Tasting Atlanta with Delight and Envy

18 Nov

Atlanta is like Dallas in a lot of ways.  Both are sunbelt business-oriented cities that serve as major transportation hubs with considerable suburban sprawl, and thus guilty of SSS, “souless suburbs syndrome” (incidentally, both cities seem to be growing more northward).  Neither are destination vacation cities known for its cultural offerings but both maintain a respectable amount of art and history to appease its residents.  When a small group of friends scheduled a weekend trip to Atlanta to visit our Dallas-transplanted-to-Atlanta-for-grad-school friend, I was expecting a food scene a lot like Dallas.  Granted the geographic influence on each state’s cuisine would be different (Texas is more cattle country steaks, chili, and BBQ while Georgia is more deep south soul food), I had expected the atmosphere of dining options to be similar, lots of casual upscale to high end restaurants for the business diners, a good ethnic food scene due to the diversity of a large population that comes with job growth, and a few restaurants that the city can truly claim as its own original.

My basic assumptions proved to be more or less true.  However, one thing that I did not expect, and that I discovered while doing research for this trip, is the substantial presence of the foodie community in Atlanta.

I had always thought that Dallas had a decently active foodie community based on discussions on forums like Chowhound and blogs like DallasFood.  Generally speaking, as compared to other major cities in Texas like Houston or San Antonio, people in Dallas are obsessed with the dining scene.  I’m sure enthusiastic foodies exist everywhere, but those in Dallas seem to be more vocal out of the trio of Texas cities (not including Austin, Austinites LOVE their food).  But the Atlanta foodie community is something else.  Sorry, Dallas folks, we’ve been had in this category.

Don’t believe me?  Check out sites like Atlanta Cuisine, Omnivore Atlanta, Atlanta Foodies, Chow Down Atlanta, Blissful Glutton, Steakhead’s Atlanta Eats, Off the Broiler Atlanta… I’m sure there are more.  Could it be that this stereotypical business oriented souless city has as strong and passionate of a foodie community as San Fran or NYC?  It’s a full time job just to keep up with these online resources, and I’m sure there are more in hard copy.  Alas, it was simply information overload for last minute trip planning (the night before, to be exact).  So I skimmed a few sites and just decided to go with the flow.  It was time to pack my bags and see if Atlanta cuisine could impress me the way the foodie community has.

First up, breakfast at West Egg Cafe (1168 Howell Mills Rd NW, Atlanta).

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I am told that the West Side, the area of Atlanta where West Egg Cafe is located, is an up and coming region in the city.  Judging by all the surrounding construction, it is still coming, not quite delightfully charming yet but the future looks promising.

The interior of West Egg Cafe is modern day simplicity meets hippie chic details, or in Texan vocabulary, very Austin-ish.  Like the decor, the menu puts a spin on classics.  The blue plate special (classic egg, biscuit, and breakfast meat combo) comes with choice of regular bacon, Canadian bacon, turkey sausage, or for an additional $1.00, vegetarian sausage.  Conservative diners in the group scoffed at menu items like tofu scramble bowl and turkey meatloaf.  I’ve got no beef with scrambled tofu but didn’t have much of an appetite for so early in the morning.  My breakfast consisted of two side orders, roasted garlic grits ($1.75) and fried green tomatoes ($2.95).

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The grits were creamy and rich with piquant garlic flavor.  However, as you can see from the photo, the grits were so creamy that they felt overprocessed.  I like a little grittiness in my grits.

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Four words: soggy batter, no good.

A fellow diner ordered banana nut French toast from the special brunch menu.

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An interesting (and delicious, I’m told) spin on classic French toast made with banana nut bread.  With its share of hits and misses, West Egg Cafe is working a charming concept with a charming interior in a soon-to-be charming part of Atlanta.  Certain plates, however, could use charming transformations.

