Grindhouse Killer Burgers, Atlanta GA

Wow. You can really see the malaise creeping in everywhere. There really is a backlash against burger places in Atlanta. I think the hawt new trend right now is frozen yogurt places – Lord knows why – and so news like the opening of Grindhouse Killer Burgers’ second location is met with rolled eyes and collective yawns. The original is a lunch-only place on Edgewood in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. I confess that I’ve never been there, nor to any curb market for that matter, but seriously, a good burger is worth celebrating, no matter how many burger joints this city has.

Tell me that Chicago foodies don’t act like this. Tell me that nobody in the Windy City acts like they’re too cool for school when somebody opens a new place to get an Italian beef. Marie and I, we get interested and excited when we hear about someplace good to eat. As should you. If it’s a good burger, it should be talked about.

Grindhouse’s burgers are indeed pretty darn good, but they are also kind of small and pricey. This might end up being a bit tricky.

They’ve opened in a great location, right next door to that ridiculous car wash on Piedmont with the occasionally animatronic gorilla out front. There’s a large outdoor patio that might have tempted us on a cooler day, but with Atlanta suffering a heat wave and temperatures in the mid-90s, we stayed indoors. Marie, the baby and I stopped by on a Thursday just as they opened and just before a giant crowd from a nearby office came in and took forever to place their orders and then occupied about a third of the table space.

I really like the interior. There’s one wall near the restrooms with a huge white “blood” spatter that serves as the screen for a loop of godawful ’70s exploitation films. When we were there, the movie of the moment was one of those Golden Harvest films where ninjas fight monks, and men argue in serious subtitles about the superiority of Shaolin kung fu over modern martial arts. Sadly, two of the other TVs were showing that dumb game show set in a taxi. It sort of dampened the mood.

The burgers were really good, but I was disappointed with the size. They’re about as big as the ones your middle school served, and for the $6.25 that I paid for my apache-style burger, it didn’t seem like I got very much. I was really hungry again a few hours later, anyway. I picked that burger based on a recommendation from our local alt-weekly Creative Loafing, who, last month, named it one of 100 Dishes to Eat in Atlanta Before You Die. With lots of oozy, melted pepperjack, onions and peppers, it’s sort of a patty melt on a hamburger bun. It was excellent, but too darn small. Nevertheless, I’m curious about some of the other concoctions on the menu. I might have to try the one with pimento cheese and fried green tomatoes sometime soon. Marie had a burger with cheddar, lettuce, tomato and avocado and was also pleased, and we shared some mighty good crinkle-fries that were perfectly crispy and salty.

But the thing that tipped it from “good but disappointing” into “we’ll be back again” was the chocolate malt. Marie was raving about that thing all day. She says, wildly, that it was an even better chocolate malt than the one she had the week before at Chapman Drugs in Hapeville. Hmmm. Yes, I wish you got a little more meat for your money here, but you can’t argue with a chocolate malt that good, I suppose. I guess that I’ll be having one of those Dixie burgers sooner rather than later.

Other blog posts about Grindhouse:

The Cynical Cook (May 18 2011)
A Hamburger Today (June 7 2011 – same day as this one!)
Atlanta Etc. (July 3 2011)
Fervent Foodie (Oct. 4 2011)
The Quest for the Perfect Burger (Nov. 23 2011)


Taco Cabana, Atlanta GA (CLOSED)

You can’t miss this restaurant at the intersection of Piedmont and Monroe. It’s the place that looks like the two fellows from Miami Vice are about to beat up on the guy bringing in all the cocaine in his DeLorean. Taco Cabana has always been this garish, and that’s part of why they spent about six years in court defending their look.

In the late eighties and early nineties, this spot was occupied by a nearly-identical restaurant called Two Pesos. This was the only Atlanta location of a chain that had started in Houston in 1985. I ate here several times when I was in high school and when I came home during my first year of college. In fact, my very first car – and here’s an odd memory – died for good one night after a meal here. It was a wonderful, gigantic 1979 Oldsmobile Delta 88 and that great beauty would have driven me to Europe and back, had I asked. I was having car trouble all day, and fretted with two friends at Two Pesos what I would do if it couldn’t be repaired. Well, it couldn’t. It cranked twice more, once when I left the restaurant after a horrible, grinding shriek of metal, and once, for the final time, after it conked out again at a traffic light down the road. So Two Pesos was my last meal with that Oldsmobile.

