This week, we’re going to visit a couple of my longtime favorites.
Grant Central Pizza & Pasta: I live about three blocks from this virtually historic spot in Grant Park and eat there so frequently I have dreams of my brain turning into lasagna. The restaurant is a classic neighborhood type. The food is always reliable and served by lunatics (in the best way). The menu never changes except for a daily special – and even those are the same from week to week.
Honestly, I practically never eat pizza here. It’s New York-style with a hefty crust. My personal favorite, when I do order it, is the white pizza with a few toppings. Occasionally, the kitchen produces a special Thai pizza and it’s always good – a bit spicy and a bit fruity.
My favorite special here is chicken piccata, served on Mondays. It’s a classic of two chicken-breast halves sautéed until glossy. It’s lemony, scattered with capers, and served atop a generous mound of mashed potatoes. Like most specials here there’s a side of broccoli.
If I miss a special, I order Miss Jean’s Pasta. She’s the bartender-manager who created the dish for herself. I’d never tasted it until a bowl was brought to my table one night by mistake. The contents: penne pasta, creamy marinara, Italian sausage, calamata olives, and fresh basil. People started ordering it regularly after I wrote about it elsewhere.
Tuesday night’s chicken parmesan is another zillion-calorie favorite. Some nights, chicken manicotti and shrimp linguine are available. Desserts, alas, are pretty mediocre.
The restaurant has a sizable dining room, but I like to eat in the bar area where I can read trash on my Kindle and phone while watching the staff. Their leader is Jessy, who has taught me how to watch television for the first time in my life. Amanda is a pregnant go-go dancer. Adam is a musician who is considering becoming a music therapist. I don’t know anything about the newest server, Josh. Miss Jean, by the way, holds a PhD and commiserates with me about the impracticality of such an expensive degree.
Prices are low. Specials rarely cost more than $12. (451 Cherokee Ave., 404-523-8900)
Havana Sandwich Shop: I was recently headed toward a favorite taqueria on Buford Highway when I noticed that this simple, iconic lunch spot that opened in 1976 and burned in 2008 has been rebuilt and reopened. I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed earlier. I was a frequent customer for years, in part because I was married briefly to a Cuban woman. (My love of her country’s food outlasted our love for one another. I’m gay, after all.)
The place looks eerily the same as it did from the beginning, as does the menu. The simple Cuban sandwich – pork, pickles, ham, mustard, and cheese between layers of crunchy grilled bread – will probably re-ascend to its longtime place as best in the city. The pork is gloriously flavorful. You can further amp up the flavor of this and any other dish with a squeeze of garlicky mojo from a bottle on every table.
Order half a sandwich with a bowl of black beans like none you’ve tasted and a pile of yellow rice topped with tomato sauce. Spoon the beans over the rice. Also back are the stews of ropa vieja and picadillo and you can eat them straight up or on sandwiches too. I could go on, but just go yourself. (2905 Buford Hwy., 404-636-4094)
Cliff Bostock is a longtime dining critic and psychotherapist turned life coach. www.cliffbostock.com.