After breakfast, the group hit up two of Atlanta’s tourist essentials, World of Coca Cola and the CNN Studio Tour.  Before I even entered the front door of World of Coca Cola, the unnaturally peppy non-region and non-genre specific music blasting over the ticketing area rubbed me the wrong way.  Maybe it was just too early in the morning for cranky Donna, but I didn’t understand the purpose of paying money to spend time in a building that is essentially one giant advertisement for Coca Cola products.  Sure, the vintage Coke memorabilia was neat, but mostly, it was like an amusement park without the fun rides.  I know, I should be less harsh because it’s mostly a kiddie trap (I mean, destination).  The theme of the World of Coca Cola seems to be: Forget the addictive caffeine and the sugar content, Coke brings you refreshment, happiness, and creates wonderful memories.  For cynical me, the propaganda was a little early 1990’s R. J. Reynolds in rhetoric.  However, my crankiness eased up a bit when we hit the World of Coca Cola foodie highlight, Taste it!

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Taste it! offers 70 different Coca Cola products from around the world for your tasting pleasure.  If it’s fizzy drinks you’re into, then you’ve hit the jackpot.  Grab a dixie cup and let the drinking begin.  Not exactly international food at its finest, the soft drinks do reflect regional taste preferences around the world.  The Asian products have much lower sugar content, the Latin American products have a strong focus on fruit flavors, and the bitter Beverly from Italy will shock most American tastebuds.  Tourists beware, sample all the stations and the carbonation fun will lead to many potty breaks throughout the day.

Next up was an informative and educational tour of the CNN studios, a couple of blocks from World of Coca Cola. 

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If you’ve ever been curious about the behind the scenes production of one the world’s leading news networks, I would highly recommend the tour.  The tour guides don’t dumb down the information too much as most visitors are adults.  Information presented is concise and the hour passes quickly, unless of course, you’ve just consumed half a gallon of carbonation at World of Coca Cola, then it feels like an eternity until the tour guide allows for a bathroom break. 

Feeling accomplished that we had knocked out two of Atlanta’s top tourist musts in one morning, it was time for nourishment at Taste of Atlanta.  Every city in DFW seems to have its own Taste of event, yet none are popular with the foodie community.  The primary reason for public indifference is the lack of true regional restaurants represented at these events.  The annual Taste of Dallas in the West End, for example, has only 30 some restaurants represented, and TGI Friday’s and CiCi’s are included on that list.  I’m sorry, but there’s nothing Dallas about a national chain pizza buffet.  The best of the DFW Taste festivals is probably Taste Addison, which has 50 some restaurants represented (still guilty of having Pizza Inn and the likes on the list).  Still, very few (arguably none) of the top fine dining Dallas restaurants participate in these festivals and the existing vendor offerings are hardly ever exciting.

Taste of Atlanta offers booths from 70 of Atlanta’s top restaurants (not a single pizza buffet on the list, but the presence of Johnny Rockets is a bit of a red flag) for visitors to sample from.  Whereas I always leave Taste of Addison feeling a little robbed, the $25 admission to Taste of Atlanta (includes 10 taste coupons per ticket) allowed the group to sample exciting offerings like balsamic braised short rib from Sun Dial, brownie cheesecake from Metrotainment Bakery, southern specials like collard greens (one of the most memorable bites from this trip) and macaroni and cheese from OK Cafe, rat toes (baked jalapenos stuffed with shrimp and wrapped with crispy bacon) from Six Feet Under, fried cod balls (can’t remember the actual name of the dish) from Mitra, crab meat/chick pea salad from Haven, duck breast and deviled eggs from The Feed Store, tuna tartare with ponzu sauce from Strip, hummus and gyro from Mediterranean Grill, hickory smoked pork chops and Pinot Noir mashed potatoes from Sambuca, pan fried calamari with hot cherry peppers from The Capital Grille, and pulled pork sandwich from LowCountry BBQ Outpost.

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Is my lunch smiling at me?  I’m certainly smiling back as he was delicious.

