Eating Good Food Badly During Anime Weekend Atlanta

One thing is inescapably true: it’s incredibly difficult to eat well during any kind of convention. I must have hit a new low during Anime Weekend Atlanta at the beginning of the month. Oh, I had some pretty good meals, to be sure, but I didn’t temper them with, you know, vegetables or exercise or anything esoteric like that. It was like Fried Food Fest or something. Anyway, here’s a report on what I did to my arteries during the con, and why I spent the next few days eating a little more sensibly.

Friday’s lunch was a trip to Big Chow Grill, a regular Anime Weekend destination, in the company of my baby and two other very small guests. I met up with my friends Laura, Elizabeth and Jessica, none of whom I ever see enough of, and Jessica’s two small children, one aged two and the other just three weeks. It was observed that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes four people to have lunch and take care of three younguns. Things got so chaotic with loud little ones that I phoned my daughter for backup and had her wheel my baby into the mall to calm him down for a little bit. Big Chow was as good as ever – I had one medium-sized bowl of spicy stir-fried chicken over rice and a second medium-sized bowl of spicier stir-fried chicken over egg noodles – and our service was exemplary.

Marie was able to get to the show a little after six, and while my daughter continued being wild and twelve, Marie and I took the baby out for supper. We made it over to Smyrna’s US Cafe, a favorite of some of our family that I’ve been putting off revisiting for far too long.

We’ve never eaten at US Cafe as much as I would like, because, unaccountably, my daughter does not like the place. Neither does my brother, and whenever we would be visiting my mom and dad, he would always veto going there, even though it was so close by. It’s a very family-friendly sports bar, full of screaming kids, pool tables and big games on the TVs. For some, I’m sure it must be hell on earth, but the burgers and wings are very good and, of all things, the salsa they serve with the chips is just heavenly.

I’ve always liked this place a good deal, and my dad was friendly with the owners. He liked coming here a lot, and really liked the milkshakes. I had been putting off a visit, knowing I’d get sad thinking about my father, particularly with him not around to talk about football this season. But I was in the mood for a burger, and I don’t know whether there’s one better in the Smyrna area, so I bit my lip and we had a good meal.

Saturday morning, I probably should have had a small bowl of melons and blueberries for breakfast, but, as recounted in the previous chapter, we went to Mountain Biscuits and I had one with country ham and one with lots of syrup. Then for lunch, I met up with Matt at another sports bar, the Galleria’s Jocks and Jills, to watch the Georgia game.

There used to be several more Jocks and Jills locations in town, but according to their website, there’s just the one left, in the Cobb Galleria, where, presumably, the ground rent is a little manageable. There’s also one in Macon and another in Charlotte. It’s a sprawling sports bar with several rooms, including a space upstairs that is occupied during game time by Atlanta’s Rutgers Club. I tend not to pay much attention to what goes on in conferences other than the SEC (and now I have one and maybe two more teams to follow, so thanks a million, Slive), but while we were there, it looked like Rutgers was having a rough time of it at the hands of Syracuse.

When I watch a game out, I typically have an appetizer over the course of the first half, and then order an entree towards the end of halftime, and then tip quite generously for hogging a table for so long. This time I had some nachos – in a rare concession to health this weekend, I asked them to go very, very light on the cheese – and, later, some hamburger sliders with homemade chips. The food was acceptable and the service fantastic, but I wouldn’t go here unless I wanted to watch a game.

I only got a little bit of con time on Saturday before going to my mother’s house, which is closer than my own to the con, to change. I went to go see Bryan Ferry with David and a couple of his friends from “back in the day,” Tom and Patt, with whom he was haunting clubs thirty years before. Bry was playing the same venue, Chastain Park, where I first saw him in 1988. Heck of a good show, if perhaps not his best, and enlivened by guitarist Chris Spedding ripping the absolute hell out of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.”

Afterwards, David said that he was in the mood for greasy burgers. I found myself not really feeling like arguing. So we ended up at a Steak ‘n Shake, where I ate the new Fritos Chili Cheeseburger, which is the absolute last thing anybody on the planet needs to eat at midnight. It’s two patties, a slice of pepperjack, shredded cheese, chili and jalapeno peppers. Evidently, I didn’t really feel like avoiding a heart attack, either, eating such a thing at midnight. There were several other late-evening revelers from the convention, all costumed up, all similarly damaging their arteries. It sure was good, though.

