First Look: Alma Cocina

Modern Mexican arrives downtown

Here we go again. The latest to enter the Taco Wars is Alma Cocina (191 Peachtree St., 404-968-9662, www.alma-atlanta.com). I was worried. The two words respectively mean "soul" and "kitchen" but make no real sense grammatically. "It's not how you'd say it in Spanish," our server Jose said. "But you get the idea." I hoped the food wouldn't be the same way.

Alma Cocina is owned by the Fifth Group people, whose holdings include Ecco, South City Kitchen, La Tavola, and, most notably here, the Original El Taco. The latter is a quite successful cantina in Virginia-Highland. It was opened after the company's earlier restaurant there, Sala, went belly-up. The reason? Sala featured gourmet Mexican food and that has never succeeded in our city. Thus, El Taco's menu really is an "ungrammatical" blend of Tex-Mex classics and a few more unusual dishes from the real Mexico. And it's mainly about tequila, like the typical cantina. I miss Sala.

Alma Cocina is a good compromise. It's on the ground floor of the 191 Peachtree Tower. The elevator walls are covered with luxe green marble whose source is identified on a little gold plaque. Step out of the elevator and walk through a lobby that must lovingly chill the hearts of the One Percent. A gigantic Christmas tree is covered with so many white lights that a glance literally causes dizziness.

But Alma Cocina is hospitable above all. It's woody, warmly lit, and divided into three dining areas that soften the noise, permitting scream-free conversation. And my five friends and I were seated at a — yay! — round table (they seem to be disappearing).

The restaurant had been open less than two weeks when I visited and there were no flaws in the service at all. For the most part, my friends and I enjoyed our meal. The chef is Chad Clevenger and his cooking features "bright, fresh ingredients and traditional regional influences" with "other Latin American flavors," according to restaurant PR materials. And I agree. It's creative and fun instead of reverting to Tex-Mex. But let's get clear. This restaurant, open for lunch and dinner, caters to downtown office workers and visitors. So, it's not going to scorch anyone's palate or weird them out with banana-leaf-wrapped dishes from the Yucatan. And, of course, the tequila flows freely.

The main way to dine here is by sharing small plates. There are four entrée-sized dishes, but only one of us indulged — a flat iron steak with adobo sauce and sides of goat-cheese potato gratin, spiced with poblano chiles, and avocado-arugula salad. Boring. Cooked just right but obviously intended for the timid palate.

For a starter, my eye was drawn immediately to a classic empanada stuffed with huitlacoche, a much coveted fungus that grows on corn. Clevenger's empanada also includes jalapeño bits, charred tomato, Oaxaca cheese, avocado oil, and a touch of epazote. Ranchero sauce is on the side. This was probably the most disappointing dish of the evening. The empanada itself was a bit thick and doughy and the huitlacoche was in very short supply. As a result, I couldn't even taste it. I'm accustomed, thanks to a year in Mexico, to a much denser quantity. If the kitchen wants to use such a small quantity, maybe it should put it on one of its small tacos.

Those small tacos — "taquitos" — were predictably among the table's favorites. My usual test of a restaurant's tacos is a filling of carnitas. Clevenger is using Berkshire pork. It's appropriately braised but not to the degree where it acquires that slightly crisp glaze I want. But, believe me, it's better than the average around town. The little corn tortilla is also heaped with pineapple-habanero salsa.

A surprise was a taquito filled with slices of lightly fried avocado — a study in crunch and creamy, spiked with poblano pesto, roasted tomatoes, and cotija. A shrimp version similarly riffed on crunchy with fried shrimp, apples, jicama, and avocado. Tastes were sharp and singular. No muddling.

An alternative to the two-per-plate taquitos is a huarache — a thick corn tortilla with your choice of topping. I sampled one heaped with sesame seeds, cilantro, pickled onions, and chicken mole, another test of Mexican kitchens for me. Clevenger's mole must be a regional version unknown to me. It was somewhat sour. My friend liked it, shrugging and reminding me, "There are countless mole recipes."

The menu here is huge and we ordered a few more dishes including elote, ceviche, and Brazilian feijoada beans, which I strongly recommend for their blending of coconut milk, country ham, bacon, chorizo, and chimichurri sauce. For dessert, I chose classic churros — a bit denser than many I've had, but nonetheless addictive dragged through the three sauces of Meyer lemon, chocolate-coffee, and salted caramel.

Alma Cocina is worth a trip downtown, even if you're a member of the 99 Percent. It's relatively inexpensive, although it does add up, and you can converse without difficulty. I suppose that's one reason there are no raw onions in any of the food.

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