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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Raul's Jumps Through Hoops To Please With Its Puerto Rican Fare. Delicioso!


26 August 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved. 

RAUL'S 1150 Powder Springs Road, Marietta **

HOW REFRESHING it is to find a restaurant with lots of giddy showmanship but without a lot of pretense. One whose sticky-sweet sentiment rings true in spite of itself, no matter how cockeyed and optimistic.

Raul's in Marietta has all the fresh-faced enthusiasm of a high school cheerleading squad, minus the cute pleated skirts. This restaurant manages to string together pulse-pounding Latin music, dance and, best of all, food --- all under one three-ring-circus of a spot, tucked into a close-to-deserted strip mall on Powder Springs Road.

A huge dance floor sets the stage for lots of merengue and salsa dancing, including lessons. Bright green and blue waves of color drench the walls. Sexy Latin music is always playing, either live or from a DJ. It's like the big tent version of Jose Feliciano-meets-Barnum & Bailey, with the addition of some really great eats.

The entire menu from chef Raul E. Thomas Jr. is solidly Puerto Rican, with a few nods to Cuba --- especially the much-touted mojitos. These and other drinks are served from a Disney-decorated, straw-strewn bar that looks like it came straight from the set of "Beach Blanket Bingo."

Is the whole thing a little tacky? Sure. Is it fun? You bet.

And Thomas' food would be a draw without any of the shoot-the-man-from-the-cannon genre of added attractions. The menu makes all the right customary rounds --- mofongo, alcapurrias, empanadas, tostones --- without venturing too far into being intimidatingly authentic.

That's because Thomas is as much a showman as a chef. And he knows that not everyone wants to try tripe the first time out, even though it's on the menu in the form of a Puerto Rican classic stewlike soup called mondongo. No, Thomas has sense enough to appeal to the masses as much as he does the food mavericks.

The heart of Puerto Rican food lies in what's called "cocina criolla" (creole cooking), rooted in the traditions of the native Arawaks and Tainos, the Spanish who conquered them and the heavy influence African slaves brought to this small, tropical island as part of its heavy sugar trade. Thomas excels in cooking its subtle flavors --- less heated than Mexican or Guatemalan, and not as meat-based as Brazilian or Venezuelan.

His talents shine best in a traditional mofongo of mashed, starchy plantains mixed haphazardly with succulent shredded pork and topped with chicharron --- an addictively crispy, fatty layer of fried pork skin that will rock your world. The mofongo itself is a little dry, which is why Thomas serves it with a savory broth blessed with flavors of rich pork fat and seasonings.

It's part of a tapas menu that offers small bites of traditional Puerto Rican street food, like bacalaitos ---sweet, crunchy codfish fritters, flat and crisp-skinned with a snowy white, minced fish center that balances the heady sweetness of a guava salsa perfectly. Alcapurrias are here, too --- deep-fried mashed plantain fritters stuffed with mildly seasoned ground beef.

Thomas veers too far off course with a small plate of heavily battered coconut shrimp laden with oversized, overly sweet flecks of coconut and cloyingly sweet mango chutney. They belong more on the appetizer menu at Chili's than with the rest of his conventional offerings.

Thomas pays homage to the Cuban sandwich with a rather unoriginal (but rollicking nonetheless) little ditty of soft Cuban-style bread filled with ham, cheese, spicy chorizo and fried eggs.

The platos principales at Raul's seem like an afterthought with all the mojitos and music and small plates --- but there they are, authentic as ever, nestled on the menu among 10 types of mofongo and the famous Puerto Rican soup, sopa de pollo, of chicken and rice.

Camarones al ajillo is a personal favorite because it is a simple, straightforward dish of plump shrimp splashed with the time-honored pairing of garlic and olive oil. Raul's is as pleasant as any, a sentimental reminder that versions of this dish can be found in almost every country in Latin America. Eating it somehow makes the world seem just a little smaller and more accessible.

Raul's pernil asado (roasted pork) has an incredible flavor --- savory with that certain indescribable fatty sweetness that a well roasted pork often has --- even if, like the mofongo, it's a little dry. But mixed with a luscious stew of red beans, it takes on a whole new texture, a whole new meaning; it becomes the type of dish families gather around a table for.

Save room for a a slice of pudin de pan; Puerto Rico is known for its flan and custard-based desserts. Raul's version of this coconut bread pudding is, for want of a better word, scrump-dilly-icious. Soft bread, soft custard, just enough sweetness, perfect flecks of coconut with a toasty finish . . . I could live on this stuff and never get tired of it. The flan is creamy and full of just enough eggy flavor, but it gets lost in a sea of store-bought, syrupy sauces drizzled all over the plate.

And that would be my only misgiving about Raul's. Sometimes in his massive efforts to please, Thomas can get a little too caught up in the middle ground of what's really Puerto Rican and what isn't. When he does --- frou frou sauces on a traditional flan, tourista-pleasing coconut shrimp --- he loses sight of the roots that make his cooking what it is: cocina criolla.

When he doesn't, Raul's is a Big Apple Circus of flavor, and Thomas is ringmaster. Map 1150 POWDER SPRINGS RD.

Map of Marietta pinpoints the location of Raul's; inset map of metro Atlanta pinpoints the Area of detail./ ELIZABETH LANDT / Staff Photo After a hearty meal at Raul's, try to save room for a slice of pudin de pan, a coconut bread pudding./ JENNI GIRTMAN / Staff Photo Chef Raul E. Thomas Jr.'s talents shine in a mofongo (top) of mashed plantains mixed with shredded pork and topped with crispy, fatty pork skin./ JENNI GIRTMAN / Staff Photo The alcapurria tapas, two plantain croquettes stuffed with ground beef (above), and bacalaitos tapas, cod fish fritters, are also standouts./ JENNI GIRTMAN / Staff Graphic Overall rating: **

Food: Traditional Puerto Rican food, from mofongo to flan, with a few nods to Cuba

Service: Attention to detail is sorely lacking, but it hardly matters when you have a mojito in hand and your feet are tapping to some swinging salsa. It's relaxed, OK?

Setting: Large, warehouse-sized spot that's been decorated like the Puerto Rican venue at Epcot. It's fun, OK?

Address, telephone: 1150 Powder Springs Road, Marietta, 770-745-3200

Hours: Open Sunday through Thursday for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. (kitchen closes at 2 a.m.)

Price range: Tapas plates are $3 to $6, soups and salads are $3 to $7. Entrees at lunch and dinner are $9 to $16; 10 types of mofongo are $7 to $20 (con lobster)

Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover

Best Dishes: Mofongo con chicharron, camarones al ajillo, bacalaitos, alcapurrias

Full bar or wine/beer: Yes

Reservations: Accepted

Vegetarian selections: Tostones (fried plantains), mofongo de yuca, arroz con gandules (rice with chick peas) red or black beans

Children: Absolutely

Parking: Large lot

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No

Noise level: Medium to high (when crowded)

Patio: No

Takeout: Yes

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