The first thing you’ll notice at Pat Mell Shopping Center, a little strip mall on the northeast corner of Pat Mell Road and South Cobb Drive in Marietta, is the remarkable number of taxi cabs.
Where idling taxis are found, good, cheap food often is nearby.
Stretching from one end of the shopping center to the other, the Pat Mell center contains three groceries: one devoted to hard-to-find Asian foods, another whose butcher prepares meats in the style of Central and South America, and a third that specializes in the processed junk foods that Americans prefer (you might call it a convenience store).
Between those shops are restaurants, including a Vietnamese pho house that also serves Thai food, a Mexican joint that specializes in gooey, overstuffed gorditas, an Atlanta-raised torta chain and an El Salvadorian restaurant whose owner learned to cook in an Italian restaurant in New York.
Atlantans are familiar with these dense concentrations of culinary diversity, but we tend to expect them either on Buford Highway, where cheap rent and tight-knit communities have opened the door for hundreds of immigrant restaurant owners, or in food halls like Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market, where PR teams and celebrity chefs work in synchronized unison.
Pat Mell isn’t Buford Highway or a newfangled food hall, but it’s a little like both: a place where you can taste a lot of different food for not too much money.
Here’s a taste of Pat Mell Shopping Center:
Pho Hoang Long
371 Pat Mell Road, Marietta. 770-384-0530.
At noon on a recent Tuesday, Joseph Tran was running the host stand and taking orders during the busy lunch hour at Pho Hoang Long. The tables were packed with a crowd from nearby Dobbins Air Force Base, office workers and college-age kids.
Tran’s parents, Hue Truong and Truong Tran, own the restaurant, as well as Hoang Long Oriental Market next door, a small grocery packed with jars of fish sauce, shrimp paste, giant bags of rice, boxes of sweet tamarind fruit, preserved eggs and plenty of other treats you won’t find at Kroger. Through a doorway at the front of the market, you enter Pho Hoang Long, where the lighting is pleasantly dim and glowing with the presence of two fluorescent blue aquariums. It feels a little like a pho speakeasy.
The menu at Pho Hoang Long is full of rice dishes and spring rolls and a few familiar Thai options, but every table has steaming bowls of pho. You’ll be pleased to see that the heaping bowls arrive with shaved discs of still-rosy rare steak and an overloaded plate of Thai basil, bean sprouts, hot peppers and lime. Those with adventurous tastes should add some chewy, satisfying hunks of beef tendon to the mix, too. But the best part is the broth, which is rich with a complex blend of star anise, cinnamon and other spices.
Las Tortas Locas
371 Pat Mell Road, Marietta. 770-803-0303.
A couple of doors down from Pho Hoang Long, Las Tortas Locas had a line from the counter almost to the door. A homegrown Atlanta chain with five locations, including Sandy Springs, Chamblee and two in Norcross, Las Tortas Locas stuffs notably gigantic Mexican sandwiches.
It is a clean, well-lit space and the menu appears on three flat-screens mounted above the counter. Order a campesina, which comes stuffed with chorizo, carne asada, sauteed peppers, caramelized onions, pickled jalapenos, avocado and a big tomato wedge.
As the lunch crowd carried orders back to their tables, almost everyone stopped for a taste at the salsa bar, an impressive spread that ranges from cooling wedges of radishes or limes to pickled carrots and jalapenos to salsas covering the full spectrum of color and heat.
365 Pat Mell Road, Marietta. 404-966-9480.
La Duranguense is a tiny stall of a restaurant that boasts none of the flat-screens or fluorescent polish of Las Tortas, but makes equally crave-worthy gorditas.
The women who work behind the counter make each to order, griddle-cooking handmade gordita shells and stuffing them with cheese, refried beans, carne asada and more. Even the gordita nopales, stuffed with pickled cactus and no meat, is rich and filling enough to please a carnivore.
371 Pat Mell Road, Marietta. 678-424-1794.
Pat Mell’s newest restaurant, El Volcan, is also the first for owners Jose and Marie Lazo. The Lazos are originally from El Salvador, but lived most of their lives in New York, where Jose cooked at an Italian restaurant in Queens.
That explains the menu, which ranges from humble pupusas loaded with pickled cabbage to a chicken parmesan and linguini. But, if you ask him about El Salvadorian food, he’ll tell you all about the loroco flowers that flavor his pupusas or the atole de elote, the steaming hot, sweet corn milk he makes from scratch.
371 Pat Mell Road, Marietta. 678-309-0273, supermercadotalpa.com.
At the butcher counter of the Supermercado Talpa, most of the building blocks for dishes like these can be found. Long, thin strips of beef are breaded, ready for the home cook to make a type of fried steak called milanesa de res empanizada. Chicken is marinated for adobada pollo. Big spools of house-ground chorizo are stacked behind the glass.
But, if you can’t wait, there’s a hot counter where long trays of slow-cooked carnitas and barbacoa steam away under heat lamps and strips of chicharrones beg to be eaten.
The chicharrones are positively gigantic, a half-inch thick and 8-inch long strips of crunchy skin, juicy fat and chewy meat fried into epic, salty decadence. Pair one with a can of coconut water and you’ll have the perfect snack for standing around in the parking lot, watching the taxis come and go.