I was recently dining in a nearly empty, relatively small restaurant when one of the owners, unaware of my identity, struck up a conversation with me. I'd been complimentary about the food and look of the restaurant and he, with the passion usually associated with his heritage, thanked me profusely and launched a familiar complaint.
"More restaurants than any city in America, right here!" he nearly shouted. "How, I ask you, can one compete? It's not enough to have good food. You must be like the Disneyland!"
I haven't seen recent figures but it's true that a few years ago Atlanta ranked No. 1 in restaurants per capita in the United States. And it also seems true that restaurants are becoming more expressive of corporate culture, whether in terms of ownership of multiple venues or knock-your-socks-off décor. Surely we have gone beyond the pale when you can eat in BED.
Smaller restaurants, especially ethnic ones, certainly haven't disappeared in the city, and I find myself increasingly in admiration of those that prosper. It seems pretty clear that most of them have to appeal to a niche. You can find three such restaurants side-by-side on Briarcliff near its intersection with Lavista. I'm talking about the new Waikiki Hawaiian Barbecue (2160 Briarcliff Road, 404-638-1115), La Costeña, (2164 Briarcliff Road, 404-329-0084) and Broadway Café (2168 Briarcliff Road, 404-329-0888).
All three restaurants are on the kinky side, with strong personalities, but the newest, Waikiki, is perhaps the strangest. I've received recommendations from a handful of people to eat in the restaurant and I read on AtlantaCuisine.com a description of the food by "jodarse" that I thought was about perfect: pan-Asian barbecue with surfer/stoner food.
The latter includes dishes like Spam topped with fried eggs and gravy. I'm sorry but Creative Loafing does not pay me enough to eat that. I learned to like jellyfish. I've eaten chicken's feet. I've even gobbled down brains. But I ain't eating Spam topped with fried eggs unless Mr. Jodarse meets me in the parking lot with a super-sized bong filled with my favorite freshman-year inhalant.
Before getting to the rest of the food, which is pretty good, I do give the owner of the new restaurant props for a pleasant pastel décor and staff. Of course, they all wear Hawaiian shirts and are, in fact, as mellow as your average surfer. The owner, a man with a wry sense of humor, explained that, despite appearances, the restaurant is not part of a chain. It may, he said, become a chain, but don't go thinking you're eating in a Hawaiian McDonald's.
The food is difficult to describe. Wayne and I ordered the Waikiki Combo of barbecued meats and the Seafood Combo. The meats -- sliced beef, thin-cut short ribs and chicken -- are all savory and the flavors especially seem to echo Korean seasonings. The seafood plate featured all fried food -- unpleasant fried shrimp, mediocre fried mystery fish and, substituting for barbecued chicken, yummy Japanese-style chicken katsu, which is like chicken fingers fried in panko.
The combo platters all come with two perfectly formed ice-cream scoops of white rice and a scoop of macaroni salad. I hear several employees singing the praises of the latter, but I found it almost completely flavorless.
We also ordered a tofu salad. It featured mixed greens topped with very good crispy, creamy fried tofu. The greens and the tofu must be another stoner combo because the marriage simply confused me. In fact, we didn't touch the greens.
Finally, morbid curiosity required that I order the "house special fried rice" that includes shrimp, pineapple, green peas, carrots, egg and, yes, Spam. This, like most of the dishes here, was a gigantic serving. I found the Spam repulsive but easily avoidable. Otherwise the dish, like most such food, tasted much better the next day when there was nothing else in the house to eat and I was too lazy to go anywhere.
La Costeña is a true jewel. The tiny, neat restaurant just re-painted last week, has a solicitous staff, most of whom speak English. The main feature here is Nicaraguan food, but you'll also find Colombian, Venezuelan and a few Peruvian dishes. I stopped in for a lunch alone last week and had the pollo a la criolla. It was a grilled chicken breast served in a mild but peppery, red "creole" sauce full of sautéed onions and bell peppers. You'll want to scoot the mound of rice at the opposite end of the plate toward the sauce to get every drop of the delicious stuff. The plate also included sweet fried plantains and fried cheese.
If you haven't tried this place, you might want to go on a weekend when especially exotic dishes are available as well as the usual tongue with green plantains and pork with cassava salad.
Of course, you could eat here and send your children next door for Spam.
Broadway Café is one of very few kosher restaurants in our city. I had not visited in years when Wayne and I dined there last week. In fact, I did not know that the restaurant was now serving meat dishes as well as vegetarian ones. However, under dietary restrictions, the meat is literally served in a separate dining room next door and cannot be carried into the vegetarian dining room.
We had a mainly mediocre vegetarian meal. A starter of hummus with crispy pizza bread was good and we happily ate a gigantic, junkfood-style fried "bloomin' onion" which Wayne informed me was stolen from Outback Steak House. But my grilled eggplant "Napoleon," stuffed with cheeses and black olives, was over-cooked. And placing the eggplant over a gigantic portion of penne pasta was overwhelming.
Wayne ordered a weird but fairly tasty stuffed pizza full of feta, mozzarella, broccoli, spinach and tomatoes. The relatively thin, crispy crust held what could have been a sloppy concoction together well. Wayne ate every bite and lectured me for not wanting to take the penne home.
The staff, as at the other two restaurants, is absolutely killer here.