EL BAJIO (400 Hawthorne Ave., 706-850-1191): For a long time, La Estrella Mexican Restaurant occupied this spot in an unprepossessing shopping center, festooned on its interior with coastal murals, with the squawk of a bird indicating that a new customer had stepped through the door. It rarely made lists of the best Mexican restaurants in Athens, but it was among them nonetheless, with a focus on seafood in particular. Since then, a few other places have come and gone, but none captured the charm of the original.
El Bajio at least has a shot at doing so. Owned by the same folks as the grocery of the same name on Old Commerce Road, the restaurant has remodeled the interior, covering the murals with white wood paneling that makes the entire dining room seem brighter. The bathrooms have been redone. The bar has been moved to a different side of the room. Decoration is sparse, and hours are inconsistent. Theoretically, it’s open Tuesday through Sunday for lunch and dinner, starting at 11 a.m., but sometimes it’s closed on Sunday. The menu on the website is a bit different from the laminated copy you’re handed, and neither is exactly the same as the wall signage with pictures of various dishes. Service is not particularly speedy.
It’s worth persisting, though. Tuesday brings taco specials at $1 each, and the barbacoa is a solid rendition. The pastor and the chorizo are a little dry but very flavorful, served with a shower of cilantro and chopped onions, but with a lemon wedge on the side instead of the more usual lime. Pay more for your dishes and you will probably get something better, as with the bistec a la Mexicana, which is sort of a cross between lomo saltado and fajitas. The beefsteak that’s the heart of the dish is aggressively and deliciously seasoned, then grilled quickly, sliced and tossed with piles of sliced and sauteed onions, green peppers, tomatoes and big, still-crisp french fries. It is two meals on a plate for sure, especially if you’ve taken advantage of the chips and salsa that arrive at your table compliments of the house. In addition to the usual carafe of salsa (too tomatoey but hot), you get two plastic squeeze bottles of sauce, one red/orange (habanero) and one perfectly balanced creamy green, with lots of avocado and jalapeño. The chips are even warmed, a small detail but one that speaks to the way the restaurant actually cares about making its customers happy.
Even better is the seven mares soup, a big ceramic bowl of complex red broth that hides clams, mussels, crab legs, big chunks of white fish, shrimp, rings of squid and possibly more varieties of seafood. Dose it up with chopped onion, lemon juice, cilantro and rings of fresh jalapeño, and clear out your sinuses while you fill your belly. El Bajio has plenty of things of the “burrito especial” variety, but also more seafood, pozole, menudo, nachos, a bunch of dips, wings, hamburgers and a kids menu with salchipapas. It seems to be finding an audience, and now you can add to that—doing take-out if you’d rather not eat inside.
SABOR LATINO (1550 Oglethorpe Ave., 706-850-8299): Unlike El Bajio, Sabor Latino is not really a Mexican restaurant, although it does have Mexican offerings. Since its beginnings on Fritz Mar Lane, through its move to Watkinsville near Publix, and now in this second location where the old fancy Transmetropolitan used to be near the loop, it’s had delicious Uruguayan dishes on the menu as well, and they’re always the best option.
Most of them are in the “specials” section, although some are in the sandwiches, and the empanadas include many more options than the usual beef, chicken and cheese. The chivito al plato, much like the bistec a la Mexicana above, is a massive plate of food built around a thin, tenderized steak topped with fried eggs, bacon, ham, cheese, french fries and pickled red bell peppers, with a Russian salad (potatoes, peas, mayo) and a regular salad (lettuce, tomato, vinaigrette) on the side. Even better is the chorizos plate, which, rather than the hot and salty crumbled sausage you’d expect at a Mexican restaurant, includes two lovely whole sausages, mildly flavored, with chimichurri sauce on the side and the same two salads as previous. The menu is big, with much to explore and a lot of options for kids. Much like in its Fritz Mar location, the sandwiches are a strength.
The interior hasn’t changed much since Transmet occupied it, but that means it’s still pretty and open, with lots of subway tile and nice light fixtures. Want to eat outside? You can climb the stairs to the rooftop patio. Sabor Latino is open from 11 a.m.–10 p.m. most days (closed Mondays), although sometimes it opens a little later.
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