- Ligaya Figueras
- Wendell Brock and Wyatt Williams AJC Dining Team
Readers send us many notes. Some agree with the gist of our restaurant reviews. Others do not. Still others prompt us to dig deeper, be it in terms of cuisine or geographic boundaries.
We are here to serve readers. We want to help you make informed dining choices. Of course, we want your eating experience to be worth what you pay for it.
Normally, a dining guide is something that tells you exactly what to do. This time around, we’re not going to do that. My fellow critics and I won’t tell you what to do. But we do hope to guide you.
In this instance, we took the 10 reader queries that most intrigued us — and followed up.
All 10 restaurants are worth checking out, for one reason or another. Are they four-star places? Nope. Will they open your eyes to food in Atlanta and beyond? You betcha.
— LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Better Half opened in December 2013. It was the next step for Zach and Cristina Meloy, the husband and wife who ran a supper club called PushStart Kitchen. Nearly four years later, it’s still humming in its brick-and-mortar home in West Midtown.
Any chef-owned restaurant will, inevitably, see inflections of that culinarian’s past. In the case of Better Half, there’s Zach Meloy’s education as a ceramics and Spanish major at Samford University in Alabama, and his culinary degree from Johnson & Wales. Meloy’s better half hails from Costa Rica, where they met. “My quick vacation ended up being like five years,” he told me in a phone interview later. Put all that together, and out of the kitchen comes something like a killer shrimp ceviche.
The little sea creatures swim with red onion slivers in a pool flavored by aji amarillo, a few drops of cilantro pesto and leche de tigre. Essentially Peruvian potlikker, leche de tigre, which means “tiger’s milk” in Spanish, is the liquid used for curing fish and seafood for ceviche. It’s spicy. It’s citrusy. It’s a divine tonic. I only wish the dish was served with a spoon so I could have lapped up every last drop after I used all the house-made tortilla chips to scoop out every bit of solid.
This was just one element that kicked a dinner at Better Half off to a good start. An amuse of cheese- and mushroom-stuffed sopes was a two-bite wonder, held together by a flavorful corn masa shell. There was also the Liga Liga cocktail, a surprisingly tart and dry bourbon drink with lingering ginger notes.
Then, things began to go awry. Small stuff, perhaps. Like a chipotle cheese ball appetizer rolled in pulverized pumpkin seeds and dabbed with cilantro pesto (again), accompanied by long, sturdy potato chips for dipping. Both good on their own, but together: salty.
I can’t help but recall the cilantro pesto on top of that cheese ball, because it reappeared in the beef enchilada raviolo. A wonderfully, smoky tasting, magenta ring of pureed guajillo chili encircled that dish, whose meaty filling reminds me of fine tamales I’ve tasted through the years, but days, weeks after eating it, I still don’t know why the cilantro pesto was in order. The dish was busy enough already. Three out of the first four dishes brought these specks of herbaceous green sauce. Did they all truly need cilantro pesto?
When you start questioning, it’s good to look up and see happy faces. Like the young couple next to me celebrating a wedding anniversary. It wasn’t the first time they’d taken a seat there, and with good reason: Better Half is comfortable, cordial. The kitchen is cerebral, ambitious about its food. And that food consistently comes out looking pretty.
But taste counts every time, too.
Seared grouper, itself nicely seared, plump, flaky, was served with undercooked pozole. Hominy isn’t harmonious if it means biting into a raw corn kernel.
Silk Handkerchief Pasta, on the menu since the beginning, comes with roasted mushrooms, porcini cream, crumbled cotija cheese and a tomato marmalade. To my taste, that preserve was too sweet. I pushed most of the generous spoonful off to one side. The remainder, stirred into the pasta, made for a highly recommendable dish, one that does not dismiss the earthy mushrooms or undermine the skill taken to make the pasta in the first place.
Pacing fell off halfway through the meal. The kind of lag that makes you wonder if they forgot about your entree, and later, your dessert. A server even checked in at one point.