What I didn’t know then was that Two Pesos was already years into a losing battle defending their business. Two Pesos had been started by some businessmen, allied with a former manager of one of San Antonio’s Taco Cabana stores, in 1985. Within a couple of years, Two Pesos had blanketed Texas with locations, and the much slower-growing Taco Cabana found themselves facing competition from a lookalike copycat which had established themselves in cities like Houston and Dallas, flinging locations as far afield as Colorado and Georgia to establish themselves ahead of where Taco Cabana could go.

So Taco Cabana sued Two Pesos for ripping off their look, feel, design, store layout and menu to such a degree that customers were left confused as to which came first. The Supreme Court eventually weighed in Taco Cabana’s favor. Left with a lower court order to completely reconstruct every one of their existing stores, Two Pesos elected instead to sell out to Taco Cabana. The Atlanta store was remade and remodeled into a Taco Cabana over the course of about an afternoon.

I’m not sure why I never popped back by the business, whatever its name, after that fateful evening when my car cranked for the last time. I remember they always had decent food at great prices, but the road just never took me by again. Well, not when I was ready for a meal there, anyway. Years and years passed and I read about the slugfest that the two restaurants had in court and figured that I should stop by again. It might make a readable story, if nothing else. Or something weird might happen.

Now, one thing that I didn’t like about my trip to Taco Cabana is that they don’t have chips, although they offer them. For ninety-nine cents, you get a pair of flour tortillas that you can rip into small pieces and eat with their tasty salsas. Somebody should tell that guy behind the register that those aren’t chips. So I had two tortillas along with a platter of two chicken tacos, rice and beans. I asked for one hard shell and one soft in order to sample some different flavors, and thought that chicken was very good for this sort of food. There was nothing very unusual or weird in my meal, but it was a step or two up from what you’d get at a similar place, and priced right. I liked the layout and the big patio space, which is probably quite fun and relaxing in warmer weather.

So then I went to my car and it would not start. I turned the key and nothing happened. The whole electrical system was not responding.

I know this must be impossible to believe, but twenty-one years after my Oldsmobile sputtered and died after I had a meal in this building, I came here for the first time and the hotdamned restaurant killed my Camry. You want to tell me the odds of that?

Turned out I had one of those very rare car problems that I can actually solve. One of the battery terminals had a loose connection. I avoided a freakout, shook my head in disbelief, popped the hood, jiggled it, bit my lip, tried again, thanked God and drove, nerves wracked, to my brother, who spent a few minutes replacing bits and tightening things and making sure I was roadworthy again.

I figure Taco Cabana is surely the safest restaurant in the city now. My car’s had problems there twice. It’s like Garp buying that house in John Irving’s novel after an airplane crashes into it. There’s just no way in the universe I could possibly have car problems there three times, right?

The Colonnade, Atlanta GA

If you grew up in a southern household, you simply must visit The Colonnade to have your mind blown by this menu. They serve things here that your mother or your grandmother regularly prepared and which you had completely forgotten. Last week, Marie and our daughter and I joined David and Neal for supper here. All three of us fellows had the same eye-popping reaction to the same thing. “Pears and cheese?! My mom used to make that!” With grated sharp cheddar cheese and mayo. It must have been in the secret handbook assigned by Betty Crocker to all housewives in Georgia and neighboring states between 1964 and 1975.

One of the other amazing things on the menu is tomato aspic. This savory gelatin was apparently a somewhat common dish in postwar America, until the Jell-O company turned families onto the idea of gelatin as a sweet dessert instead. “Oh, Lord,” said Neal, sampling a half-spoonful of my order. “It tastes like V-8 Jell-O.” Turns out he’s exactly right. I found a recipe for tomato aspic which calls for tomato juice, Tabasco and bay leaf along with two envelopes of unflavored gelatin. The curiosity and novelty didn’t overwhelm the reality that it wasn’t very good, but as I told Neal as I encouraged him to give it a taste, when the heck else are you going to have the chance to try tomato aspic in a restaurant?

Naturally, I had to try both of these at the Colonnade, as they’re both missing from the menus of darn near every other restaurant around. So is calf’s liver, among others, but I had to draw the line somewhere. No, I just had your common-or-garden chicken livers. Nothing adventurous here.

The Colonnade is one of Atlanta’s oldest surviving restaurants. Only the Atkins Park Tavern is older. It opened in 1927 at the intersection of Piedmont and Lindbergh, in a house that was torn down before I was born. In 1962, the Colonnade moved to its present location on Cheshire Bridge Road in front of that unbelievably skeevy motel. I know this must come as a shock to Atlantans to hear a motel on Cheshire Bridge described as skeevy, but I calls ’em as I sees ’em.

