Thursday, June 30, 2011

Atlanta Eats

On the Confirmation Pilgrimage to Atlanta, I wanted to make sure the kids got to experience a wide array of dining options. My rule was no chains but local chains and Mary Mac's Tea Room and The Varsity were musts, being local institutions. I knew barbecue needed to be in the line-up, too. While some of my plans went awry, we did end up finding some good meals. Here's where we ate:

Wednesday: I wanted the barbecue to be the night we arrived. My friends, Kit & Joyce, live near Atlanta, so I consulted with Kit on the best bbq joint in town. She came back with Fat Matt's Rib Shack. After looking at their website, I was a little concerned that the pork sandwiches were chopped pork rather than pulled, but I decided not to be nitpicky and scheduled it for our first Atlanta meal. I was swayed not only by Kit's recommendation, but also by the prospct of live blues. Unfortunately, when we arrived with our two vanloads of kids & chaperones, there was not a parking spot to be found. I sent chaperone Geoff in to suss out the possibilities. He came back outside smelling absolutely amazing and making our entire van's mouths water. I can still conjure the smell in my head with ease. His report was not favorable. It smelled like heaven but was tiny and packed, not likely to ease up in time to appease our hungry crew. Sometimes, it just doesn't pay to require a table for 11. I have vowed that I will eat there at a future date. For that night, though, I opted to swing by the Taco Cabana we had passed earlier. It's a no-frills, counter-service Mexican place located in a former gas station. The service was friendly and remarkably speedy. We enjoyed the food, especially the handmade tortillas, and I especially enjoyed the lively Latin music. I wouldn't recommend it for remarkable food, but it fit the need. I promised the kids that we would have BBQ before leaving, but that it might not be Fat Matt's. I never heard the end of that promise, even though I followed through. But I get ahead of myself.

Thursday, we tried really hard to find enough to do in town that we could have dinner at The Varsity without having to go back to the church where we were staying. Since the kids whizzed through the Aquarium and World of Coca-Cola (where we got to sample international flavors both divine and vile) and Underground Atlanta didn't have much to recommend it, we had to go back out. The Varsity is a giant drive-in (the largest in the world, with capacity for 600 cars), but with its reputation for required snappy ordering ("What'll ya have, what'll ya have?" is a constant refrain), I thought going inside might work better with our large group. I was quite pleased with my coney dog, onion rings and frosted orange (although I think I might have preferred the simply cold Varsity Orange better...basically just their own version of HI-C) but some of the kids were less than impressed. The boys had expected much larger burgers, the sort they are accustomed to getting at places like Red Robin, rather than standard fast food-sized burgers. Those who got ice cream reported that it was very good, but I was disappointed with my fried peach pie. Light on peaches, heavy on dough, which tasted of not terribly fresh grease. I got spoiled in Nashville, I guess. I am glad we went simply for the history (The Varsity has been in operation since 1928) but the food was unremarkable, nothing you couldn't get at the local Tastee Freeze or Dairy Shed.

Friday was a great food day. I'd made early lunch reservations at Mary Mac's. I was a little worried that it would be all hype, with little about the actual food to recommend it, so I was pleased to find that wasn't the case. Our waitress, Keisha, polled us to see who had eaten there before. New folks are given a small dish of potlikker, which is actually greens with potlikker, that sumptuous and rich cooking liquid prized across the South. I was delighted with mine and the kids surprised me by enjoying theirs, too. Who knew teenagers would like greens with potlikker? I sure wouldn't have when I was in 7th or 8th grade. Chaperone Becky, who'd been there before, had praised the fried chicken, so I ordered that and was glad I did. Crunchy & flavorful skin, marvelously juicy meat. The mashed potatoes were good (although mine have got them beat) as was the fried okra, although my friend Teresa's okra is much better. Theirs was just a tinch limp. The sweet tea, however, was so much like Teresa's achingly sweet version, I was instantly transported to her Fairview, TN living room, watching the Florida Gators and the Florida State Seminoles go head to head. The peach cobbler was delicious, too. Most of the group got country-fried steak and reported being very happy with their lunch. Everyone also really enjoyed the complimentary cracklin' cornbread, moist and yummy. After sampling that, I was shocked at the dryness and blah flavor of the yeast rolls. Overall, though, I was quite favorably impressed and ended up buying the cookbook as a souvenir.

I'd spotted a Cuban place, Papi's, across the street and wanted to return there for dinner that night before heading to Stone Mountain. I had slotted one of our dinners for Las Margaritas, but Papi's promised true Cuban food rather than generic Latin food with a hefty dose of Mexican. However, no one felt they'd be able to eat dinner so I decided on simply allowing them to get concession food at Stone Mountain if and when they got hungry. However, the weather had other plans. When a huge wind storm blew in, threatening hail, we determined that it would be better to save Stone Mountain for Sunday night than to risk getting into a thunderstorm during the laser show. So, I moved the Landmark Diner to the Friday night slot from Saturday, after attempting to find a BBQ place that turned out to be a BP station.

That turned out to be a good move. Located inside a decent facsimile of a real diner, the Landmark is run by a Greek family and thus has a good selection of Greek options on the huge menu. They also had breakfast 24 hours a day, much to the delight of several of the kids. There was a bit of a tiff over some leftover French toast after the meal, in fact, so luscious was their rendition. I opted for the gyro sandwich and was delighted that I had.