Perhaps I would not nitpick were it not for the restaurant’s finer dining pricing. When entrees clock in between $22 and $32, it’s fair to expect a bit more from Better Half. I experienced glimpses of great half the time; Better Half has the potential to be great all the time.
349 14th St. NW, Atlanta. 404-695-4547, betterhalfatl.com.
— LIGAYA FIGUERAS
Have you ever been to Buckeyes? a reader wondered.
I’m afraid I hadn’t.
I asked around. None of my colleagues had heard of it. Not even the town it’s in: Jersey, Ga.
That was enough to get me on the road and headed an hour’s drive east of Atlanta, between Monroe and Social Circle in Walton County.
The population in Jersey is 163, according to the 2010 census.
The town has exactly one restaurant. I guess that makes a TripAdvisor review calling Buckeyes “the best breakfast in Jersey” correct. I didn’t get to eat breakfast there, not for lack of trying.
Buckeyes has pretty limited hours. It offers breakfast and lunch weekdays, and breakfast on Saturdays. By the time I arrived at 10:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, they were already changing the short cafeteria line over from eggs, grits, hash browns, bacon and sausage to the midmeal standard of a meat, two sides and dessert for $7.49.
An employee — they are all quite cordial here — suggested we take a seat while they did the food switcheroo.
My dining partner is recently retired. He didn’t have any particular schedule to keep that Tuesday. Waiting 20 minutes for food offered plenty of time to chat and catch up. Other, mainly older, folk in the room seemed to be doing the same thing.
We grabbed a spot in the back corner, under a couple of faux deer antler light fixtures and surrounded by hunting-themed knickknacks and posters on wood paneled walls.
The fried chicken was worth waiting for. It’s always available for lunch, and it was the highlight of the meal. Fresh out of the fryer, the skin was nicely crunchy, if wanting for a bit of seasoning, and the meat was tender and juicy.
Other meat options included country-fried steak and smothered chicken with creamed spinach. The latter tasted like the kind of food my kin in the rural Midwest might cook up for Sunday supper. Stick to your ribs, is what they would call it.
Sides were a bit disappointing, basic and sometimes bland, as with green beans, red beans and rice and mashed potatoes much improved by gravy. Better were collard greens, flecked and flavored with ham bits. And cornbread muffins — the regular and the jalapeno. Both were moist, the interior slightly oily, in a way that invites you to break it open with your fingers and pop bites in your mouth between forkfuls of collards.
Opting for the meat-and-two nets you dessert. That day, it was bread pudding, and one that would put a diabetic into a sugar-induced coma. Ooh-eee was that thing sweet!
Buckeyes also has lunch specials. The Buckeyes Burger brought a 6-ounce patty with house-made pimento cheese, bacon, lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles. If you’re a pimento cheese person, you’ll like that they pile it on. My patty was sufficiently flavorful, with juices running, that next time, I’ll hold on the pimento part. But those who indulge in the caviar of the South will find the pimento cheese sandwich grilled to greasy goodness.
Buckeyes is a venture by Jersey couple Tom and Angie McGarity. Tom’s great-great-grandfather started the town of Jersey in 1836, recounted Angie. She and Tom opened Buckeyes 10 years ago to “give the community a place to go and eat and hang out,” she said.
The restaurant is named in memory of Tom’s father, a former surgeon at Emory fondly remembered for his way with buckeyes, considered good luck charms. They dropped from the tree on his farm, and he doled them out to his patients and grandkids. “He was always handing out good luck,” Angie said.
Buckeyes the restaurant is a charm. It’s not strictly Southern charm. This is small-town, rural Americana charm. You’ll likely smile when you pass by the wagon parked on the front porch, or when you walk down the street and notice the tiny century-old building that was once the town bank and where Tom hung the shingle when he debuted his dentistry practice back when.
In 2010, the McGaritys unlocked doors to a second Buckeyes in Social Circle. They handed that off about three years ago to focus on the original Jersey location. Running one Buckeyes — plus being the town dentist and raising five kids — was plenty.