We were mistaken on one point about the Colonnade. Looking over all these old-fashioned, timelost dishes on the menu along with the fried chicken and collard greens, we all assumed, quite wrongly, that the only things to have changed here over the decades are the prices. However, in the lobby, there is a collection of old menus from earlier days, and it would appear that curiosities like the aspic and the pear and cheese are actually relatively new. Along with the menus, there are also some newspaper and magazine reviews. One of these features the ridiculous headline “PATRONS PRAISE GOOD PLACE TO EAT.” When I wrote for a newspaper in Athens, I occasionally wanted to smack the copy editors around with a baseball bat for all the awful headlines they wrote for my articles, but lordy, I never had one that bad.

There has been one very unfortunate change at the restaurant, but it’s not one that I knew about for a couple of days. We noticed in the lobby the requisite framed, autographed poster of Guy Fieri spotlighting the Colonnade’s appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I tracked down the clip – they’re on YouTube – and was surprised to see that the Food Network series visited the Colonnade during a period where they were experimenting with some really fascinating concoctions no longer available. So if you’re a Triple-D fan making your way around the country hitting the featured restaurants – and a fine use of your time that would be – it looks like you cannot currently get the redneck sushi, the lobster knuckle sandwich or, tragically, the kangaroo sirloin. Look, I like chicken livers all right, but if I’d seen kangaroo steak on the menu, that’s what I would have ordered. The Colonnade’s brief flirtation with new, wild and a little weird has ended, and they’re back to the basics, serving up fine dining the way that your grandmother knew it.

I did find one note about the fine dining experience a little unusual, however. All of the service was very good, and we enjoyed our server’s choosing to answer Marie’s request for a recommendation in reverse. Rather than telling her what he liked best, he told her the two dishes that he did not enjoy, suggesting that she’d like anything else that she ordered, and she did. But I was a little surprised at the register. The Colonnade does not accept credit cards. That’s just fine by me; I don’t like to use credit cards. (I also play Where’s George?, so it’s important that I keep ones in circulation!) I tried not to be confrontational about it, but I was curious about the policy. “I think that’s so neat that y’all don’t take credit cards. I don’t use them either, but I was wondering why you don’t.” I guess the lady at the register gets that a lot, only rudely. “We just don’t. We never have.” That’s all the answer that she wanted to give.

So much for curiosity, but then again, I think the Colonnade is older than credit cards, and they can make that choice. The rest of you, swing by your bank’s ATM first.

Other blog posts about the Colonnade:

Atlanta Foodies (May 12 2007)
Atlanta etc. (Feb. 28 2009)

The Varsity Jr., Atlanta GA (CLOSED)

I knew that at some point, Marie and I would have to use the blog to spread the unfortunate word about a much-loved restaurant closing, and write up an obituary tribute. I certainly never expected that I would be doing this about The Varsity Jr. on Lindbergh Drive and I’m still amazed that we’re saying goodbye to it before we had the chance to take the camera down to the main location on North Avenue for a proper entry on this Atlanta landmark.

According to the restaurant, it’s a stupid problem with city politics that have doomed the landmark after forty-five years. In a letter to their customers (available as well on the restaurant’s website), the owners explain that the time was long past for an overhaul of the old building, but their architects could not come to an agreement with the city planners. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one sticking point was the number of driveways, of all things.

This has almost coincided with the groundbreaking of a new Varsity up north in Dawsonville. Apart from the two inside the perimeter and one in Athens, there have long been suburban Varsities northward up all three arteries out of the city, in Norcross, Alpharetta and within walking distance of us in Kennerietta. There is also, incidentally, a really small mini-Varsity in Waleska on the campus of Reinhardt College. I thought that was top secret city lore, but somebody blabbed it onto Wikipedia. Anyway, so the Varsity Jr. is effectively moving to Dawsonville, leaving behind a lot of history and memories.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, Atlanta was suffering a heat wave that would make the current one seem like an autumn breeze. I was driving around my circuit of record stores that August in my second car, a giant, two-door Oldsmobile Delta 88 without air conditioning. I felt like I was about to pass out from the heat, and I stopped into the Varsity Jr. to cool off.