Another highlight of Taste of Atlanta was the Rocco DiSpirito book signing where he promoted his latest book, Rocco’s Real-Life Recipes, as opposed to his reality TV life recipes?  I haven’t tried out any of the book’s recipes yet.  When I do, I will get you the scoop on whether Mr. TV Star Chef is truly keeping it real.

Taste of Atlanta left us stuffed and in awe of Atlanta’s restaurant scene.  To balance out the calorie intake and expenditure equation, we followed Taste of Atlanta with a 1.3 mile trek up Stone Mountain, about 20 miles from downtown Atlanta.  The peak, at 1683 feet above sea level, offers views of a 60 mile radius around the mountain, including the distant city scape of Atlanta.  The park also offers a skyride lift to those who want to enjoy the views but skip the footwork.  Personally, I think the scenery is more breathtaking if you hike (or maybe it’s because you’re out of breath by the time you’ve reached the top).  Here’s a shot from the peak of the mountain down the skyride cables.

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After the hike, we enjoyed a 45 minute laser light show (with fireworks!) projected onto the side of the mountain with the Confederate Memorial Carving honoring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson.  It’s like a less impressive version of Mount Rushmore.

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The laser light show itself was kiddie oriented, but I did enjoy the irony of 4th of July themed show with its patriotic music accompanying lasers highlighting the Confederate generals.

Sweaty and starved, we drove back into Atlanta and stopped at The Varsity (61 North Ave, Atlanta) for a snack.  Sitting on a lot of over two acres and having the capacity to hold 600 cars, the downtown location of The Varsity is the world’s largest drive-in.  Our now-Atlanta-resident friend had warned us about the The Varsity’s food having White Castle/Krystal Burger Sliders’ Syndrome (that is, it’ll slide right through ya), so I played it safe and ordered a Varsity Orange and onion rings.

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The Varsity Orange is basically an orange creamsicle in beverage form, what’s not to like?  The onion rings, on the other hand, offered little to like.  Though the puffy batter was pleasant, I simply couldn’t get past how greasy and oversalted they were.  I’m not a health nut and I eat plenty of deep fried goodness on a regular basis, but nothing can justify this grease pool left behind by 6 small onion rings.

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Add grease induced nausea to the already exhausted and sweaty group, some freshening up was in order.  A round of showers and clean clothes revamped our spirits as we headed out to Manuel’s Tavern (601 N Highland Ave, Atlanta) for a round of brews.

Named by New York Magazine as Atlanta’s quintessential neighborhood bar, Manuel’s “do as you like” atmosphere provided a much welcomed change of pace from the busy, rushed day.  Manuel’s offers a decent beer selection (20 on tap and 30 more bottled selections) and a crowd to match, serving as a watering hole for people from every walk of life.  At the main bar, a group of yuppies are celebrating (a promotion, perhaps?).  Over in the larger room to the left, eyes of families with 2.3 kids, bikers in leather gear, and spikey haired, tattooed rock star types are all affixed to the TVs broadcasting the World Series.  Rumor has it that President Jimmy Carter used to drop by with the secret service in tow.  No former President sightings for this group, but I was content with my pint of Terrapin India Brown Ale, a rich, dark brew from Athens, Georgia.  We were even more ecstatic to find out that Manuel’s kitchen stayed open late as none of us dared to eat much at The Varsity.  Craving a midnight snack to go with my brew, I ordered the Loaded Dogzilla ($6.95).

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Something about the combination of the late hour and the enthusiastic cheers for the Cleveland Indians gave me the audacity to attempt this 1/3 pound all beef hot dog covered in chili, cheese, saurkraut, onion, relish, and cole slaw, an amalgamation of several regional hot dog variations.  I ate without reservation or care.  It was late, I was starved, and a baseball game was on TV.  Loaded monster hot dog + a pint of brew + hangry Donna = great ending to a long day.  I’ll worry about regaining any ladylike mannerisms in the morning.

