Like begets like. A pizza restaurant closes and turns into another pizza restaurant, because there’s already an oven there, and you might as well use it for its intended purpose. Ditto for a bakery. Ditto for a Mexican restaurant, especially if the previous tenants leave behind plastic salsa carafes and molcajetes. Two new Mexican restaurants in the place of older Mexican restaurants show that to be true.
UNO: La Estrella opened on Hawthorne in 2005 and quietly had a 14-year run making some of the best Mexican food in town. It didn’t make it on a lot of lists, it was always freezing in the winter, and every time the door opened, there was a bell that made a strange chirping noise in the back of the house, but it was a standard for me, as long as I remembered that it was closed on Tuesdays and didn’t pull into the parking lot that day only to hit my steering wheel in annoyance as I realized once again that the lights were off.
In August, the restaurant changed hands and is now Latino’s Taqueria y Mariscos (400 Hawthorne Ave., 706-850-9151). The same cook supposedly still handles things in the kitchen from time to time, and the elaborate murals that cover the walls are still there, as are the embroidered tablecloths that say “La Estrella,” covered by a plastic overlay that can be wiped down. It’s not all that different, although it is, on the whole, not quite as good as previously. To some extent, as everywhere, it depends on what you order.
La Estrella’s strengths were as a marisqueria (seafood restaurant) and in certain meats, including its al pastor. Latino’s is similar. Order a ceviche tostada, which features a mound of citrus-marinated fish, good-quality sliced avocado, and diced tomatoes and onions atop a well-browned circle of crisp fried masa, and you will be pretty happy. It’s not world-shaking, but it’s good. The flavors are simple and bright. But if you get a more standard lunch combo with a burrito/enchilada/whatever, accompanied by rice and beans, you’ll get something less exciting. Even said rice and beans are not as good as they were before, perhaps because they seem underseasoned.
It’s better to skip the “lunch a la Mexicana” sheet and spend a bit more. The tacos feature a single corn tortilla rather than the more common doubling up, and that’s an approach I prefer. Two tortillas tastes like too much corn much of the time. If there’s barbacoa, which seems to be a weekend offering rather than a standard, you should go for it, whatever you want to use it in or on. That and the al pastor are highlights among the meats, whereas the lengua is fairly bland and greasy. The chorizo, usually a slam dunk, is likewise more fine than good. Sopes are about average, with the base layer a bit too thick and chewy but the toppings mostly making up for it.
If you want to get a bit more spendy, the molcajete mix ($15.99, but a huge amount of food) has grilled carne asada, flat-pounded grilled chicken, chorizo, shrimp, cactus, onions and jalapeños, as well as rice, refried beans and tortillas, most of which is pretty tasty. Menudo and tamales are available on weekends, and the restaurant still serves beer as well as horchata, Jamaica, tamarindo, Jarritos, et al. It’s open 9 a.m.–10 p.m. every day except Sunday, when it closes at 9 p.m.
DOS: Taqueria el Agave also recently changed hands, reopening as Giana’s Mexican Grill (1280 Oconee St., 706-549-2639), but boy howdy, I am going to warn you away from the new place. It’s not that El Agave was spectacular, but Giana’s does not have its act together in any way, including the most important one: the food.
I try to make it to every restaurant I write about twice, but I did not want to go back. Giana sounds more like an Italian name than a Mexican one, and the restaurant’s red sauce indeed seems a lot more like marinara than like salsa. The cheese scattered over things doesn’t melt well. Shrimp included in a burrito aren’t all completely peeled, leading to unexpected crunch. Things aren’t heated through properly. The waitstaff doesn’t seem to know the menu. It is all, unfortunately, a mess. Giana’s has a full bar and is open from 11 a.m.–9 p.m. daily.
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