I haven’t thought about this in years, and my present-day self is a little sheepishly embarrassed by how silly I was acting at age eighteen, but I remember that I ordered two small Varsity Oranges – not the better known “F.O.” Frosted Orange, but their tasty not-very-carbonated drink – and a large cup of ice water. I sat in the dining room and slowly drank one of the orange sodas and then took the other drinks outside into the hundred-and-seven degree heat. I took a deep breath, lifted the water cup above my head and slowly poured that out over me. I’m sure that it felt very good at the time. I was an ostentatious kid.

I have lots of silly memories about the place. Many of them seem to have a little sadness around the edges. When my son was just a few weeks old, he decided to go live at Scottish Rite for a month with supraventricular tachycardia. His mother and I subsided on hospital food for several days before I ventured out to get something tasty. I brought back two boxes from Varsity Jr. and stood in an elevator with about six other sad-eyed parents and visitors and grease running up both my sleeves. “Boy, that smells good,” one of them said. By the time we reached the intensive care floor, I was lucky to escape with all my food.

I also remember something really unhappy. The Varsity Jr.’s location was absolutely perfect for a quick walk before or after a movie at the Tara Theater across the street. About five years ago, I took a young lady to see Howl’s Moving Castle. We were on our way to the restaurant for a late dinner afterwards and she started spinning a yarn about an ex-boyfriend that she claimed was stalking her. The subsequent conversation, after we got our food, about the constant danger she felt turned out to be both a gigantic warning sign and a great big old lie that still actively aggravates me. There’s not been a meal here since that I didn’t feel the desire to stand in front of that booth, reach backwards in time and punch myself in the jaw.

On Saturday, Marie and the kids and I had an early lunch here to say goodbye. Between us, we had three burgers with pimento cheese and four dogs, two with slaw, one with chili and one naked. We had two orders of fries, one order of rings, two FOs and one small Coke. Only a mild case of indigestion and artery-clogging followed.

We’ll have to get to the main location again before too much longer and write that up. Heaven knows I direct enough tourists that direction every week; I’m rather overdue. But Cheshire Bridge and Lindbergh without a Varsity is just crazy talk. Where are we supposed to eat after seeing a movie at the Tara now?

Roxx Tavern, Atlanta GA

I’m already more amused than annoyed that the British group Swing Out Sister had to cancel their American tour because of that volcano in Iceland. With air traffic in England grounded, they had no choice but to close the whole thing down. I was looking forward to seeing them, don’t get me wrong, but the disappointment is already fading, and I suppose that it will make an interesting, albeit short, tale for the old folks’ home.

It did, however, leave us with a Thursday night free. David, who had organized the tickets for the concert, suggested that Marie and I join him for supper at Roxx Tavern on Cheshire Bridge Road, and Neal was able to join us as well. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the place before, despite driving past it what must be dozens of times. It’s set up in an old McDonald’s, with the former playground area repurposed into a large patio. The weather was absolutely perfect for a nice evening out in the city, both enjoying Neal’s wonderful new convertible and eating outdoors. It’s not so hot yet that we need air conditioning. Yet.

Roxx serves everything from burgers to meat loaf to veggie platters, with daily specials including things like tacos or spaghetti and meatballs. Marie, who had the Chicken “Roman Holiday” pictured above, and I have debated a bit about what to call restaurants like this, and we’ve settled on “classic American.” Not that we frequent chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s – although I have been known to darken Applebee’s door on occasions past when the Gwinnett Gladiators scored a power play goal and everybody in the arena can turn in their ticket for a buy one-get one free offer – but that’s the sort of place we’re talking about. It has a big bar and it pretends to be the neighborhood “spot,” you know? Except Roxx is the real thing; their food is really quite good and presented with a unique and fun kick to it. The menu is very large and presented with some amusing house rules of expected conduct, printed with a tip of the hat to the Vortex and its hilarious, similar document of customer expectations.

Most of their appetizers have silly names. After some consideration, I decided on the potato ruins – twice-fried wedges – instead of the Elvis pickles (figure it out). David said that their meat loaf was amazing, so I gave it a try. It was indeed very good and was served with a flavorful red sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy and an enormous side of succotash with lima beans, corn and tomatoes.

David had a salad and Greek chicken and Neal had a great big burger with homemade potato chips. Marie’s chicken was completely wonderful, and I was left once again with menu envy. At the very least, I should have gone with the Elvis pickles to start and had chips instead of mashed potatoes. By the end of the meal, I was really feeling like I overdid things, which is not a feeling I often experience. Just as well I didn’t try to finish with a fried twinkie, really.

Other blog posts about Roxx:

The Cynical Cook (Oct. 4 2011)
Amy on Food (Nov. 4 2011)