Cheap is the new fine din­ing


Wouldn’t it be nice if ev­ery good res­tau­rant meal could be cheap? That’s not pos­si­ble, of course. But be­lieve me, ex­cel­lent food is no longer the sole province of pricey restau­rants. Ca­sual places—even some we con­sider fast food joints—have be­come ex­tremely in­ven­tive.

There are sev­eral ex­pla­na­tions for this. The Great Re­ces­sion killed tra­di­tional fine din­ing in At­lanta. In fact, it stalled the en­tire din­ing scene. But some­thing else im­por­tant hap­pened. Mil­len­ni­als came of age, and be­ing quite mul­ti­cul­tural, they have more ad­ven­tur­ous palates than their par­ents. Alas, they also have less money.

With the (mod­er­ate) eco­nomic re­cov­ery, we’re see­ing a pro­lif­er­a­tion of new restau­rants in town re­flect­ing these changes. I’ve writ­ten about some here—the new In­dian-based Masti in Toco Hills and the Tai­wanese-based Ah-Ma’s in Midtown Prom­e­nade, for ex­am­ple. There’s Korean-Chi­nese at Makan in De­catur and Korean at Sob­ban on Clair­mont. You find re­ally good, kinky food even in food courts now, like the Mid­dle East­ern­based Yalla in the Krog Street Mar­ket. All of this food is au­then­tic, but pays homage to its Amer­i­can con­text.

Dur­ing the last few years, I’ve per­son­ally been most ex­cited by the mil­len­ni­als’ will­ing­ness to visit Bu­ford High­way, where you can dine quite well for $10. I’ve been eat­ing there for decades. Most peo­ple I’ve dragged with me are shocked that the restau­rants there have greater com­plex­ity than can be found at Taco Bell.

I ad­mit there are a few peren­nial dif­fi­cul­ties with eat­ing on Bu­ford. Lan­guage can be prob­lem­atic, but many Asian spots have menus and walls plas­tered with of­ten-notso-re­li­able pic­tures. And while I’m an­noyed by peo­ple’s fear of spici­ness, I still find of­fal daunt­ing my­self, although I did eat ox penis at Bei­jing Kabobs. I love tripe-filled menudo, a soup avail­able week­ends at var­i­ous Mex­i­can spots (along with the equally tasty of­fal-free pozole) like El Potro.

The most re­cent place I’ve vis­ited on Bu­ford is the newish Viet­namese I Luv Pho (5145 Bu­ford Hwy., 770-696-1662). Pho, a clas­sic soup, has be­come wildly pop­u­lar with Amer­i­cans. What most dis­tin­guishes one res­tau­rant’s pho from another is the in­ten­sity of the broth, which can be ei­ther beef or chicken. The best—and I Luv Pho is one of the best—have a mys­ti­fy­ing depth of fla­vor. You choose the meats: ev­ery­thing from ten­dons to steak. Then you add bean sprouts, a squirt of lime, and herbs all piled on a plate in the mid­dle of the ta­ble. Sriracha and hoisin are also on the ta­ble.

Viet­namese is my fa­vorite cui­sine, so I de­cided to skip the pho, which all my friends or­dered, and try a “burnt rice” dish. This dish is made with crunchy rice like you find at the bot­tom of a pot. You pick the top­pings. It’s my fa­vorite dish at Chateau de Saigon. I’m sorry to say that I Luv Pho’s ver­sion was hugely dis­ap­point­ing. Chicken and seafood—mainly ined­i­ble, over-cooked squid—were thickly sauced, which to­tally oblit­er­ated any crunch the rice had. Stick to the pho.

There are many clas­sics on Bu­ford High­way worth try­ing. And by the way, if you want au­then­tic In­dian food, head out to Scott Boule­vard and Lawrenceville High­way. I’ll cover those restau­rants in a fu­ture col­umn.

(Cliff Bo­s­tock, PhD, is a long­time At­lanta res­tau­rant critic and for­mer psy­chother­a­pist now spe­cial­iz­ing in life coach­ing for cre­ative types and those in so-called midlife cri­sis. www.cliff­bo­

Makan’s Beef Cheong Fun, rice noo­dle rolls. (Photo via Face­book)

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