May 2010

Mei Garden is at the corner of Lawrenceville Highway and Bethesda Church Road, in a strip mall that used to contain a Publix and is now half empty. It’s snuck up the UrbanSpoon charts, ranking 10th in Lawrenceville as I write, largely through word-of-mouth approvals and no media attention that I can see. I’ve been wanting to get back into some kinds of Chinese food, but diabetes makes Chinese about as tricky a cuisine as I can try to eat. All the sauces with sugars make it far harder than, say, a steakhouse, with steaks pan grilled in butter, and a veggie on the side.

I had heard though, that black bean sauces weren’t bad for diabetics, and conversations with Chloe Morris, of Chow Down Atlanta, seemed to confirm that. So as Memorial Day approached, I wanted to try Chinese. Mei Garden, being in the area and reputable, seemed appropriate. Problem is that black bean dishes tend not to be found in Americanized Chinese, and Mei’s menu is clearly aimed at the “fast lunch” and take home crowd. But it’s more versatile than some, and lo and behold, they had shrimp with black bean sauce. So we were in business.

I took my daughter, as my wife was still at work this day. It’s a generic strip mall store front, to the right of the empty space that used to house Publix.  The inside is small, perhaps 7-10 tables total, and a little cramped.  I ordered shrimp with black bean sauce, and my daughter, in homage to her cousin, ordered a curried beef dish.  She was asked if she wanted a “combo” and she said yes.

“Rice?” I was asked.

“Do you have brown rice?”

“No, fried rice or steamed rice.”

“Steamed rice, please.”

First thing to arrive were the combo extras for my daughter. Those included a decent bowl of wonton soup and also a small spring roll and a fried chicken wing. I peeled off most of the fried outer layer and took a bite of the chicken. Pretty good, actually.

When the entrées arrived, mine was a dinner portion so larger than my daughter’s food. Her dish came with fried rice on the side, mine came with a pretty large bowl of steamed rice. I counted about 12 medium sized shrimp in the dish. I can’t eat a lot of meat at one sitting so that was ample for me.

I thought my dish was good and subtle. What rice I could eat I poured into my plate, to get the last of the black bean sauce, which was quite tasty. My daughter liked her dish but wasn’t overwhelmed with it. If I had to rate the food overall, it would come in as a cut above standard strip mall Chinese. It’s not that far from my house and so would be on my radar if I were shopping in the area. Staff, though often seeming pretty quiet, were pretty observant, and to the point. Service overall was good.

Verdict: Well earned reputation for pretty good Chinese food. Recommended.

Mei Garden
3059 Lawrenceville Hwy
Lawrenceville, GA 30044
(770) 925-7333

Mei Garden on Urbanspoon

One of the emphases of Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food” was on unprocessed foods. The reason for this are the as-yet unknown factors in the Western diet that lead to the various diseases of modern civilization. As I suffer, after one fashion or another, from most of those diseases I’m interested in delaying or halting those problems myself. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is locate suppliers of grass fed meats, milk, eggs, butter and cheese.

One resource that Michael Pollan recommended is the “Eat Wild” site. This is a good site, which has a page on which you can find Georgia farms that sell their products into the local markets. Using the map, you can find, for example, Country Gardens Farms and Nursery in Newnan, GA. This farm will take orders to be delivered to the Peachtree Road Farmer’s Market (open on Saturdays). Their prices are competitive, and the farm is nearby.

It isn’t just nearby farms that affect the availability of produce in the Atlanta area. South of Atlanta proper and close to the Alabama border is White Oak Pastures, of Bluffton GA. White Oak sells grass fed ground beef to Whole Foods and also to Publix. I haven’t seen the beef at Whole Foods, and I haven’t seen it at any Publix in Snellville. I have seen it at the Publix in the Prado, in Sandy Springs GA. Cost for a pound of White Oak ground beef there is $7.00 a pound. Correction: I’ve found two kinds of grass fed beef at the Publix on the corner of Ronald Reagan and 124, in Snellville.

This lack of product also affects suppliers such as Organic Valley. If you look them up, they supposedly supply Publix too, but typically the closest I can get to their pastured eggs and pastured butter are Organic Valley organic egg whites. Availability just isn’t there. To note, the Eat Wild site thinks highly of Kerrygold butter (Irish cows evidently are largely grass fed). Kerrygold butter can be found in most Publix supermarkets. Presumably, the same benefits apply to the Kerrygold cheeses as well.

