Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Atlanta Experience

My wife and I decided to go down to Atlanta this past weekend to take in the sights and sounds of Atlanta along with some of my relatives who already live there. Although, this post is not related to New York cheap eats, I definitely had my share of degustation down in Dixie and want to share these delights with y'all.

On my first day, I was driven down to an area somewhere in Northeast Atlanta, I think on a road called Buford Highway. Although I couldn't remember the name of the restaurant that I went to, it was a fairly large Vietnamese restaurant known for Pho served in small, medium and large bowls. I ordered the $6.50 medium and it was delicious and as good as any had in New York. I was also told that Banh Mi was available is many places along the highway. Apparently, in this area of Atlanta, most of the Asian food markets and Spanish/South American cuisine were concentrated in this area. I counted two large clusters of Asian shops, one "Chinatown" complete with the typical arch and one large Spanish specialty mall.

Further along on our weekend, on a nonfood-related note, we took in the World of Coca-Cola, and the CNN Center in Atlanta. Both tours were excellent, reasonably priced ($15) and entertaining. World of Coca-Cola was fascinating in the sense of Coke's history and the enduring popularity of the beverage. There was no mention of any of the ingredients in Coca-Cola, not even the suspected cocaine. What we did learn was that the inventor of Coke, Mr. Pemberton, did invent many other drinks that weren't quite as popular. The museum included two movie theaters, including an eye-popping, 4D theater, a theater showing commercials, and exhibits showing vending and advertising paraphernalia through the years. The best part of the tour was the space right before the gift show. This area contained stations of Coke beverages divided by continental regions, which gave tourists a taste of drinks available around the world. I determined that if I were to live overseas, based solely on fizzy beverages, Asia would be the place for me. Asian beverages were consistently sweet, but not sweeter than the other regions, and stayed truer to their labels. I found that the African beverages tasted as if there were some artificial sweetener thrown in. The South American beverages all had a anise or cardomon bitterness. The European beverages didn't really have an identity and were all over the map. The one consistent good thing about all the continents was that no matter which continent, we were on, the ice tea beverages were all drinkable. The most notable was a Chinese ice tea which had a strong aroma of jasmine tea.

As for the CNN Center, for $15, we enjoyed another excellent, and this time, a fully-guided tour. We were able to see a couple of anchors, including Tony Harris and a lady from CNN Espanol, who waved at all the tourists behind the glass separating us from the anchor. Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed, but I think we all got the sense that CNN was a fully functioning news gathering organization, although I was a bit surprised that it wasn't bigger. Since I'm a huge fan of CNN and all its channels, it was truly an exciting experience. But now, back to food...

The focus of our weekend was a pig roast. My brother-in-law roasted a pig for his neighbor's annual garden party and since I am a New Yorker and a million miles from being a do-it-yourselfer, it was quite impressive to see the cooking process firsthand. Before I arrived, I was spared the details on the dispatching of the pig and its cleaning. From what I've seen on tv, there is a well-worn process of cleaning and gutting the animal. I saw the end result of that cleaning and having viewed the carcass, has given me a greater appreciation as to the sacrifices animals make for humanity. Lifting and carrying an entire pig is much different that carrying a few slices of pork chops home from your butcher. The separation of our collective experience with food from its sources is vast indeed.

The pig was prepared with needle injections comprising of a secret wet mix. The outside was later seasoned by adobo and cajun seasoning. I had the pleasure of helping to butterfly the pig and mount it on a metal cooking rack. The entire pig was placed in a roasting box, which was then covered by another large piece of metal. Charcoal was spread on top of the roasting box and ignited. I was surprised that putting heat above the pig was enough to cook the meat. I was told that the radiant heat generated above, moved down and then up which creates an effect similar to an oven. As the pig cooked, we only needed to turn the pig over once and when the cover came off after 4 hours of roasting, the pig revealed a glamorous golden color and scrumptious aroma. The skin or cracklins were heavenly, and when he was brought to the garden party, it was unmercilously set upon by the guests. The meat was moist, roasted and tasty, and proved that any good meal is dependent on taking one's time in preparation. I'm sure that if this pig roast took place in New York, we would have surely had it catered.... to save time.

Finally, to round out our protein-filled extravaganza of a weekend, we were delighted that our hosts decided to bring us to two Southern culinary institutions, Mary Mac's Tea Room and Chik-fil-A.

Mary Mac's Tea Room is known for it's delicious traditional Southern Fried Chicken. We decided to have the 4 piece half chicken which consisted of a leg, thigh, wing and breast. For $11.95, you were also given a choice of 2 sides, which we all decided to choose different ones, so as to try as many as possible. The fried chicken was indeed impressive, as the chicken had a tasty, lightly spiced batter. The chicken was not greasy and held it's moisture well. As for the side dishes, I had the macaroni and cheese and vegetable medley. I was a bit disappointed with the macaroni and cheese mainly because it didn't have the thick creamy base that I usually like. It actually tasted like as if an egg batter had been mixed into the recipe. The other sides were excellent, especially the vegetable soup, collard greens with cracklin' cornbread, the fried green tomatoes, broccoli souffle, and sweet potato souffle. Finally, the sweet tea was excellent.

Chik-fil-A was the next stop before catching the plane back to New York. Luckily for us, the original Chik-fil-A was located just 3 miles from Hartsfield Airport, so we were able to linger at the restaurant. We were seated at a counter that had a classic 1950's style look to it. What made the restaurant modern were the video menus mounted above counters. We were told that Chik-fil-A was institution in the South that was still privately owned and is always closed on Sundays. I was also told that the white meat chicken filets were cooked in a pressure cooker. As such, when we were served our classic Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich, we were pleased with the divine moistness of the white meat. The filet was nearly three-quarters of an inch thick. The deluxe came with freshly-cut waffle fries with lettuce, tomato, and a pile of sliced pickles. The meal was easily satisfying and the breading on the filet was unobtrusive. The filet was really the center of attention in this meal. I'm starting to become a fan of pressure cooking! Has anyone tried pressure cooked rice? The beverage of choice at Chik-fil-A is the real hand-squeezed lemonade and it did taste like hand-squeezed lemonade! Finally, to end our meal, we enjoyed the fried apple pie, a la mode with Ice Dream. The fried apple pie was alright, but what knocked us over was the Ice Dream. It is by far, the best soft serve ice cream I've ever had. It had the right richness, sweetness and tasted like real milk. It had excellent texture. I was tempted to get another cup on the way out, but my wife stopped me cold!

In a final note, I want warn cost-conscious travelers to avoid LaGuardia Airport's Terminal D for food. The food costs were outrageous as I found $3 bagels, $10 set meals at every fast food joint. I would assume that this is true for all of the other terminals at LaGuardia, but I have never see the prices so high, even at JFK.

So there, was my weekend, filled with food and catching up with friends and relatives. What made the weekend more remarkable was the depth of appreciation of good food from those whom I dined with. It was a pleasure and surely there is more, much more to enjoy in Atlanta!

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