Food is a signifier of class. If you eat beans and rice at home for dinner, you are nobody. But if you go to a restaurant and order perfectly plated French food, you are definitely somebody. The problem is that everyone feels compelled to pretend to be somebody, so Atlanta’s intown landscape is becoming overcrowded with constantly multiplying, over-priced restaurants that are selfie-friendly but often palate-boring. Just stop it!
Fortunately, there remain restaurants whose inexpensive menus provide a break from the high price but don’t sacrifice selfie-ness. Here are three I’ve visited recently. They provide counter service only and they are all offensive to Donald Trump because they feature assimilated tastes imported from locations more interesting than his namesake McDonaldland. I’m citing my favorite dishes.
Zun Zun: In the last issue I mentioned my dislike of food halls and this “Afro-Cuban” restaurant stall is located inside the incredibly narrow We Suki Suki Global Grub Collective in East Atlanta Village. It’s a perfect place for panic attacks but the newest tenant, Zun Zun, makes a Cuban sandwich whose taste is more soothing than Xanax. The brothers who own the place, Kevin and Terrance Allen, layer crunchy grilled bread with the usual ham, pork, Swiss cheese, and house-made pickles. The pork is marinated in garlicky mojo, also house-made, that also flavors a luscious aioli that gets a spike from a stripe of mustard on the bread. Also try the fried okra if available. (Zun Zún, 479-B Flat Shoals Ave., 404-401-6691, zunzunatl.com.)
B’s Cracklin’ BBQ: This barbecue venue is located inside the newish Beltline Kroger, formerly fondly known as the Murder Kroger. B’s belongs to the folks who operated a restaurant in Riverside. Until that reopens, we have this grocery store stall to buy the ribs, chicken, pulled pork, and brisket. Take it home or eat on the premises. Everything, including the pork, is locally sourced and, believe me, you can taste the difference. Definitely try the brisket. It is smoky, juicy, and bears enough bark to provide a tad of bitter sweetness. B’s features Carolina-style sauces, one vinegary, and another (my favorite) that combines mustard and peaches. Get the cracklin’ cornbread and the greens for sure. (B’s Cracklin, inside Kroger, 725 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta, GA, bscracklinbbq.com).
Taco Cantina: I live in Grant Park but if I happen to be in Smyrna this taqueria is a favorite destination. The chef/owner is Mexican native Adolfo Gonzalez, who spent a lot of time in Buckhead Life restaurants. (Granted, a second location of Taco Cantina in the Old Fourth Ward closed quickly earlier this year.) What I have most enjoyed at the original in Smyrna is the tamales, but they have disappeared from the menu. Meanwhile, the go-to here for me is the sandwiches (tortas), specifically the al pastor. It features roasted pork marinated in pineapple juice and ancho chilies. The crunchy grilled sandwich also includes Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle mayo. I’m not, by the way, saying the food here isn’t partly directed to the American palate, but it works. There’s a large salsa bar in the small dining room, but the al pastor sandwich is perfect as it is. (Taco Cantina, 2517 Spring Rd., Smyrna, GA, 678-424-1826, mytacocantina.com.)
These restaurants will make you feel slightly less than somebody, but you won’t be a nobody.