116 Main St., Jersey. 770-464-2825, buckeyesrestaurant.com.
— LIGAYA FIGUERAS
As a Southern kid who grew up on a farm with a catfish pond, and loved nothing more than a meal of fried catfish, hush puppies and all the trimmings at a shack called Pace’s Fish Camp, my whiskers perked up when I heard about this east Cobb place with the funny name: Catfish Hox.
Though I didn’t encounter the tiny, hard-to-find, whole-fried cats with crunchy tails that I can put away by the dozen, I was delighted to discover executive chef Philip Creasor is an artist when it comes to catfish cookery.
Case in point: His Catfish & Waffles with candied pecans and maple syrup. In a more just and perfect universe, I believe this inspired dish would knock the infamous chicken and waffles off its mighty throne.
I’ll admit I thought it sounded like an odd marriage at first. But once I took a bite of these sweet-savory bedfellows — a delicate, cornmeal-crusted fillet and the Belgian waffle it reclined upon — I was hooked. I added a few dribbles of syrup, plus a little Tabasco, and the thrill was real.
No matter the presentation, Creasor fries his soft catfish with a gentle touch, finishing it with a few grindings of coarse black pepper.
The restaurant also offers catfish and shrimp po’boys; blackened catfish; a salad with crispy catfish, feta and cherry tomatoes; and, of course, a fried catfish platter, with slaw, hush puppies and a remoulade-tartar sauce.
My friend dunked a hush puppy in the condiment like it was the most natural thing in the world — too sneaky and delicious a move for me not to copycat.
If fish is not your thing, Creasor also smokes pork, chicken and wings in his Big Green Egg. His wings get a final blast in the deep fryer, arrive at the table sans sauce, and they are delicious. Big thumbs-up.
We also liked his crispy pork rinds, and we weren’t the only ones: At one point, it seemed the entire restaurant was smacking down on the noisy chicharrones. Crunch!
Catfish Hox, which opened just over a year ago in the corner of a nondescript Marietta strip mall, is an urban version of the catfish pads of my youth.
But it’s more than that: Creasor’s wife, Vivian, tells me her husband trained at Benihana starting at age 14, joined the Marines after 9/11, “has been to war three times and made it home safely to finally accomplish his dream.”
As for the name, it turns out Hox is the chef’s mother’s maiden name.
A lovely tribute. The real deal. No hoax.
2595 Sandy Plains Road, Suite 101, Marietta. 770-726-9925, catfishhox.com.
— WENDELL BROCK
When you walk through the front door at Dave Poe’s BBQ, you’ll be greeted by a wall of plaques and accolades. Some are old magazine stories, framed and lacquered. Others are awards from this year or that. Pause for a moment to look at the dates and you’ll realize that this is not this restaurant’s first day around the block. But the frame you should pay attention to most is one right about eye level that reads “THIS WAY TO HOG HEAVEN.” Follow that arrow to the right and head to the counter and you’ll be just fine.
Dave Poe’s BBQ is part of one of Atlanta’s lasting barbecue legacies. The man from which this restaurant gets its name belongs to a family that has catered barbecue in the Atlanta area for over 40 years. In the mid-2000s, Poe partnered with Sam Huff and David Roberts to run a couple of well-admired barbecue joints known as Sam and Dave’s BBQ. Though the partnership lasted only a few years, it had an enormous impact on barbecue restaurants in this city. Sam’s BBQ-1, Community Q, Grand Champion BBQ, and, yes, Dave Poe’s BBQ were all born, in one way or another, from that short-lived partnership.
Today that legacy can seem a little like old news. There’s a new vanguard of barbecue in this town, from Heirloom Market BBQ to B’s Cracklin’ BBQ, that have earned attention for everything from cross-cultural culinary style to heritage breed whole hogs. When I learned a reader had written in to say, in part, “Don’t forget about Dave Poe’s,” it rang a little too true. I’ll confess that I had.