Tired as we were, we wanted to make the most of our less-than-48-hour stay in Atlanta.  However, the post-Manuel’s Tavern attempt to sneak a peek of midtown Atlanta night life (for the hour or so before the bars closed for the night) was an utter failure, as every club in town seemed to be hosting some famous rapper or R&B artist and the lines to get in were impossibly long.  As it turned out, it was BET Awards weekend and we didn’t get the memo.

As a complete contrast to our first day in Atlanta, the second day called for nothing more than a relaxing brunch at Canoe (4199 Paces Ferry Rd NW, Atlanta) to celebrate the belated birthday of our now-Atlanta-resident friend before the mid-afternoon flight back to Dallas.  Canoe, under direction of Atlanta native Executive Chef Carvel Grant Gould, is a casual upscale eatery tucked away along the banks of the Chattahoochee River.  On a fair weathered Sunday, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting than Canoe’s patio for brunch.

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  For brunch, we started with a small basket of fresh baked pastries ($6.25).

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Mini poppy seed chocolate muffins, pastries with various fillings (strawberry, pineapple, and cream cheese), and a cinnamon bear claw. 

For my entree, I chose the oak roasted chicken ($15.95).

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Had I realized the portion would be so large for brunch, I probably would’ve opted for a lighter option.  However, the chicken was moist and tender with a understated smokiness (perhaps a little too understated for my preference) and the green beans snappy crisp and fresh.  The highlight of this dish was actually the buttery Anson Mill grits swimming in a balsamic sauce with the baby shiitake mushrooms.  I would’ve been happy eating just that for brunch.

Some other dishes around the table:

Peeky toe crab and celery root scramble ($15.50)

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Flaky crab meat atop scrambled eggs and roasted tomato hollandaise, yummy.

Smoked salmon eggs benedict ($13.50)

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The riverside plate ($14.95)

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A classic breakfast combo of applewood smoked bacon, scrambled eggs, hash browns, and French toast done with top notch ingredients.

Wild mushroom, bacon, and goat cheese quiche ($13.50)

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The waiter overheard us talking about the birthday occasion, and low and behold, a birthday surprise for the birthday boy after the entrees were cleared from the table.

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It was a simple chocolate mousse concoction, but a much appreciated gesture.  It’s nice to see this kind of attention to detail in service, particularly when no one was expecting it.

In less than 48 hours in Atlanta, I had developed foodie’s envy.  The statistics show Dallas and Atlanta as comparable cities on every measure, but the fervor for food in this Georgia business city is staggering and contagious.  As much as I love the Dallas dining scene, I can’t help but wish that we had a little more of that mass food fanaticism. 

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3 Responses to “Tasting Atlanta with Delight and Envy”

  1. Seth 12/11/2007 at 12:57 pm #

    I feel your pain on the Atlanta vs Dallas food scene. My wife and I recently moved here from Atlanta so I could post-doc at UT Southwestern. We’re living in Carrollton now, but soon to move to Hurst, where my wife will be the City Engineer. We love the BBQ and Mexican food options here, but are missing our favorite Indian and Vietnamese restaurants. Atlanta also has some great bar food that goes beyond the hot wings/burger/fried jalepenos cliches. Any reccomendations in the Mid-Cities? Every other restaurant out there seemed to be pizza, though we did find Sweet Basil to have good Thai food.

  2. donnaaries 12/11/2007 at 3:45 pm #

    Hi Seth, I’m not too familiar with Hurst, but ethnic eats are plenty in Arlington, which is a short drive south. Sukho Thai, Ba Le for banh mi, lots of Indian places around UTA campus (though I haven’t tried any of these personally, maybe you can explore and report back?), and of course, Song Huong, where I thought the food was good but service lacked.

    Before you move away from Carrollton, you should stop by Huong Long at the southeast corner of Frankford & Josey in the Carrollton Plaza center. We’ve had a couple of pleasant meals there (been meaning to write a full review for some time). Excellent bun thit nuong and bun bo nuong.

  3. Seth 12/12/2007 at 4:39 pm #

    Thanks, Donna. We’ll be excited to try them out.

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