Once upon a time, according to internet gossip, there was a kitschy, fun burger joint on Buford Highway called Oogleblook. It was opened by the Morrison’s Cafeteria people in the late 1960s, along with one on Pharr Road.
Both closed in the 1970s, but the circular buildings, reportedly inspired by “The Jetsons,” have been home to numerous tenants ever since. The one on Buford Highway has housed Chinese restaurants over the years, the most recent being 1968 at Café 101 (5412 Buford Highway, 770-458-8399).
The “1968” refers to the year the current chef started his career, while “Café 101” was the name of the previous restaurant at that location.
Confused? Welcome to Buford Highway, where ethnic restaurants probably number well over 100. The specialty at Café 101 is Szechuan cuisine, but there are plenty of dishes from other regions. I like Szechuan for its typically fiery and numbing peppers. It’s the signature dish of the supremely talented Peter Chang, the famous bad-boy chef who did brief stints at the Tasty China restaurants in Atlanta (now defunct) and Marietta. As has been his longtime habit, Chang disappeared overnight, along with his remarkable artistry.
Friends and I visited 101 on a recent Friday night. The building’s interior is looking a bit shabby these days. Its famous huge wall still displays hundreds of decoupaged images of beautiful people, but they are looking aged by the wall’s yellowing. Multilevel booths ring the round space and, weirdly, all the customers during our visit were white.
Unfortunately, the food does doesn’t really measure up to Szechuan faves like Gu‘s Bistro, Little Szechuan, and Chong Qing Hot Pot. But it’s great fun to be a Jetson in a Chinese restaurant with the most engagingly sassy server I’ve encountered in many years. Of course, like nearly every server in every authentic Asian restaurant on Buford Highway, she kept directing our attention to dishes that she obviously thought were compatible with the bland Atlanta palate. It is true that I’m not crazy about offal—spicy intestines and kidneys, for example—but I do like super-hot food.
Our food, served in huge portions, was quite safe for the lame of tongue. My plate of cumin lamb—another of Peter Chang’s specialties—tasted good enough, but lacked his ferocious heat. Also, cumin is a tricky spice. In moderation, it just tastes like cumin, not my favorite smelly spice. But cranked up with unthinkable quantity, it takes on incredible depth of flavor.
Tangerine chicken hit the spot. The tangerine skins were cooked until leathery, but they exuded their entire fruity flavor.
Basil chicken was probably the best dish on the table. We saw no leaves, but their flavor suffused the dish. All the entrees were in a heavy brown sauce. I like brown sauces in moderation and, fortunately, a couple of small plates—vegetable dumplings and a classic scallion pancake—provided some relief from the heaviness. Adding a drizzle of hot chili oil helped break up the oily flavors. As I said, the portions are huge and a single appetizer could fill anyone. In other words, be judicious in placing your order.
The Pig and the Pearl Opens
The much-anticipated The Pig and the Pearl (1380 Atlantic Ave., 404-541-0930) in Atlantic Station opened recently. This is the second restaurant of Cindy Shera and Todd Martin, who operate the Shed at Glenwood. As the name suggests, this restaurant features a raw bar and pork barbecue, mainly smoked. Heading the kitchen here and at the Shed is the immensely talented Todd Richards, who has a gift for riffing on Southern cuisine, providing surprises here and there. He owned Rolling Bones, a ‘cue spot in the Old Fourth Ward, for a while, so you may have already sampled his take on this inevitably controversial Southern favorite.
The raw bar—expensive, like the high-quality seafood you find anywhere these days —is spectacular. Pedigreed oysters, shrimp and sashimi dishes—chopped and combined with other ingredients or served as glistening chunks—remind you that all is not tilapia. Fish really do melt in your mouth, while imparting a sensory presence of the ocean.
The pork barbecue, smoked out back, is all rubbed with pretty subtle spices. Ever since my years in Houston, I’ve been a fan of brisket, but I have to say the texture of Richards’ brisket, which I’ve tried twice, is pretty irregular. My first sampling was hugely fatty but nonetheless kind of dry for my taste. On a second visit I tried an open-faced sandwich of pimento cheese topped with more very dry cubes of brisket. So, for the time being, I’d stick to the smoky, tender pork ‘cue, chicken or fish. Order a few sides for the table. I give high marks to the take on baked beans, creamed corn and mustard greens, but the enormous portions will almost certainly have you toting a good bit home for the baby or dog.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a longtime Atlanta food critic and former therapist who now works as a collaborative life coach.