But as recent visits have confirmed, that’s been my loss. The cinderblock smokehouse is putting out smoked meats more than worth your dollar. As the sign at the front door hints, this is a fine place for ordering pork. The ribs are smoked to a dark, almost black-red, and hold admirably to the bone while still being tender. The pulled pork comes from shoulders that have been smoked for 16 hours, and that patience shows. The strands of meat are luxurious with fat and smoky bark, though almost too tender. I like it in a sandwich, smothered with the tangy, lightly sweet house barbecue sauce.
I was surprised to find, though, that the beef brisket holds its own against that pork. The thick slices are just right in the sweet spot: tender but not dry, fatty but not falling apart. If anything, I wanted for a bit more smoke and peppery bite in the rub, but it is a fine option.
On the side, there are collard greens and coleslaw that you should get, because you should eat your vegetables. But there is also mac and cheese, which is what you want to get. Luxurious with creamy sauce and salty cheese, the thick rigatoni served here is one of the dishes that helped solidify Poe’s BBQ legacy in Atlanta. Don’t forget about it.
660 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-792-2272, davepoes.com.
— WYATT WILLIAMS
When we visit DeKalb Farmers Market, we sometimes find ourselves in a mood to explore the neighborhood. Kudzu Market, Southern Sweets Bakery and the remarkably diverse Clarkston are all right there for the taking.
Now there’s Krazie Barbecue.
In a hodgepodge industrial warehouse building next to Anthony’s Pizza & Pasta, the restaurant can be hard to spot. So look for the bright orange and yellow signage, depicting a jolly pig in a chef’s hat and apron.
The owner-chef, Antoine “Slice” Manning, says he’s been practicing his grilling and smoking techniques for years. He opened Krazie Barbecue in June.
But does Slice know his way around brisket and butt? Is his ‘cue Krazie good?
After we waited for a spell in a cavernous, spookily empty room big enough to be a music venue, our server took our order, only to return a few minutes later to ask us to repeat it. No problem.
We’ll forgive the fact that the kitchen was out of potato salad and goofed on our request to split our order of wings two ways. (No lemon pepper for us.) We liked what was put before us: smoked-then-deep-fried wings slathered in Krazie Spicy sauce — not too prickly, not too sweet, just right.
My pulled pork meal, including sides of baked beans and mac and cheese, came in three identical plastic salad bowls. Generous portions, for sure.
The beans were darkly burnished and molasses sweet (not my thing), the macaroni a straightforward affair of noodles tossed in cheese sauce. I liked it better after it cooled down and firmed up a little.
The pork was unremarkable, though. Same with the cubes of heavily sauced brisket tucked into a squishy white bun to make a sandwich.
My lunch guest told me he judges barbecue kitchens by their collard greens, and we both approved of the long-simmered version here, even as we wished for more pot liquor to moisten the dry cornbread.
At the end of the meal, full but not exactly jolly, we decided to go for something sweet. The only choice was peach cobbler, which came in a lidded plastic to-go container. Turned out to be the best thing we tried: rich, buttery, not too sweet, deserving of a scoop of vanilla ice cream. (Manning told me he buys the cobbler from a buddy who makes really good cobblers.)
So here’s the thing about Krazie Barbecue: With Community Q and Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q on the same side of town, it has some serious competition. The meat should be the starring attraction, but it wasn’t much different from the middling, warmed-over grub you find at mediocre ‘cue joints far and wide.
Frankly, I’d rather spend my money on the buffet at DeKalb Farmers Market, where the food is cooked with more soul and panache, or on a vintage cookbook at Kudzu.
3155 E. Ponce de Leon Ave., Scottdale. 678-705-8622, krazieq.com.
– WENDELL BROCK
Monday. The start of the workweek. Grumble, grumble.
Don’t let Monday get you down. You know what Monday is? Chicken liver day at Matthews Cafeteria. Get up for it!
Shortly after our review of Magnolia Room, a cafeteria in Tucker, a reader sent a note asking us to try Matthews Cafeteria, also located in that city. She called Matthews “a true Southern classic” and mentioned that her husband gets giddy about chicken liver Mondays there.