I ate better on Sunday. Promise.

Update, 4/5/12: Some months later, months which, I swear, I ate better, I stopped by US Cafe’s other Cobb County location. This smaller “express” outlet is a lot less noisy, but the burgers and shakes are just as good.

Other blog posts about US Cafe:

Atlanta Restaurant Blog (Dec. 9 2010)
A Hamburger Today (Apr. 3 2012)

Osteria del Figo Pasta, Atlanta GA

Our Nashville-based friends Brooke and Tory came to town for Dragon*Con, and we had our usual Sunday night get-together with them during all that madness. I have to thank the convention for never scheduling anything unmissable on Sunday evenings, although this year, a special screening of an episode of Torchwood, with commentary by one of the actors, did mean we got together slightly later than I would have hoped.

I picked them up at the hotel while Marie and the children went ahead to Osteria del Figo on Howell Mill. I figured that we’d ask our guests what sort of food they were in the mood for and have a nearby restaurant already selected to breeze them there. I’m pretty sure I had every reasonable possibility other than pasta covered. If it wasn’t just down the street from our own house, twenty miles north of downtown, we’d probably have gone to Frankie’s, but I was momentarily stumped about a good, inexpensive Italian place near the convention hotels. A quick little look over Urbanspoon suggested this would be a good choice, and it really was.

The restaurant is easy to find; it is on the corner of Howell Mill and Huff, and it appears to have ample parking, which is kind of a rarity in this neighborhood. There’s a too-small airlock area, where guests line up to place their orders with a cashier. This part is a little slow, owing to a dense menu utterly full of possibilities. There are a good number of house specials, but also similar “build your own pasta” creations like you see at some of the larger national chains, with 18 sauces over 25 noodle selections. Speaking of which, there are currently seven Figo locations in Atlanta, but they don’t appear to have expanded to other cities. Most of the combinations here start at $8, and you can add meats for various prices. Figo prides itself on its meatballs, offered in a variety of recipes, for $1.50 each. This is a good place to get quite a lot of food for a reasonable price.

It looks like you can make some really fun meals up here. I went with spinach ravioli with amatriciana sauce, which is a red sauce with pancetta, tomatoes, peppers and olive oil. It was terrific. Marie had primavera over linguine and our daughter had pesto sauce over penne noodles. I am keen to visit again for lunch one day and give the artichoke ravioli with four cheese sauce a try. First Bite had that when she visited a couple of years ago and it looks very tasty.

As we waited for our food, we talked about visiting Nashville in a couple of months. This has been pretty much the longest I have gone without a trip to Nashville in a decade, and frankly, I miss the place, but this has been something of a ridiculous and crazy and busy year. So I tossed out a skeleton of a plan of what I’d like to do when we get there, and one or two places that I’d like to visit or revisit. Naming all these wonderful restaurants and wonderful meals had me quite hungry for my ravioli!

Well, after we had talked about Prince’s and Rotier’s and Ellington Place and Mas Tacos and Pied Piper and other such yummy places, and let the baby get lots of love and cuddling and attention, we enjoyed a really good meal. The food here is simply splendid, and we all enjoyed sampling each others’ dishes. Pasta really was a fine idea of Brooke’s, honestly. I’m very glad that we tried this place.

After we ate, the baby let us know that he really was in the mood to go home and be nursed and go to bed, so my daughter and I drove the ladies back to their hotel, but not before stopping at Flip Burger Boutique for a milkshake. I was sorry that Marie missed out, but Flip, incredibly noisy and ridiculous, isn’t baby-friendly at all. Unfortunately, they were out of the requested Cap’n Crunch shakes, but we enjoyed the Peach Melba and Krispy Kreme and Strawberry Shortcake and the remarkably curious Burnt Marshmellow with Nutella. (“It tastes like camping,” Tory exclaimed.) Everybody visiting Atlanta should try one of these.

There was a really odd loop of music videos going on the bar here, including Radiohead and, of all things, “Primary” by the Cure, which still strikes me as very odd to see anywhere other than the old Staring at the Sea VHS. My daughter is currently totally in love with the lead singer of My Chemical Romance. I pointed out the Cure, told her, truly, that MCR pilfered every idea it’s ever had from the Cure and, back before he ate all the pies, 1981-model Robert Smith was an awfully good-looking fellow. She disagreed with emphasis. Then I pointed out the bassist, Simon Gallup, and told my daughter that the girl I took to the prom was more totally in love with him in 1988 than she is with Gerard Way, today. She had to pause on that point. I never got much in the way of follow-up.