For those of us in Snellville, the upcoming Snellville Farmer’s Market will offer some access to a good local farm. On the Eat Wild map, there are five push pins west of Atlanta. The third of these, smack in the middle of the group of five, is Nature’s Harmony Farm in Elberton GA. They sell grass fed beef, chickens, and eggs. If you look in the right place on their web site, you can see that they plan to attend the Snellville market on the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Interesting online suppliers of grass fed beef include Hearst Ranch and Slanker’s Grass Fed Meats. Heart is a little more conservative while I find Slanker’s to be entertaining in their zeal. Slanker’s though, has some real cooking tips and therefore worth a browse.

For those wanting a boonie pepper update: my one living plant is in good shape, the rest didn’t survive the winter and my illnesses. I’ve had far better luck with potted tomatoes and one pair now requires a cylinder of rabbit wire to stand upright.

On Pleasant Hill, in the location of the old Corky’s, a new Chinese restaurant is being constructed. It would be nice to have some of the empty restaurants in that area of Pleasant Hill occupied.

I went to the doctor and my hemoglobin A1C was 5.3%. I’ve seen people get lower A1C six months after diagnosis, but not at three months. My doctor is cutting the dose of my cholesterol meds in half, and also my diabetes medications as well. We’ll see how that goes. I’d rather have good numbers than be totally med free and have mediocre blood glucose numbers.

The pants I bought less than a month ago are getting large on me.

A quick trip to the U.S.S. Vallarta, a seafood stall in the GP Mall Food court, rounded up these ceviche tostadas. I thought they were pretty good, myself.

To help round out my diet, I’ve been looking for new sources of canned small oily fish. One intriguing source is Vital Choice, in Washington state. They’re not cheap, but you can get canned salmon pretty much the way you want it. If you want king salmon steaks, the best of the Pacific salmon, they can provide those as well. I’ve purchased canned salmon and canned mackerel from this vendor, as well as these salmon sausages:

The Atlanta State Farmer’s Market occupies 150 acres, carved out of a wholesale district and wholesale shipping zones for trucks, and will never be mistaken for the foot-only traffic of the markets Tony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern prowl in Southeast Asia (or for that matter, the foot-only traffic of The Flea). Cars drive right up to the shops they like and produce is offloaded directly into vans and the trunks of cars and trucks. After watching this behavior a while, my wife said, “It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be.” I’m sure she was expecting something more friendly to pedestrians.

A lot of the shops do not sell in small quantities. They want to sell a basket or a bushel, minimum. So it’s not a particularly good market for singles, small families, or someone on a budget. It is however, an eyeful, and worth a look if you’ve never been.

Atlanta State Farmer’s Market
16 Forest Pkwy,
Forest Park, GA 30297
(404) 675-1782

Korean tofu houses are very diet friendly, and Book Chang Dong Tofu House is no exception. The soups are largely meats, tofu, and vegetables. Banchan are largely (though not completely) free of sugars and starch. Starch is usually supplied through a bowl of rice. Much like a steak house, this separation of components of the meal makes it easy to eat and manage. This freedom, coupled with some intriguing “likes it” votes on Urban Spoon, led me to go with my daughter to Book Chang Dong Tofu House recently.

It’s in the Super H plaza in Duluth, on the left hand side of the ‘C’ shaped complex, as you’re facing Super H from Pleasant Hill Road. It’s good looking but unobtrusive. You have to get pretty close to the restaurant to read the little English sign to the right of the main sign, in Korean. Inside, a lot of wood. Tables have pretty wooden carvings, reminiscent of Japanese woodblock paintings. The tables have buzzers to call staff, and a glass topped box with metal spoons and chopsticks. The crowd is overwhelmingly Korean.

My daughter wasn’t in the mood for a soup, so she ended up getting spare ribs, or galbi. They had a special on baby octopus tofu soup, so that’s what I got. The banchan (side dishes) here include a  small fish. The banchan all were good to us. Service was very good, and the staff are very attentive to their customers.

My daughter liked her meat. The galbi wasn’t spicy, though she asked for it to be. I suspect if we were to become regular customers, she could get her food spiced the way she liked it. As for me, being able to eat the whole of my meal without worries was a delight. The creaminess of the tofu meshed well with the chewiness of the octopus, and the modest heat of the soup enhanced the mix of silky tofu and seafood.

Verdict: Fine place to get tofu soups, good service. Highly recommended.