I arrived at 6:30 p.m., hoping that the chicken liver lovers hadn’t eaten up all the fried organs.
I can’t say that I’m a chicken liver connoisseur. One generous spoonful of fried livers will keep me satisfied for the next year or so, but these were nicely battered, nicely crisped, not too salty, not oily, and a little on the dry side.
Mondays also is the day for ribs, Salisbury steak, pork loin and beef tips.
And every day is fried chicken day. That’s what I’d go back for. Such a great fry, the kind that results in a highly satisfying crackle when your teeth break through the skin.
There are plenty of metal hotel pans on the line filled with down-home sides. I’m partial to those fried green tomatoes. I also kept putting a fork into my dining partner’s squash casserole.
Three days a week, one of the side dishes is “peas or beans.” Go on the Matthews website and you learn that means one of the following: baby limas, Fordhook limas, speckled butter beans, crowder peas, purple hull peas, field peas with snap peas, butter peas, or black-eyed peas. Yes, ma’am, this is indeed a Southern restaurant.
Dessert options: pie, pudding and cobblers. Monday is strawberry cobbler day. Get up for it! Actually, I liked my apple pie: enough fruit but not an explosion of it, enough spice but not so much your mouth dries out from excess cinnamon, and the way the top crust fissured a bit when I pierced a fork into that dough. Mmm.
Y’all have been able to enjoy Matthews and its red-checkered tablecloths since the restaurant opened in 1955. I’m just getting to know this place. I wanna go back on a Thursday. That’s “Endless Links with Kraut” day.
2299 Main St, Tucker. 770-939-2357, matthewscafeteria.com.
— LIGAYA FIGUERAS
The spacious interior of Mulavi on West Peachtree Street in Midtown has a familiar style. The lights are dim and the black surfaces are clean and slick. Deep-red napkins give a pop of color on the tables. A bright, glowing flat screen plays the football game behind the bar.
Sitting down, I had the faint feeling of being here before, though that would be impossible. Mulavi is at the base of ALTA Midtown, a glossy new luxury residential development. So, the restaurant is new, but after a few moments with the menu, I knew where I was.
This is a new restaurant from the owners of Sufi’s, a homey place about 2 miles away, that has earned a steady following for offering what it calls “A Taste of Persia.” This is Middle Eastern fare with a slightly refined and traditional bent. Classic stews, including Khorosht Bademjoon and Ghormeh Sabzi, are on offer, as well as crowd-pleasing platters of hummus, falafel and dolma. The proximity of the new location to the old almost invites a joke about Atlanta’s famous street name problems. No, this isn’t the Persian restaurant on Peachtree, it’s the one on West Peachtree.
What’s new on the menu at Mulavi, which is to say not on the menu at Sufi’s, constitutes a little bit of a head scratcher. There are a charcuterie and cheese board, a club sandwich, a few thick burgers dressed up with pickled onions and brioche buns. Essentially, a set of extra options with all the personality of a hotel lobby. One supposes they’re here for the diner who doesn’t want to dip their pita into Persian cuisine, but I wouldn’t bother. You can get a club sandwich anywhere. This is a place for kebab and polo.
As with Sufi’s, the thing to order here are the generously portioned plates of rice and meat. There’s Zereshk Polo, long white basmati grains studded with sweet red barberry seeds and a scattering of bright orange saffron-cooked rice. Even better is the Adas Polo, which includes green lentils, caramelized onions, golden raisins and more of that saffron rice. A side of that will come with an order of lamb kebab, generous chunks of charred, tender lamb cooked medium rare. If lamb strikes you as too gamy, a plate of seared, saffron seasoned chicken breasts should do the trick.
915 W. Peachtree St., Atlanta. 404-975-2316, mulavi.com.
— WYATT WILLIAMS
Old people often talk about how strange it is when all their friends have died: What is it like to be the last person in the group? If restaurants had feelings, Old Hickory House in Tucker might tell a similar story.