Saturday night, I saw the opportunity to uphold my BBQ promise when we passed a number of BBQ joints, most pretty homely-looking (always a good sign, in my experience, that the BBQ served therein will be excellent), on the way to Andersonville. The one we ended up experiencing was a drive-in called Piggie Park in Thomaston, Georgia. it looked like a complete dive and did not disappoint. The boys, all of whom (with the exception of Bobby) had been clamoring for ribs the entire trip, uniformly bypassed that choice in favor of cheeseburgers. Most of the rest of us ordered the pulled pork sandwich, which came all flavorful meat with a smattering of sauce that had a much greater zing than the BBQ I am accustomed to getting in Nashville. Delicious! Too bad the boys missed their chance. As it was, we did get to find out what it meant on the sign when it said, "All burgers are served scrambled." That just sounded crazy to me, but Jan reported that the burgers were like sloppy joes without the sauce. I will have to do some research on that odd custom. I was disappointed not to spot any promising-looking "boiled peanuts" or "peaches" signs on the road back. I'd hoped to treat the kids to this very Southern way of doing peanuts and to pick up some peaches for home. Ah, well.

Sunday, we tried to go to Papi's, but it was very crowded and if we had waited the half-hour it would take to seat us, we might have missed the last sky ride to the top of Stone Mountain. I suspect that we could have made it, but I wasn't willing to risk it. It would have been very bad for my determination to introduce the kids to Cuban food to ruin the Stone Mountain experience. I was bitterly disappointed about missing this opportunity to eat it myself, too. Dayton really needs a good Cuban place. But, I am really glad, in a way, that we didn't get to eat there because our experience at Miss Katie's, inside Stone Mountain park, was a lot of fun and delicious, too. How many other places will throw your dinner rolls at you? And, oh, were those rolls amazing! Among the best I've ever had, fresh from the oven, all piping hot and lushly yeasty. Some of the kids dug into heavy meals, but I opted for the Southern fried chicken salad. Not the healthiest salad, especially with bleu cheese dressing, but it was good to have something fresh and green to eat. It was very good. We skipped dessert, the blow of being denied dessert made easier for the boys by my promise that we'd get some Krispy Kreme doughnuts on the way back to the church after the laser show. Oh, how I wished I hadn't promised, because the GPS took us back a different way. I found myself in an unfamiliar part of Atlanta at 11:30 at night in order to honor my promise. I seldom make promises to kids unless I know for sure that I can keep them, and I was damn sure going to provide those guys with doughnuts! But imagine my joy at seeing the "Hot Now" sign all ablaze when I rolled up. So, I was able to return like a conquering hero with meltingly fresh glazed doughnuts. And I first discovered the wonder of "Hot Now" while living in the South, so it seemed appropriate to provide it as part of the kids' southern experience.

Monday morning, we were low enough on cereal that it seemed easier to take the kids out for breakfast instead of buying a whole new round of cereal. So, we loaded the vans, tidied up the youth rooms in which we'd lodged for the week and headed for the IHOP across the street. This broke my "no chains" rule, but there is no IHOP in the Dayton area, as far as I know. The service was incredibly slow, especially for a Monday morning, and we ended up having to eat appallingly fast when our food finally arrived nearly an hour after we ordered it. The poor boys didn't even get the maple syrup they requested with their pancakes, having the option of either dry pancakes or the syrups provided on the table. Me, I'd've gone for the pecan syrup, but I ordered all non-sweet food. We had a rendezvous with the river, so we had no time to wait for Christmas to come along with our syrup.

Or, rather, they had a rendezvous with the river. Katie, Erin and I had sensibly opted not to go whitewater rafting, preferring not to engage in risky behavior. However, we risked our noses and our sanity when we drove through Calhoun, TN and were confronted with a long assault by one of the worst smells ever. I finally figured out, Googling later, that it was emanated by a newsprint mill. Blech! I'd feared it was coming from Mayfield Dairy, where we were headed for a plant tour and ice cream. But, no, Mayfield was fresh as a daisy. We had our ice cream, rich and delicious, while we waited for the tour. I chose a mint chocolate chip hot fudge sundae. Yes, Jeni's is still my favorite, but for plain old ice cream, Mayfield is pretty dang good. The tour was fascinating. Being a food plant manager's spouse makes me even more interested in checking out food facilities. They even make their own milk jugs there and it was especially cool to see them being made, big blobs of gooey yellow plastic plopping out of the dispenser and becoming a jug!

That night, Eddie Rico, proprietor of the Ocoee Riverside Lodge, suggested Papa's Pizza in Cleveland, TN. Upon hearing it's an all-you-can-eat sort of place, I knew that was the place for us, especially our crew of hungry boys. The pizza was tasty (my favorite was the chicken bacon ranch), the sweet tea was the perfect level of sweet (as it had been at Miss Katie's) and everyone got their fill. There were even candy & temporary tattoo machines, as well as video games, & the kids had fun using those. In the morning, we had McDonald's before hitting the road and stopped in Kentucky by accident (literally) for lunch at a Mexican joint called El Cazador. There had been an accident on the interstate and it seemed prudent to stop there for lunch, allowing the traffic time to clear out while we had our lunch. My chile verde was much spicier than anticipated, but still fairly good. I decided that I am going to cease ordering it anywhere but Los Mariachis, however, because I am invariably disappointed and end up coveting my table mate's tacos. Bobby's had a healthy dose of gorgeous shreds of Mexican cheese, too, making my drool avoidance task even harder than usual.

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