Book Chang Dong Tofu House
2550 Pleasant Hill Road
Duluth, GA 30096
(770) 814-2299

Book Chang Dong Tofu House on Urbanspoon

Farm Burger’s motto appears to be simplicity. Take a good idea, and execute. Ignore the frills, go for the gusto. In this case the driving force is well sourced meat, locally grown, featuring as little processing as possible. The virtues of grass fed beef are becoming better known: cows fed a diet of corn have a relatively poor fat and nutrient profile, heavy in omega-6 fatty acids. Cows feed grass have a more diverse fat and nutrient profile. The butter in particular from pastured animals is superior.

Farm Burger is also a popular place (reviews here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but for once, it’s a popular place within reasonable reach of Snellville. Of course, the mainstream critics and a whole 80 readers (in a greater metropolitan area of 5.5 million) are already bored of the phenomenon, of actually being forced to eat a locally sourced burger. Must be a hard life, being forced to eat excellent, healthy food.

I’ve been trying to go there a while, to get my family to go, but my wife has had a lingering illness for weeks. This time I had missed a meal to give blood to the physicians, was running low on calories and needing to eat. So of course the most sane solution was to dive down Clairmont Road and head into Decatur, and fix this hunger of mine.

Farm Burger is housed in the same building as Watershed, carved out of the same former gas station. I’d been to Watershed, and so this restaurant was going to be easy to find. Of course, the parking lot was packed. On a side street a couple blocks away, I found parking, and walked to the eatery.

Inside, there is a lot of wood, a lot of blue steel chairs, and a line in which you make your order. Seating is along the edge of the restaurant. There are numbered burgers and build your own. There seems to be a train of thought (Cliff Bostock, iirc) that a burger as subtle as this one shouldn’t be drowned in rich tasting extras. That was certainly also my approach when I bought a burger. Arugula, tomato, red onion, some jalapenos, a slice of swiss. I bought the large salad, a bit expensive at $7.00 but more accessible to a diabetic than fries.

I’m given a glass, I find a place to sit. No water, so I head up to the drinks and they’re taking away the water container. No problem, I’m told. “We’ll get you a bottle, take it to your table.” It wasn’t soon before I had this oversized milk bottle full of H2O. Yes, very impressed.

Soon after the salad and the burger came. The burger was mostly pink inside. I’d call it medium more than anything else. The texture of the meat was surprisingly smooth, almost creamy. I’d compare it to the Kobe burger at Summit’s, but it didn’t achieve this texture through huge amounts of fat. I suspect it’s the effect of being freshly ground. The effect is subtle, and those critics that said “don’t drown this burger in too much stuff” are dead on.

The salad was tender, at least 2 cups of greens, and pretty well covered in a dressing with bits of cheese in it. There were bits of onion, carrot and celery in it, and at least one garlic clove.

Other notes: I asked about the size of the burger and the amount of fat in it. I was told the burger was between 5.6 and 5.8 ounces in weight, and over 93% fat free.

Verdict: No frills. Excellent burger. Diabetic friendly. Staff rocks. Highly recommended.

Farm Burger
4108 W. Ponce de Leon Ave.
Decatur, GA 30030
(404) 378-5077

Farm Burger on Urbanspoon

Atlanta Things To Do on raveable

Ran into this Kerrygold product in a Whole Foods, and wanting something new, picked up this cheese.

I’ve had really good luck with Kerrygold’s Dubliner cheese, so wanted to give this a try. It’s very rich in flavor, with overtones of salt and cream. It lacks the nuttiness that marks Dubliner in favor of a lingering cheesy aftertaste. Others have compared it to Parmigiana-Reggiano in terms of character and smell.  In terms of cost, at about 12 dollars a pound, it’s cheaper than Dubliner on an ounce by ounce basis, and considerably cheaper than a good Parmesan. In any event, it’s a good harder cheese, well worth adding to your pantry.

Michael Pollan has a reputation. His food writing is popular, and it isn’t because he’s merely the flavor of the month. Take, for example, his 2008 tome, “In Defense of Food“.

It starts with some excellent prose. It’s hard not to cheer when paragraphs end with these kinds of conclusions.

Science has much to teach us about food, and perhaps someday scientists will “solve” the problem of diet, creating the nutritionally optimal pill in a meal, but for now and the foreseeable future, letting the scientists decide the menu would be a mistake. They simply do not know enough.

And it continues by stepping back from the lively arguments about nutrition and taking a “big picture” approach, one that eschews diving too deep in minutiae, and relies more on common sense.

In the beginning, however, it’s not so obvious he’s headed that way. For about 50 pages of the trade paperback, it looks more like Michael Pollan is channeling Gary Taubes and not doing a very good job of it. The arguments tend to be eerily similar to Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories“. It’s only around page 59 that he begins to differentiate himself from Taubes’ more focused approach and hit the problem with a broader, but more accurate hammer.