(Update, 11/12/11): As I promised myself weeks ago, I tried that artichoke ravioli with four cheese sauce. Marie and I went with our daughter and Neal to the Figo in Vinings and gave it a try.

It was every bit as tasty as I had hoped. My daughter had the paprika penne with arriabiatta sauce and was also very pleased with it.

Other blog posts about Figo:

Spice’s Bites (June 18 2010)
Dine With Dani (Oct. 28 2010)
cibo, vino e vino (Mar. 9 2011)

The Burger Club, Vinings GA (CLOSED)

Perhaps unjustly absent from the ongoing tales I tell on this blog is a sense of history and place. We live in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, a town with many very good restaurants but few claims to culinary originality and superiority. Atlanta in fact has almost no claims to a solid tradition in any one style of dining. The city is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Except hamburgers. There is not a population center anywhere in this country with as many excellent burger joints as Atlanta. I could write about nothing but burgers here for months and not scratch the surface. The Wall Street Journal agrees that, between Ann’s Snack Bar and The Vortex, we’re untouchable. That’s not to say that better individual burgers might not be out there in your own town – in point of fact, take thirty bucks to a little place I know in Vermont in the summer and you will be served a burger so many times superior to any you’ve ever had that you will weep, knowing the game is over – but shack for shack and joint for joint, the batting average of Atlanta beats the hell out of any other city in America.

We’ve come up with some pretty crazy concoctions to enhance the beauty of burgers in this town. It’s certainly enough to grill or fry a perfect patty, but only in Atlanta would somebody come up with the Luther Burger, which dispenses with the bun and serves the patty between two halves of a Krispy Kreme doughnut, and named for crooner Luther Vandross. Mulligan’s, the joint that came up with the recipe, closed a few years ago, but not before giving their seal of approval to Turner Field to continue the tradition at Braves games.

Over the last decade, while perfecting their recipes for perfect burgers and debating the merits of angus versus kobe beef, a few places have also tinkered with oddball experiments like the Luther. Over in Vinings, the Burger Club, a family restaurant run by the team behind the upscale Paul’s and Social Vinings, has a dozen or so weird and wonderful house specialties on the menu. Among them, their own take on the Luther. Called the Artery Annihilator, this doughnutty mess also includes bacon and cheese. No, I didn’t order one; I’m in rotten enough shape as it is and don’t want my arteries annihilated.

Fortunately for us all, my son was in town this week.

So the Burger Club moved into a space vacated by an Atlanta Bread Company that had been there forever. It’s on Paces Ferry Road, right in the heart of Vinings, next door to the fire station. It’s slightly separate from the Vinings Jubilee open-air mini-mall, where my bored crowd of high school punks would often go on Friday evenings in the late ’80s after we’d been kicked out of Cumberland. The parking lot has space for about two dozen Smart cars, or two Cadillacs. Since my parents wanted to take their precious grandson to supper, but drive nothing but Cadillacs, parking was a challenge.

Me, I had the Gastro Pub Burger, which is served with bacon and a blend of red onion marmalade and Roquefort cheese, with tater tots on the side. The burger was indeed a good one, but heaven only knows why I can’t resist these darn tots. Perhaps because I just had onion rings the day before, I passed on those, but surely any of their sides would have a little more oomph to them than a bag of frozen Ore-Ida brand tots, no matter whether I sprinkle a little salt on them or not.

In fact, my dad, who, like my mother and Marie, just had a basic beef burger without any of the specialty trimmings, said that his onion rings were among the best he’s ever had. Then again, he always eats his onion rings with Heinz 57 sauce. Nobody has a lot of sympathy for that.

But my son, well, he had his arteries annihilated. He was last heard muttering something about a “perfect blend of savory and sweet” before lapsing into a coma. Normally I’d have a bite, but I’m trying to cut down on the life-ending things. Back when I was making mistakes in 2004, though, I’d probably have had a dozen a day. It was that kind of year.

(Sadly, The Burger Club closed in December, 2010.)