My friend Gregg is from Alabama and loves Southern cooking. So I was surprised when I offered to take him to lunch for his birthday and he asked that we go somewhere on Buford Highway.
"How about House of Jellyfish?" I joked. "Or maybe Café Chicken Foot?"
He declined, so I suggested barbecue. His eyes lit up. "I mean Korean barbecue," I clarified.
"As long as it's not too spicy," he said.
"Just avoid the kim chee soup," I told him.
We headed to Hanil Kwan (5458 Buford Highway, 770-457-3217). This restaurant's rep has begun to eclipse that of Hae Woon Dae, which, as I've reported, seems to have declined steeply in quality during the last year or two.
Hanil Kwan is a sunny restaurant with two dining rooms. The tables with the charcoal grills are in the rear. We were automatically seated in the front dining room. I started to request that we move to a table with a grill but we both became fascinated by the inexpensive lunches (less than $10), served in lacquered boxes that most everyone was eating. Many of them included barbecue.
We started with one of the seafood pancakes. Our server, who spoke practically no English, seemed alarmed when we ordered this, plus lunch boxes. She sputtered words like "big," "very much" and "maybe too much." We were undeterred. The pancake, featuring a lot of scallions and squid, was indeed gigantic and probably alone would be an adequate lunch for two normal eaters. Crispy, chewy and fragrant with sharp flavors, the pancake was as good as any I've ever had.
The lunch boxes were something of a disappointment to me. I ordered one with pork bulgogi and Gregg ordered short ribs, long my fave at Hae Woon Dae. Both meats were strongly marinated and mine had an unusually peppery flavor. I do not think, alas, that my bulgogi was cooked over charcoal, which adds extra flavor to Korean meats.
But the real problem were the side dishes in the lunch boxes: tepid rice, tempura shrimp and vegetables that had been cooked hours earlier, and some unappetizing vegetable maki. Of course, these could be completely ignored in favor of the usual huge assortment of pickles and spicy snacks brought to the table at any Korean meal's start.
Next time I go, I'll definitely head to the rear dining room for charcoal-grilled barbecue, even though it will cost me twice as much.
Service is great, despite the language barrier. Tables include a buzzer to call servers to the table. As often as they came by our table, I can't imagine needing to use one, but I can think of quite a few restaurants in town where I'd like to see them in use. That is something notable about ethnic restaurants. They never seem to suffer the shortage of servers that mainstream ones do. The reasons are obvious, of course, but it's always a bit startling.
Back to Soleil
It's been a couple of years since my friend Brad and I lunched at Soleil Bistro (3081 Maple Drive, 404-467-1790) in Buckhead. After Jacques Hourtal, the original chef/owner, sold it a few years ago, the quality rapidly took a dive.
I recently got word that the restaurant had new lunch and dinner menus, so we decided to pay it a visit. An exterior change was an immediate warning. The restaurant, in a remodeled house on a quiet Buckhead street, has a front patio that's been enclosed in plastic trimmed in an orange too garish for Halloween.
Our lunch, alas, was not very good. My ravioli of the day – filled with ground lamb – was mediocre, but Brad's salade Nicoise was truly grim. We were pleased that it was made with canned tuna, instead of the popular hunk o' grilled tuna. But this tuna, an enormous portion, was wet and tasted like your high school cafeteria's. Most of the greens in the salad were iceberg lettuce. Some vegetables in the salad were inedible.
We couldn't face dessert but did order espresso – watery and bitter.
What gives, guys?
"No pictures!" the woman behind the counter shouted at me. We were at an off-the-beaten-track Taco Veloz (3245 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, 770-458-7779). I'm assuming the camera shyness, which I also encountered at Chipotle a few months back, is part of immigration anxiety, but I have no idea.
We were the only gringos at this particular Taco Veloz, which is in the Chamblee Commercial Center with a bunch of other businesses catering to Mexicans. It's much larger than the original on Buford Highway and my impression is that the menu is also larger. There's a dining room, a salsa bar, a juke box and several TV screens blaring soap operas and a Latino version of "Dancing with the Stars."
Although the menu now offers everything from huevos rancheros to empanadas, it's criminal to eat here and not order the chile relleno burrito or taco. The burrito includes two of the huge cheese-filled poblanos – extremely fiery this visit – with onions and green sauce, while the taco includes one that can barely be wrapped by its tortilla.
We also sampled tacos of chorizo and al pastor, along with some frijoles charros – tasty but disconcerting with little pieces of what tasted like Vienna sausages.
Afterward, we went across the parking lot to Martha's Bakery, where we ordered some fist-size pastries and a fat slice of house-made tres leches cake layered with strawberry preserves. The pastries, dozens of different ones, are all displayed in wooden cases here.
The tres leches was by far the best choice but it was a light cake compared with many richer versions I've eaten around town. We had a great time learning the names of the pastries, though.