Draped in a haze of street lights, I find myself awash in bustling persona grata. The hip, the avid, and the curious are in to check out Escorpion Tequila Bar and Cantina. Escorpion is a lavish new endeavor from restaurateur Riccardo Ullio and his U Restaurants group and its sights are set squarely on the upper echelon of the Mexican restaurant scene here in Atlanta.
With Inman Park’s Sotto Sotto and Fritti firmly in place, Ullio has taken another crack at Midtown after shuttering Lupe Taqueria and Beleza just a stone’s throw ago. Instead of reworking the 905 Juniper restaurant, Escorpion is a top-to-bottom transformation of the space best known as Eno. Though in all fairness, the transformation started with the short lived 5th Street Café.
Tagged by their PR entourage as “a regionally inspired Mexican tequila bar and cantina,” Escorpion will remind many of you of Lupe, an endeavor that didn’t go over so well. That said, Escorpion isn’t a straight up carbon copy of Lupe; rather, it seems like a side-step more than a complete reworking of the aforementioned concept.
Nestled comfortably in the dining arena, I can confirm what others have mentioned: noise is a problem. As the room is much more expansive than in previous iterations, some dampening is needed if this is to be a dining destination. Right now, the vibe lends itself much more to the Sound Table model … aka … sure there is food, but the real reason to go is for the atmosphere and the people. The 30-seat rectangular bar that dominates the entrance also lends credence to that point. Though no architect, I’d say the angular establishment incorporates enough south of the border accents to please most diners while accenting with enough zing to cater to the Midtown hip.
As our conversation drifts from heated to hilarious (as is common when I find a family member across the table), the details creep into my consciousness. To help execute Escorpion, Ullio hired Edgar Cruz to serve as executive chef and Maria Palma as sous chef. Though such titles seem completely out of place at a cantina, Cruz hails from Home and Restaurant Eugene (and the long lost Balance). Meanwhile, Palma was part of the sibling team from Lupe, further blurring the lines between the two establishments.
Though I am led to believe that the menu will grow, it is currently speckled with ceviches and dips but dominated by tacos. You’ll also find a handful of slightly tricked out traditional Mexican fare that also borrows from a few other cuisines. Overall, the menu is a nice assembly and one that need not be reworked simply for selections sake.
Value is an important aspect to a meal out and here is where I’m still trying to pin the tail on the donkey. We sampled an order of the fundido ($7), a reserved portion of cotija (a Mexican cow cheese) and Monterey Jack (an American cow cheese) with chorizo. I found the mix completely uninspiring, especially for a place espousing such lofty standards. While not a fleecing, though certainly not a value, we were dipping in a non-descript melted cheese concoction.
The price point of the tacos sets the bar much higher ($3.50-$5). Offerings such as the barbacoa de chivo (goat – $4) and lengua (tongue – $3.50) might come across as exotic, but for anyone used to BuHi and the many taquerias up yonder, you’ll realize these are fairly straight forward offerings. Prohibitively more expensive, Escorpion seems content in the “it’s priced to the location” arena. In lieu of the typical “three tacos + beans + rice” combo, Escorpion upsells you with a four taco plate. The buy in bulk discount will still find you spending $18 for four shrimp tacos sans sides.
For my part, I sampled the goat, the carne asada, and both the fried and sautéed shrimp. It was another example of reasonably well sourced ingredients failing to produce a punch. Everything was executed well (that is – the shrimp were cooked properly and the steak was not chewy), but little tantalized and nothing lived up the the high standards set forth by the price tag. For all the bravado, the fried shrimp taco was simply a tortilla with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, and a touch of cream sauce. The shrimp was the main attraction, but if not for the surrounding tortilla, I’d have forgotten this was supposed to be Mexican food.
Perhaps Escorpion’s best chance to succeed lies with that which I did not try. The entrées, which incorporate Springer Mountain chicken and Scottish Salmon, hit the table at upwards of $16. Meanwhile, the much discussed ceviches drop in at anywhere from $6 to $8. As I cannot comment on the value of either, I will simply say that I do regret not checking out at least one ceviche.
As a continuation, and to my earlier point that this is really a scene, the liquor selections are extensive. Mixologists Adam Fox and Gilbert Marquez have lined up a slew of tequilas and cocktails. Again, I can only speak to those at a cursory level as I haven’t seen the selection or the price tag of such treats.
In an area of town where they are relatively unfettered by competition, Escorpion sells itself well, but doesn’t seem to live up to the pomp. What’s lost in the menu seems balanced by the social aspect of a visit. It’s already worlds better than Lupe, but still a far cry from anything worth running out to. Proceed with cautious abandon and let’s see what the future brings. I think it’s telling that the full name puts the tequila part in front of the cantina part.
Atlanta Foodies on Escorpion
- CL on Escorpion (06.06.11)