“The traffic is terrible, Dion. Terrible”.
I heard this over and over and over again, so this is probably why in the 3 years we’ve been in Charlotte, have never made the 4 hour trek to Atlanta for fun. Sure, for work, or for interviewing, but never for pure leisure. That, and the misconception Atlanta would only offer soul food and peaches kept us away.
Boy, were we wrong.
First on the list, straight to Flip Burger, Top Chef’s Richard Blaise’s burger joint. Aside from the liquid nitrogen milkshakes (Krispy Kreme shake, what?) There’s really not much molecular gastronomy at this joint. Known for creative burgers, like this beef and lobster burger (which I actually thought was an excessive. Lobster should be savored with butter and lemon, not loaded down with beef, caramelized onions, mushroom ketchup and mustard caviar. We left feeling sluggish from the heavy meal, but happy we tried it out.
Dion’s Do’s: Short. Rib. Burger. Called the d’lux, it features ground beef, horseradish mayo, emmenthal cheese, topped with braised short rib and this sweet, savory tomato-onion marmalade. and juicy and dribbled down your wrists. The napkin on my lap looked like it belonged to a toddler, it was so messy with grease and deliciousness.
Onion rings. These are special. No paper thin pieces that separate from cornmeal batter. These vodka battered rings, I saw on Unique Eats (on the Cooking Channel) are made with seltzer water to keep them fluffy. The result is perfectly crisp, real onion-y rings of perfection. Same goes for the okra.
Dion’s Don’ts: The summer salad is pointless. No. I’d go so far as to say stupid. Avocado and lettuce leaves and a few cut open cherry tomatoes. Sprinkles of salt and pepper and some kind of vinaigrette. For some reason, I thought I’d need some greens in this meal…even though I had just drank the magic **green drink** and was more than covered for the rest of the day.
Fries. Yep. I said it. The fries at Flip Burger were underwhelming. Yes, beef tallow deep fried potatoes should be glistening and delicious, but these were kind of tough and definitely not crisp.
Dion’s Meh: Chicken sandwich. Honestly, if I closed my eyes, it would taste like a Chick-Fil-A one. Which I dig. But again. I didn’t come here to Flip Burger for a run-of-the-mill fried chicken sandwich. The rBQ was also delicious. Pulled pork and sauce, slaw, the usual. But again, the usual.
This meal held us over for the majority of the day. Probably something to do with the 100+ grams of fat we both had just consumed in 1 hour.
During our 3 hour Segway Tour of the city (which was an excellent way to cover a lot of ground) we passed by Gladys Knight's chicken and The Varsity, but were so full from Flip, decided to hold off. Besides. Yelp reviews gave both fewer than 3.5 stars. I’d go there for the experience, not the food.
Feeling the need to detox our beef tallow-laden bodies, we unexpectedly came across a brand new organic, cold-pressed juice bar, called Kale Me Crazy in Inman Park. The owner apparently owns multiple fro-yo joints, but growing up in Israel, never encountered people with food allergies so he opened up this juice bar, exclusively to serve organic vegetable and fruit juices.
This one ranked HIGH on our juice bar list. So high, we went that night, and the following morning. Lemme set something straight. You don’t go to a juice bar and pay crazy cash for a glass of carrot and apple juice. You go for POW!
Dion’s Do’s: Start with a Beet’l Juice or Beet Up (obviously blends of beets & various vegetables and fruits like celery and lime) No muddy taste. Clean and cold, in plastic bottles just how we like it. Take a shot of the KMC (wheatgrass….) which gets served with a straight lemon juice chaser. (Trust me, this is necessary.) Then finish your session off with a jumbo 2 ounce ginger juice. ZINGGGGGG!
The green smoothie, their version was delicious. Much more delicious than the ones we make at home: ________.
We felt like we were intoxicated, but it was just the rush of vegetable sugars and vitamins.
We ran to our $7 improv show at Dad’s Garage, which was, funny…but not my-mouth-is-sore-from-smiling-and-my-abs-look-like-a-body-builder’s-now-since-I’ve-been-laughing-non-stop kinda way. It was, the occasional chuckle. Keep in mind, we saw the _____ show, which featured at least 10 improv performers. All of varying degree of training I think, since many had timing issues, and the show kept getting stopped by the director who gave suggestions on what to do. Theater 99 in Charleston is much tighter, much funnier, and worth the extra $3. (Don’t get me wrong…applause all around, and don’t you dare throw me on stage to try and do the same thing.)
Late night calls for an izakaya. Something we definitely do NOT have in Charlotte. The Japanese equivalent of a bar that serves food…but GOOD food to soak up all the alcohol. I mean fried mackarel and takoyaki (balls of crispy dough and octopus with sauces and bonito flakes) robata grilled meats and awesome sake and cocktails.
This is where Shoya Izakaya comes in. Walk in, and it FEELS like being in Japan. Nestled in a shopping complex with a Super H mart and in the Asian part of Doraville, we finally found it with our car GPS. Don’t use the one on the iPhone 5. It’ll take you to a dead end.
(GPS Voice: “You will need to walk to your destination.” Uh no way lady GPS. At 10 at night, walking through a dark field ain’t gonna happen.)
Since the day’s activities left us in no mood to drink, or eat anything deep fried, we went with two dishes we can’t get in Charlotte, or can’t get done right. Okonomiyaki and tonkotsu ramen.
