Man, do I feel old. I'm standing in line at Tin Drum, surrounded by Tech students fresh from class and speaking the foreign language of mechanical engineering. The fast-casual eatery is doing brisk business on a weekday night. As soon as a table becomes available, it is immediately occupied. We're the only nonstudents among hoards of Techies drawn to Tin Drum by the cafe's generous portions and pricing for the cash-poor. Purposefully industrial touches of a cement floor, gleaming ductwork and brushed steel are combined with large photographs of a "sumo fashion show" on walls divided into panels of tropical fruit colors.
Owner Stephen Chan is a Tech graduate himself, which perhaps explains the great details given to Tin Drum's design. Everything, from the menus kitted out to resemble a campus newspaper to the chilled cans of Red Bull imported from Thailand, is geared toward appealing to the young.
Insane dwarf not included: Tin Drum draws inspiration from the quasi-mythical town crier figure of the "tin drummer in Asian culture," as the menu explains, and not from the Gunter Grass novel of the same name. Orders are brought to the table in big white bowls and stainless steel plates, which prevents Tin Drum from feeling entirely like a Georgia Tech cafeteria. Coconut soup ($2.50) is a respectable version of Tom Kah Gai, rich with coconut milk, chicken stock, lime juice and a dash of fish sauce. Grilled steak salad ($6.50) fills the tummy with romaine lettuce tossed in enough Sriracha chili sauce to provide a steady burn. The beef slices are tender, if a little bland. Peanuts, carrots, red peppers and zucchini provide color and crunch.
Spring ahead: There's a roster of spring rolls to choose from, all of which are $1 each. The Thai basil roll comes wrapped in chewy rice noodle sheets with a hoisin-peanut sauce, and is surprisingly soft, sweet and fresh. Chicken curry spring rolls, like the other fried rolls, are remarkably crispy and ungreasy, stuffed with bits of curried chicken and lettuce. A traditional Vietnamese spring roll delivers veggie crunch interspersed with bits of shrimp. Its all-vegetable counterpart features shreds of pickled cabbage for extra flavor. The crab and cream cheese spring roll's stuffing is more akin to a hot crab dip you'd find at a cocktail party, but it's yummy and goes down nicely dipped in a dye-free sweet and sour sauce.
Noodling around: Bowls of noodles are heaped high and piping hot. Singapore fried noodles ($6) glow with the curry yellow of turmeric, and are as tasty as any you might find in a noodle shop on Buford Highway. A small shrimp tempura wrap sandwich ($3.75) is an unexpectedly well-conceived combination of paratha flat bread, avocado, red pepper, romaine and crunchy, feathery-light shrimp tempura served with a tiny cup of honey miso sauce.
Tin Drum doesn't break any new ground, but it doesn't pretend to, either. It does a great job of providing Midtown with sorely needed good, belly-filling food. And if you're not up to feeling like you're waiting in line to fight for classes at registration, take a cue from nearby Biltmore residents and swoop by for take out.