Chai Pani.

Food: Places to dine away from the Pride pack

Pride is upon us. Ground Zero has always been Midtown and you can expect the restaurants to be packed, with long waits. That’s not terrible, since the whole mood of the weekend is festive.

But suppose you want a break, maybe to get to know your new crush—the person you met 15 hours earlier behind a portable potty in the park? Here are five inexpensive places that I recently visited. They should give you some space to breathe and enough quiet to chat.

The Crazy Cuban (290 14th St., 404-607-7348, This is open only for lunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday. It’s between Midtown and West Midtown, so the Pride crowd will likely be thinner.  You order from a menu of mainly traditional grilled and pressed Cuban sandwiches, all of them well under $10 and available in combos with black beans and rice, the only side dish beside chips.  You can get lettuce, tomato, jalapenos and onions on your sandwich, even though that is taboo in Cuban culture. My favorite is the roasted, marinated pork with Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. Skip the lettuce stuff—these aren’t submarines—or you’ll overwhelm the taste of the marinated, juicy pork. Almost all seating here is on a covered patio.

Queen of Sheba (1594 Woodcliff Drive, 404-321-1493, Atlanta has many Ethiopian restaurants and this is usually rated among the top three. If you’re a stranger to this cuisine, you should know that the typical eating implement is your hand. You tear off pieces of spongy sourdough bread called “injera” and scoop up the stews, roasted meats, and vegetables. Don’t worry, you can get forks and knives if you prefer. Recently a friend and I ordered two flaky pastries as appetizers. One was filled with lentils, onions and green peppers. My favorite was the beef tartare—raw ground beef seasoned with a spiced butter and mysterious powder. Both are served with a very spicy red sauce. My entrée was sautéed shrimp with chopped onions and peppers. My friend’s stew of lamb chunks seasoned with garlic, ginger, and turmeric was the more exotic and better choice. Plenty of vegetarian dishes are available too.

Chai Pani (406 W. Ponce de Leon, 404-378-4030, You can get to Decatur easily via the MARTA rail system. There are a lot of restaurants there but this relatively new one that serves Indian street food has gotten a lot of attention. Indeed, well-known Esquire critic John Mariani raved about it in January. (This is the sister operation of the same name in Asheville, N.C., which has also received huge numbers of rave reviews over its five years.) What’s the deal? Instead of the usual masala-this-and-tikka-that, Chai Pani, serves “hyper-authentic” small plates. Still, some have a Southern twang, like Bombay chili-cheese fries with lamb hash—regarded as the best dish by many. Another favorite is trendy kale fried in chickpea batter. You’ll also find exotic sandwiches, crepes filled with savory stews, and a few thalis – the traditional sample plates. There are lots of vegetarian options.

The Iberian Pig (121 Sycamore St., 404-371-8800, Even more convenient to the Decatur MARTA station, the Iberian Pig riffs on classic Spanish food. I don’t know anywhere else in our city that serves the cured meat of the famous acorn-fed Iberian pig. You would be a fool to eat here and not order it. Ditto for the famous sheep-milk Manchego cheese. I also love the Drunken Goat, which began showing up in Atlanta markets a few years back. It’s aged 75 days and soaked in red wine for three days. Tapas can be kinkier, like roasted pork cheeks with a poached egg and black truffles or grilled octopus with “jalapeno and Benton’s bacon pesto, potato confit, grilled lemon” and more. Main plates are limited and less threatening to the shy of palate. There’s a Wagyu-beef burger with bacon-onion relish, Mahon cheese, and butter lettuce, served with eggplant fries. This restaurant is moderately expensive, compared to the rest.

Chef Liu (5283 Buford Hwy., 770-936-0532). I dine every Friday night with a group of friends. In three years, I think we’ve visited this restaurant more than any other. I’ve written about it before, but I’d hate for Pride visitors hungry for Chinese food to miss it. You’ll need wheels to get there, since it’s on Buford Highway, which is crowded with ethnic restaurants of every type. Chef Liu specializes in dumplings of all kinds. Everyone’s favorite is Xiao Long bao buns, which are filled with a dollop of seasoned ground pork. The delicate orbs pop open in the mouth and release a tablespoon or so of an intense broth. Absolutely don’t miss them. I also like the cold sesame noodles with red pepper, the fennel dumplings, the scallion pancakes, and the grilled lamb dishes. Whatever you eat, you’re going to like it.
(Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a longtime Atlanta dining critic and a former psychotherapist who now offers collaborative life coaching, specializing in clients with creative blocks of all sorts.)