Michael then spends a lot of time talking about the differences between what he called food, and foodlike substances. He spends an large amount of time talking about the effects of a food, and how all too often the entire benefit of the food is reduced to a single nutrient in the eyes of myopic scientists (he also bothers to explain why nutrition science is myopic and full of unintended effects). There are lively discussions of the benefits of butter from pastured cows, and how butter is better than garden variety margarine. He discusses a study of 10 diabetic Aborigines, and what happened to them when they returned to a “native-like” state.  Michael’s take on the virtues of green leafy vegetables are more deftly stated than most anywhere else.

It would be easy to write the whole book off, and transform the manifesto in the beginning to the phrase, “Eat like an old rich hippie.” Except, that’s not what he’s trying to do. It could also be restated as “Eat food you grow yourself”, though that’s only part of the suggestions he makes. He’s fond of people cooking their own food, of people buying from farmer’s markets, of the use of heirloom plants and animals. He suggests that people who take the time to eat a little slower, enjoy themselves a bit more, and pay for (or grow) more diverse and whole foodstuffs will end up living a healthier life in the end.

Cho Dang Tofu Restaurant was recommended by an acquaintance, who said of it, “It’s open pretty late, until 2 am. We eat there often and the people there know us. I like it because they give you fish with your side dishes.” She then paused and said, “Is it a bad thing to like the side dishes more than the entrée?”

Personally, no, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to like one portion of a meal as opposed to another, as long as you do find the time to enjoy what you eat. The comment, though, piqued my interest, and led to me appearing at this spot. I’d stopped there before, and then moved on. This time, I stayed, to eat.

It was fairly empty at the time of night I arrived. The customers that were there tended to be young couples, fashionably dressed and attractive. Staff that night were a man and a woman, the man serving tables and the woman taking orders. I found her very easy to speak to. I mentioned my diabetes and talked a bit about the menu. She suggested blood rice instead of the regular rice, and I decided to try a seafood tofu soup. These soups go by the name of soon dubu (or soondubu jjigae, or soon du bu cchiggae, depending on the source), and there are good recipes online for making these dishes.

Banchan arrived first, and was partly refilled before the main dish arrived. An egg came with the banchan, to be cracked and dropped in the soup while boiling. The soup was in a clay pot and boiling merrily when it arrived. There was a shrimp, a clam, bits of what looked like baby octopus along with perhaps 5 to 6 ounces of silky tofu.

Blood rice was rice colored purple by a bean. I’ve tried to find mention of it on the internet, because it’s too deeply colored to make me think it’s an analog of the Japanese red rice, yet that’s the closest parallel I can find. I was told it’s more nutritious than regular white rice. I had 2-3 spoonfuls of it. It tasted fine to me.

I demolished the soup. Certain banchan were refilled repeatedly. It was a pleasure to go into a restaurant and know you could eat freely from almost everything on the table. That’s perhaps what I liked best about it. It was also inexpensive. The meal cost less than 10 dollars and provided plenty of useful nutrition, and a lot of delicious spicy flavor.

Verdict: Nice place to hit later at night on Buford Highway. Affable staff, easy to speak to. Highly recommended.

Cho Dang Tofu Restaurant
5907 Buford Highway
Doraville, GA 30340
(770) 220-0667

Cho Dang Tofu on Urbanspoon

A Five Guys has opened in Dunwoody, in the mall area surrounding the Super Target. It’s to the left of the main boulevard entrance into the area, near the bank, closer to Perimeter Center Parkway than Carrabas or Cheeseburger in Paradise. It’s a bit of an oasis in this portion of the mall.

I went there recently, for my mid afternoon snack. I’ve been to a Five Guys before, and their burgers are large balls of meat and bread, hardly a snack. Once I arrived and was in line, though, I noticed they sold dogs. Pretty cheap dogs too. So I waited for the teens with the gold Visa card to finish their order and then ordered mine (Gold Visa? Do they mint teenagers at the bank these days?).

It arrived quickly. Good dog, but not one to make me forget Chicago Mike’s. One big difference is the bread, which when loaded with all the extras, went half soggy. The meat, cheese, and extras were quite good – grilled onions and grilled mushrooms pack a lot of flavor. Mike’s dog is just better: better bread, and a more savory, flavorful hot dog.

Five Guys Burger and Fries
123 Perimeter Center West
Dunwoody, GA 30346
(678) 579-0090

Five Guys Burger and Fries on Urbanspoon

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