The Real Chow Baby, Atlanta GA

There probably won’t be quite so many features in this column about restaurants as unabashedly corporate as this one, but since The Real Chow Baby is, at this stage, just a local chain with only two locations, I think it will be acceptable to write about it. I’m willing to overlook the small army of attractive young servers in matching black t-shirts and headsets, although they do reinforce the feeling that somebody’s investment in these restaurants is far more financial than emotional.

Real Chow Baby opened its first restaurant on Howell Mill some years ago, and a second in 2008 in the Cobb Galleria Center, giving area residents, at long last, a reason to actually set foot inside this misbegotten mall other than the annual Anime Weekend Atlanta convention. The Galleria’s been an embarrassment for a really long time now. When I was in middle school, it was opened with so much hoopla – an upscale mall! an AMC theater with eight screens! a video arcade with an airlock! – but it languished, a sad suburban wannabe that looked longingly at Phipps Plaza and just wished it could be that cool.

I guess about ten years ago, Cobb County finally took pity on the diseased beast, which had been coughing blood since the cinema closed, and gutted the upper floor of the mall, transforming it, quite impressively, into an extension of a mid-sized convention center that connected, above and across the shopping area, to the Waverly Hotel on the mall’s far side. There is still, nevertheless, a lot of vacant real estate inside. The excellent Sky City blog provided a terrific photoessay about the Galleria last October, which you can go read. The mall hasn’t changed a jot since those photos were taken, indeed since the top floor was converted to conference rooms and the Eckanakar people put in a reading room years ago, except that a gallery of horrible art across from Jock’s and Jill’s closed . And Sky City’s writer is quite right: unless a trade show’s in town, you’d think this mall had long been abandoned.

I overlooked the Real Chow Baby when we first noticed it during AWA 2008, but last year, Marie and I found ourselves free from children for a few hours on Friday and elected to have supper there, since it was so close to the con and looked reasonably nice. I was so taken with it that I asked whether she’d mind excusing ourselves and going back for lunch the next day. I never, never do that.

I’ve been so taken with The Real Chow Baby that I’ve eaten there probably twenty times since the con last September. They serve a stir-fry buffet, where you build a bowl from a huge array of ingredients. You can start with white or brown rice or four different pastas, work your way through dozens of veggies, add ladles of seventeen different sauces, about seven meats and then about a dozen spices. The potential for experimentation, while not mathematically endless, is pretty darn huge.

Fortunately, Marie likes this place almost as much as I do, and it didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to persuade her that bowls full of stir-fry were exactly what she wanted for her birthday dinner last week. (She had two birthday dinners, because she’s that awesome, and I’ll tell you about the second in a couple of days.) Our daughter and I met Marie after work on Friday, where there is usually a pretty good crowd of weekend revelers and families. We each sampled three bowls and enjoyed all but one of them.

Now, three bowls of stir fry sounds like a lot, and it would be, if you foolishly piled high with the food. You see, a one-trip dinner order at Real Chow Baby runs you $11.99 on the weekends – lunch is only eight – but for a buck more, you can have unlimited trips to the buffet. This is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. If you make yourself just a teeny bowl with no more than two ladles of sauce, then you can sample several different flavors, and mix and match sauce offerings without worrying about whether you’ve gorged yourself stupid. I like to start with a medium-sized bowl, very heavy on the hot spices, and then have two smaller bowls with milder taste.

Marie’s second concoction of the night mixed black bean sauce and hot mustard over white rice. None of us liked it very much, but it didn’t really matter, because you can abandon something you don’t enjoy and try something different. If you can exercise enough willpower to keep your portion sizes reasonable, then this is definitely a place to provide you with an excellent meal or twenty.

(Update: On July 19 2010, this location split off from the other and became known as “Big Chow Grill.”)

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