When it comes to dining out, few sights are less appealing to me than food-court steam tables.
From malls to airports, I’ve had my fill of geriatric green beans, crusty-topped mac and cheese, soggy fried chicken. I feel nothing but pity for people whose job is to mind the hot bar for approaching customers: They see you coming, then stir, stir, stir. It’s easier to unload a litter of baby kittens than those brown, monochromatic Asian stir-fries with freakish cobs of baby corn and senior broccoli florets. Puffy fried shrimp doused with bright-red sweet-and-sour sauce? I’d rather stick my head in a Chick-fil-A bag.
This sort of prejudice has made me woefully uninformed of Atlanta’s sprawling international food-hall scene. Thanks to my fear of food courts, I’ve apparently missed out on all kinds of good eats, often made to order and worth driving for.
I discovered this recently after taking a spin through the Jusgo supermarket in Duluth.
At the sprawling, sparkly-clean location of the Hong Kong-based chain, you can fill a cart with moon cakes, jasmine rice and Chinese sausage; pick up live fish, turtles or snails (or at least let the kids gawk at them); and proceed through the checkout, which happens to position you in front of the side entrance to the food mall, where you will find about a dozen small takeout restaurants. (Of course you can skip the shopping altogether and go directly to the restaurants via the parking lot — you’ll see the big food-court sign above the doors.) Across the board, we found servers to be friendly, and eager to answer questions and make suggestions. And only an occasional steam table.
Slippery when wet
As best as I can tell, Xi’an Gourmet House (404-547-3088, xiangourmethouse.com) is the only outpost of Shaanxi-style cooking in the region. The restaurant’s outrageously long biangbiang noodles are unlike any pasta you will ever consume.
These hand-ripped noods can be had in a bowl with sauce on the bottom or as a soup. My preference by far is the drier version; served this way, those remarkable, 2-foot-long noodles and their toppings don’t get lost in the broth. The spicy cumin lamb is very good; the shredded pork with pickled cabbage even better. A tomato-and-egg version sounded like a winner but probably wasn’t the best option to have as a soup.
Some of the dishes seem almost Sichuan in character. Fiery mapo tofu spooned over rice was about as delicious as any I’ve had in town. Beef tendon and tripe in chile sauce, sprinkled with crushed peanuts and cilantro, was a terrific starter. If you need a neutral bite to calm the taste buds, try the chewy-textured, fried-to-order scallion pancakes. Better yet, go for the the liangpi cold-skin noodles, another Shaanxi specialty similar to classic cold sesame noodles; they are vaguely, vinegary sweet but without the nuttiness. You’ll want to request them cold.
The aptly named BBQ Corner (678-691-3850) sits at the far corner of the rectangular-shaped food pavilion. It’s easy to spot this Cantonese siu mei-style joint, thanks to the deeply burnished, caramel-colored spit-roasted whole ducks and chickens hanging in the glass window. They are obviously meant to tantalize you the minute you exit the market.
If you are looking for enough barbecue to feed a crowd, you can walk out with a picnic-ready whole suckling pig, which comes in three sizes, ranging in price from $188-$299. Before you splurge, though, you may want to try a little.
One good way to do this is with the two- or three-meat Mixed BBQ Combo, served over rice with sauteed Chinese greens. I prefer my roasted pork with thicker, crispier skin, and I like my roast duck with a little more glaze. Still, both were easy to fork down on the Sunday afternoon we stopped by, as was the soy chicken. (The so-called Mama-Style Chicken looks a little blond for my taste.)
On another stop, I was disappointed with the BBQ Pork Fried Rice. I was hoping for morsels of sweet, red-tinged char siu, but the meat had lost its zing in the wok. An appetizer of griddled radish cakes, crispy on the exterior, luscious at the center, were divine, however. Wonder how many orders of radish cakes you’d need to go with one whole piglet?
This and that
If you are just in the mood for a few bites and not a full-size meal, Taste of Tian Jin (tasteoftianjin.com), in the same strip as BBQ Corner, offers decent, cooked-to-order dim sum. We enjoyed our scallion pancakes a little less than the ones at Xi’an Gourmet, and thought the pan-fried dumplings were better overall than the steamed. (Either way, try the chive and pork dumplings or the seafood pot stickers.) We saw people ordering batons of “deep-fried dough,” and thinking they might taste like churros, we decided to give the dough sticks a whirl. Bum decision: They were flavorless. … Didn’t get a chance to try the drinkable whimsy at Vivi Bubble Tea (770-696-2379, vivibubbleteaduluth.com), but we adored the Taiwanese-style popcorn fried chicken from this national chain.
Hot and spicy
If you find yourself overwhelmed at Jusgo, look around to see what others are having that looks good. On my first food-court visit, I noticed a customer carrying a tray with a bowl of noodles in an incendiary-looking soup. I immediately proceeded to the counter of Uncle Zhu Spicy Hotpot (470-275-9986) to inquire. “I’ll have what he’s having.” Spicy chong qing noodles turned out to be a highlight of my many Jusgo stops. A giant, showstopping dish of rice noodles submerged in a bath of not-too-prickly broth and showered with ground beef, bean sprouts and scallions, it’s a revelatory flavor sensation — and a bit tidier perhaps than the biangbiang. … Finally, I felt I would be remiss not to check out Kumai Ramen (470-246-5475). It was near quitting time on a Sunday night, so the staff member had to flip on the electronic menu on the wall behind the counter — no paper menus here. Alas, my bowl of spicy tonkotsu was gorgeous to look at, but nothing special. Takoyaki (fried squid balls) were a bit gooey but tasted good once they firmed up.
Thankfully, I got through this research without having to eat a bite of tired old steam-table food. I may be into this food-court thing.
Jusgo Food Court
11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Adjacent to Jusgo supermarket, 3875 Venture Drive, Duluth. 678-809-6888.