Between each bite, I’d mutter “damn this is good” or “whuuuuuut is this???” with sheer euphoria. It got kind of ridiculous and to the point where my husband had to tell me to quiet down.
Tonkotsu broth (pigs trotters & parts, boiled for over 12 if not 24 hours some places) was salty and unctuous and deep, with an awesome fatty mouthfeel and the collagen finish at the end made my lips sticky. This is how it should be. Toss in 2 pieces of excellent touch-it-and-it-falls-apart-tender fatty chiasu pork, and this thing was a ramen dream. How does it stack up to ramen in Japan or Ippudo and all those big time ramen joints? I'll give it a 7.
As for the next dish, I need the folks who started Xiao Bao Biscuit in Charleston to listen up. You may be critically acclaimed, and you may have traveled through Asia, but your okonomiyaki was sad by comparison. I’ve had okonomiyaki in Hawaii, Tokyo and Osaka and even the one in KANSAS CITY fared better than yours. Instead of something completely cabbage and burnt with pork floss…take note:
Okonomiyaki is a thick pancake of cabbage, an eggy/pancake mixture meats and vegetables. It gets griddled until nice and brown and cooked through on the inside, and drizzled with a brown sauce, then usually something like Kewpie mayo and topped with shaved bonito flakes. (Fish flakes.)
The one at Shoya in ATL rocked. No doughy center, just the right amounts of cabbage and veggies and pork and served so piping hot, the fish flakes were curling and melting into that ooey gooey sauce.
Dion’s Meh: Maybe we were sunburned, or our brains were just too tired. We ordered cucumbers w/miso paste and Kewpie. We also ordered some teriyaki-skewered meats. Tempura ice cream (I know, so cliche) All were perfectly fine, but unexceptional. Save your $$$ and order some sake next time.
Day 2: Vietnamese & Thai
We still didn’t have the appetite for southern food (something about pimento cheese and collards didn’t sound good.) so we did something completely opposite. A breakfast of juice and smoothies and ginger shots, and for lunch, went in search of a bahn mi sandwich.
Vietnamese bahn mi are usually pate, cold cuts or grilled meats with radish, carrot, cilantro mayo on a toasted French roll. (See the European influence in Southeast Asia?) This is street food in Asia, and in any big city, and should cost about $2.50 or $3.50 a pop.
Over at Star Provisions think of it as an amped-up Dean & Deluca) this casual sandwich cost $13.95, but was anything but casual. We wanted something special and this was it. Glazed pork belly, pickled chili and veggies on a toasted bun.
The pork belly was fatty in the best possible way. Melted in the mouth, no chewing necessary. Salty and sweet and paired really nicely with the pickled vegetables and fresh basil. My brain and tongue were exploding. This too was a “lean-over-the-table” sandwich, because it oozed juice and crunched just like a good bahn mi should. This is what happens when your sandwich goes to Harvard.
TIP: Split this sandwich. Your willpower will say “Why!? I want to eat the whole thing!” But we were on an eating mission, and had to save room.
Recognized By The Thai King:
L’Thai Organic is by far the most surprising restaurant find, possibly EVER. Who knew, but the king of Thailand has an organic garden, and with the owners being part of the Thai association in Atlanta, were somehow in talks with the Royal family, who then: bestowed the Thai Select award on their shop, by the Ministry of the RoTHAI SELECT awarded by the Ministry Of Commerce Royal Thai Government for one of the World's BEST Thai Restaurants.
The location is in a shopping center, this place isn’t very impressive on the outside. The inside isn’t chic, (there’s a giant tree in the middle of the room, and a waterfall in the back) and the menu weighs about 100 pounds.
The food though, is special. Not only are most of the ingredients organic, the beef is GRASS FED! No way am I a nutritionist and can tell you about all the benefits of grass fed, but let’s just say, for now, it's lightyears better for you than corn/soy-fed beef.
Dion’s Do’s: EVERYTHING!
Basil Rolls: Not your typical rice wrapped lettuce and shrimp and peanut sauce. Mixed organic springs, carrots, cucumber, bean sprouts, Thai rice noodles and fresh Thai basil, rolled in rice papers, served with light brown sauce and grounded peanuts
These are so insanely fresh…really, a salad in a roll.
The Pad See Ew & red chili curry dishes were better here than any other Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to. Not greasy or overly sauced. Bright, deep flavors and vegetables that were bright and not overcooked. We ate every single bite.
NOTE: When you get brown rice, it’s extra delicious, because 3/4ths is brown, and 1/4th is red rice, so it’s got a nice nutty bite. Blows white out of the water.
The star desserts, hands down were the sticky rice with jackfruit and sticky rice with custard. Holy cow. Jasmine rice is mixed with a black rice and palm sugar to make it this gorgeous purple-y color. That’s formed into this small rectangle, drizzled with coconut sauce. The custard is buttery and piping hot, and the jackfruit, slick and sweet, so combine those flavors with the chew of the sticky rice…we could have eaten two of these.
Compared to what we're used to in Charlotte, Thai Taste (at times really inconsistent and over sauced, not sauteed enough) or Basil in Uptown (the best in town, but pricy, and still not mind-blowingly artistic fresh and unique) L'Thai left an impression.
There are obviously dozens of spots we still wanted to try, but time was up. Hope you enjoy these suggestions and let me know what you think of them. Nom, nom, nom!