food is fabulous. In fact, the al pastor taco is the best I've had in Atlanta. Al pastor is pork that is marinated, usually with pineapple juice and chilies, and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. In Mexico City, the taquerias show off their al pastor in the front window and there is a lot of competition to produce the most flavorful meat.

I've eaten al pastor at many taquerias in Atlanta and it is rare to get the meat directly cut from the rotisserie and plopped into a tortilla. Instead, it is typically cooked ahead, cut into pieces, stored, and thrown on a grill when ordered. That might produce a tender filling, but done properly on a rotisserie the way Zocalo is doing it, the thin slices from outside the hunk of meat become a bit crispy from contact with the fire. The meat is served on a tortilla with a bit of chopped onion and cilantro, a zingy green sauce, and some fresh lime juice.

I'm addicted to the al pastor but I also love these tacos: green mole with pork, red mole with chicken, rajas (strips of poblano peppers) with cheese, and the chile relleno.

You'll also find parrilladas, a grilled mixture of chorizo, al pastor, steak, pork chop, ham, bacon, poblano peppers, onions and cheese. You fold the mixture into corn tortillas. "And then you have a heart attack," Lucero joked.

Indeed, I have never cared much for parrilladas, but Zocalo's seem significantly less greasy than the heart-cloggers I've eaten on Buford Highway.

You'll find usual starters like chips with salsa or melted cheese but give another oddity, the chicharron de queso, a try. It's a huge roll-up of fried cheese that looks like an Indian dhosa. (Wayne orders it so often, they start cooking it when he walks through the door.) For dessert, I'm partial to the tres leches, even though it's not made in house.

A diverse crowd has made Zocalo very popular overnight. The lunch crowd, Lucero said, is about 70 percent Mexican, but gringos predominate at night.

Here and there

Bill Addison, who has been the Food & Drink editor and lead critic here for the last three or four years, has left Creative Loafing. Although I will miss him, as I know the paper's readers will, I am glad to see him trust that his "muse" will lead him to bigger and better things. Bill is the best critic the paper has ever employed and he will be hard to replace. ...

Andrew Long, who was at Aria for two years with Gerry Klaskala, has become chef at Eclipse di Sol. ... Husband-and-wife chef team Joe Truex and Mihoko Obuna have opened Repast at 620-C Glen Iris Drive. Both have diverse, international backgrounds, and their menu reflects their marital fusion. You get macrobiotic specials along with regional faves like shrimp and grits. Call 404-870-8707 for reservations. ...

We've heard that one of the city's best restaurants is about to close but have been unable to confirm with the owner. Hint: Now is the time to binge on the best sushi you can find. ... Blue Dog Cantina is opening soon in East Atlanta, and Sabroso has replaced Tijuana Garage in Little Five Points. Yep, they're both Latino-inspired. ...

Sharon McKenna writes, "I am determined to find some great nachos in Atlanta, and have not had great luck so far. Do you have a recommendation? I have been searching on the Web, and nobody seems to have written up anything about Atlanta's best nachos!! Maybe it's a void that someone should consider filling!"

I don't think I've eaten nachos in five years or longer. Write me if you can help Sharon out.

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