It’s the sole survivor of a beloved barbecue chain that once dotted the local landscape from College Park to Dunwoody. I remember eating at the Pharr Road location after moving to the city in the early ’80s. The old-fashioned country breakfasts were a big draw.
But let’s face it: Atlanta’s smoked-meat scene has progressed a right smart since the days when chains like Hickory House and Sonny’s were major players. AJC readers have told us, though, that they still have a soft spot for the Hickory House breakfast.
Stopping by on a recent Sunday, we could see how the timeworn spot has retro appeal as a genuine greasy spoon.
The exterior beckons, with its red-barn siding and sign that spells “Old Hickory House” in a wood-plank typeface from the “Bonanza” era. The inside is all Formica countertops, wood paneling, bright hazy light. Servers speak with a Southern twang as sweet as iced tea.
We’re sorry to say, however, that the morning meal was a disappointment. What to make of a breakfast joint that can’t seem to scramble an egg?
My country-fried steak was nothing like the Southern staple that cooks in my family have mastered for generations. For this dish, one generally pounds the heck out of cubed steak, which is then battered and pan-fried, with the remaining drippings used to make gravy. Brown gravy.
The version here had the flavorless, telltale texture of protein that’s been massaged with packaged meat tenderizer, and the gravy was of the milky white variety better suited to Texas than Georgia.
Sides of grits and scrambled eggs were acceptable but hardly worth a trip. The eggs had been tossed to death, so the results looked more like yellow cottage cheese than lovin’ spoonfuls.
My friend said the best thing about her cheese omelet was, well, the cheese. What should have been a pillowy poof was a rubbery, unwieldy slab. The biscuits were cathead-size, visually impressive, yet they seemed pre-manufactured, were slightly salty tasting, and in need of copious slatherings of butter and jam.
So why even bother to visit Old Hickory House?
Friend, it’s the pancakes!
We loved our short stack: two tender, plate-size beauties. Height-wise, they were neither too crepe-y nor layer-cake-y. Just right! We ordered a side of bacon for crumbling on top, drizzled the pancakes with syrup and left feeling a little less curmudgeonly.
As we took our leave, the scent of hickory smoke was starting to waft from the kitchen as lunch hour approached: a subtle reminder that in its prime, Old Hick was a fine place for ‘cue.
For better or worse, it’s now the lone-star holdover of a bygone era.
2202 Northlake Parkway, Tucker. 770-939-8621, Facebook: Old Hickory House.
— WENDELL BROCK
At the Stonebridge Square strip mall on Crossville Road in Roswell, there are a McDonald’s drive-thru, a Kohl’s department store, a Mattress Firm outlet. You might be able to guess that it lacks a little in the personality department. But the strip mall’s newest tenant, Pho Roswell, doesn’t have that problem. That’s because Helen Nguyen, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Thanh, is there.
She is a person of seemingly endless upbeat energy, the sort necessary for running the front of a restaurant, greeting customers, printing checks, and carrying dishes. Not a single person seems to leave this place without hearing the thing she says to everyone — “Thank you sooo much” — with her accent sweetly drawing out the “so.” She is, in other words, the kind of authentic personality that makes a mom-and-pop restaurant like this work. Her sister Nancy Le runs the kitchen.
Pho Roswell is a bare-bones joint. The dining room has about as much distinct personality as the shopping mall outside. The menu sticks to your basic, familiar Vietnamese options: spring rolls, banh mi sandwiches, plates of lemongrass chicken and rice, bowls of steaming hot pho.
These dishes tend to fall firmly in the “pretty good” camp. The grilled ground pork in the banh mi leaves a little to be desired in terms of flavor and texture, but the crackly baguette and pickled veggies make it work. A salad of shredded green papaya topped with split in half shrimp could use a little more maceration when it comes to the crunchy papaya, but it is a fine light option nonetheless.
A plate of lemongrass chicken and rice is pretty much exactly as advertised, some shreds of white meat flavored by no small amount of lemongrass and white rice. Nothing more or less.
