It sometimes seems that every new restaurant in Atlanta is another million dollar expansion of a restaurant group in yet another multi-million-dollar development. That isn’t quite true. With the high rent and high cost of doing business, though, it can be quite hard for a young chef just starting out today. Where do you go to build a following or try out new ideas? Well, the Global Grub Collective, a ramshackle food hall in East Atlanta Village, has become one of the options.
The long room is divided, with a line of red picnic tables pushed up against one wall and a line of food stalls set up against the other. The space between the two is nearly as narrow as the aisle on an airplane, and as reliably crowded. This place reminds me of a three-bedroom house I once lived in with eight people. It was fun, but it got a little complicated when it came time to do the dishes. I have no doubt that is one of the reasons most of the food stalls here serve their fare on disposable plates.
In this setting, no food stall has stood out quite as much as Mushi Ni. Since opening in January, the menu has been a work in progress, liberally borrowing flavors and dishes from Korea, Malaysia, China and the Philippines, and adding a few American touches along the way. That pan-Asian style can be a recipe for middling, indistinct results, but, thankfully, this very small kitchen is in excellent hands. Tanya Jimenez, a native of Manila, is an accomplished young chef with a resume that includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America, years of working for Gordon Ramsay in London, and even a stint learning from Anne Quatrano at Bacchanalia. She runs Mushi Ni with the help of her husband, Michael Le.
One of the more recent additions to the menu is an appetizer of kimchi dumplings, packed with just enough fermented cabbage, and fried to a starchy, crisp golden brown. The dumpling skin still shatters, even after a plunge into the accompanying ginger soy dip. It is a light snack, which leaves room for exploring the many options that follow.
At first glance, the selection can be a bit overwhelming. There are more than two dozen options, certainly more than one expects from a food stall run by two people. It simplifies things to know that the kitchen is really offering just a handful of proteins dressed up in different carby vehicles.
There is the flaky Malaysian flatbread known as roti, stuffed and served as a convenient hand roll. There are the fluffy, folded steamed buns known as bao. There are bowls made with glassy Korean japchae noodles, rice or greens. There’s some old-fashioned, garlicy fried rice. Any of these can be made with a dark, saucy beef bulgogi; a funky, stewed-down chicken adobo; a fatty-tender portion of pork belly; the stringy decadence of duck confit; or a few vegetarian options.
The most consistently impressive option is the duck confit. Stuffed into an exceptionally fluffy bao, and lacquered with sweet unagi and plum sauce, it is reminiscent of the decadent pleasure of digging into Peking duck. The tender strands of duck make a fine contrast with the crunchy, creamy slaw that accompanies it.
Not all of the menu options are quite as magical. The thinly sliced beef bulgogi was rich and tender when I ordered it with a bowl of japchae noodles, but the dark brown sauce was a touch too salty. I loved the funky depth of flavor in the stewed-down chicken adobo, but that, too, left me almost parched due to the salt.
As it turns out, a couple of the most impressive offerings are vegetarian. The cauliflower bang bang, a bao stuffed with glazed, fried sweet and spicy cauliflower florets, lived up to that punchy name. I immediately wanted three more. Much the same could be said for the mushroom katsu bao, which paired deeply savory breaded and fried mushrooms with a bright carrot-ginger dressing.
If you want meat, you probably should stick with the duck confit. The best, most decadent vehicle for that is a basket of french fries shellacked with a blend of umami-rich spices, piled with shredded duck, and slathered with truffle Sriracha mayo. Did it really have a Japanese origin, as the name Tokyo fries suggests? Was it kind of like a riff on Canadian poutine? I don’t think any of that really matters. It is Tanya Jimenez’s dish, and I’m looking forward to the day when she gets a restaurant of her own.