What you should come for is, of course, on the sign outside. The bowls of pho are brimming to the top edge, full of rice noodles, paper-thin cuts of beef, a broth spiced with the aromatics of cinnamon and star anise. The flavor here is a touch sweeter than many places, but still meaty and satisfying. I like mine with extra beef tendon, a rich, gelatinous treat.
There are still little quirks. The kitchen’s pace can seem a little uneven. The only place you can find the hours is plastered on a sign on the front door. But I have the feeling that this little neighborhood joint will improve with age. Mostly, that’s because Helen Nguyen is there.
600 W. Crossville Road, Roswell. 770-299-1549, phoroswell.com.
— WYATT WILLIAMS
We’ve been on the Tri-Cities circuit lately. It was between food tours of Hapeville and College Park, and checking out the comida at Taco Pete in East Point that a reader dropped a note to tell us that, in his opinion, Zab-E-Lee in College Park has “the very best Thai food in all of the ATL.”
That’s quite a claim. Responding to whether Zab-E-Lee tops the Thai chart would take far more research than this space allows, but now having visited, I agree that Zab has merits.
The restaurant sits in the far back corner of a dilapidated strip mall, the parking lot deserted but for the cars clustered near the restaurant’s frontage and the passenger vans from nearby airport hotels that keep dropping off guests who nab lunch at Zab’s.
Zab-E-Lee offers Thai and, oddly, sushi. Stick with Thai. You’ll find all the top hits here among apps (chicken satay skewers), salads (papaya), noodles (Pad Thai), curry (Panang curry) and stir-fries (Pad prik khing).
Weekday lunch is where the bargain is: Order an entree (most are priced at $7.95), and it comes with a deep-fried veggie spring roll, cup of soup or a baseline side salad with ginger dressing. The spring roll is as standard as they get: solidly filled, sturdily fried. The Tom Yum was yum, indeed. This version is clean, with just mushrooms and cilantro floating in a broth bright with the flavors of lemongrass and lime.
As with so many Thai, Chinese and other Asian restaurants, at Zab-E-Lee, you customize the entree with your protein of choice. Chicken, beef, pork or tofu — or shrimp for a two-buck upcharge. We did some mixing and matching, pairing Drunken Noodles with beef; stir-fried hot garlic pepper with tofu; and Rama, one of the numerous curries, with chicken.
I’ve never been one to order the same thing at a restaurant, but the Rama at Zab-E-Lee might have inspired me to change that practice. The chicken was fine enough, especially entangled with twists of warmed, wilted spinach. The attraction is the silky-rich, spicy coconut curry sauce. Grab that spoon and start bulldozing your way through this dish. Make a flat mess of that nice mound of white rice as you mix it into the meat and sauce, then shovel it into your face.
The fried tofu cubes on the stir-fry quickly went from crispy to mushy. The dish features loads of fresh veggies. Next time, I’ll try it with pork.
Drunken Noodles, one of the more popular dishes on the menu, per our friendly server, was a filling plate — oodles of flat rice noodles fried alongside basil leaves, bell pepper, bean sprouts and pineapple cubes, among other produce. Tasty, but the cobalt blue etching on the china in which it was served had more personality.
So finish with personality. Order the Thai custard, a baked dessert that is like a cross between flan, custard and cake. Picture a brownie square, but yellow. It’s made with a starch (here, they use yellow beans; other versions use taro, hulled mung beans, lotus seeds or sweet potatoes), coconut milk, eggs, palm sugar and oil — and topped with crispy fried shallots that’ll leave your taste buds confused for a second until you adjust to the wonders an onion can do for dessert.
There are a lot of reasons why Zab-E-Lee appeals: its grungy location, its food (the menu is sizable and I’m looking forward to eating my way through it), its affordability and its swift service. An eight-top was in and out within 45 minutes. The mystery of the hotel vans solved.
4837 Old National Highway, College Park. 404-477-2987, zab-e-lee.biz.
— LIGAYA FIGUERAS