July 2010


It’s a fact of life that decent chains get discovered in urban areas usually at a single location. The signs of this “first discovery” leave historical marks on opinion sites, in the form of massive voting for the “original” location. One such landmark is the Alpharetta location of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, on North Point Parkway in Alpharetta. It is immensely popular on Urban Spoon, probably because it was one of the first and in a trendy location, in North Point Market Center, across from North Point Mall. Since about 601 people have voted for the Five Guys in Alpharetta, and 37 for the one in Tucker (as of July 28, 2010) that makes the one in Alpharetta 16.243 times a popular as the one in Tucker, and in the eyes of some, 16.243 times better. So in the interests of anecdotal food science, I just had to see what makes this one tick.

It looks the same. Does the food taste the same?

Yes, the same very fine, gray, greasy meat that almost every foodie loves, but can’t stand when they see it on grass fed beef (because the grass fed stuff just isn’t greasy enough). Five Guys does it well, when its trendy and even when it isn’t.

Heading to Five Guys was just a good excuse to revisit a mall I used to eat at daily, a place where I grew up in Atlanta. Things have changed in ten years though. I was eating plenty here from about 1999 to 2004, in spots like Houlihans and Hops, and shopping in places like Media Play. Do you remember Media Play? This is what that old location is now:

Dick’s Sporting Goods, no less. The location of Houlihans has now seen another failure. You can just make out the outline of the Famous Dave’s logo on this wall.

One site that remains from the early 2000s is Superior Wok, which now trends me back into my story. I loved Superior Wok. It served good Chinese food and it did it with wait staff that were a cut above. How authentic was it? I’m hardly the one to judge, walking in hungry, looking for a lunch plate and wanting it fast so I could get back to work fast. The dish I liked best was called Yu Shang shrimp back in the day, so I stepped inside to get a “To Go” menu, and asked the lady if they still served Yu Shang Shrimp. She said they did. But then I got home, and there was no Yu Shang shrimp on the to go menu. What was I to do?

Start digging on the Internet of course. I was expecting something about as real as that day-glo orange sweet ‘n sour pork Americans eat. But the first thing I found out, playing around on a site called Dish A Dish (a search site for dishes in restaurants; dedicated to telling you that chain food is better than mana from heaven) is that Yu Shang is probably an Anglicization of names like Yu Shiang, or Yu Hsiang, or even Yu Xiang. Now that I had more accurate names to search on, why not start there?

A typical response on a “what is it” search will yield something like this, from Chiliworld:

Yu Hsiang translates roughly to Spicy Garlic.

This Spicy Garlic Sauce is specially prepared to make flavoursome Sichuan cooking simple and easy. Just add egg-plant and minced pork, and the deliciously authentic taste of Egg-Plant in Spicy Garlic Sauce is ready in minutes. An excellent sauce for all spicy garlic dishes.

That seems easy enough, but it isn’t the whole story. Dig a little further and you find, from a recipe for Yu Hsiang eggplant, this comment:

This spicy eggplant dish is a little sweet, a tiny bit sour, and highly flavorful. My mom’s version includes ground pork, but the dish tastes just as good if you omit the meat.

So, for some people it’s an heirloom recipe. Okay, let’s keep digging. From the Chef Leu’s House website we get the following translation:

Yu Hsiang literally meaning “Aromatic Fish”, is a common Szechuan way of cooking fish. The trick is to mix sugar and vinegar delicately with garlic and chili sauce to generate a unique, exotic flavor. It is sauteed with water chestnuts and green peppers.

I don’t know about you, but Yu Hsiang can’t mean “Spicy Garlic” and “Aromatic Fish” at the same time, unless China has garlic fish floating around in the local rivers and steams. Can it? Now, at Dartmouth, a recipe was posted for Yu-hsiang pork, which looks really good. Okay, maybe that’s drifting but we’ll get to some interesting details shortly.

The best information I found was on this Chowhound thread. A question was asked if Sichuan eggplant in garlic sauce was the same as yu hsiang eggplant. One good answer, by buttertart, was

Essentially yes they are, although what you get in US Chinese restaurants as eggplant in garlic sauce will probably not be as good as yu xiang qiezi made from say Fuchsia Dunlop’s recipe. Yu xiang is often translated as (and written in the characters for) “fish flavor” but Barbara Tropp posited and I agree that the base meaning is from the old names for Sichuan (Yu) and Hunan (Xiang), neighboring provinces with similar cuisines. “Fish flavor”dishes do not taste like fish and do not use ingredients that are invariably used with fish – but they do use an ingredient (doubanjiang, hot bean paste) that is widely used in Sichuan and Hunan food.

which had the equally interesting follow up.

buttertart,

I belive the “yu-xiang” refers to how the Sichuanese prepared fish — i.e., using hot, sour, salty, and sweet flavors all in one dish. When the same prep was used with eggplants, the name sort of stuck and so it became “yu-xian chie-zi” or 鱼香茄子.

So now you know. And with the information provided, I can see on Superior Wok’s take out menu that L20, Spicy Garlic Sauce, which can be made with pork, chicken, beef, or shrimp, is probably my missing Yu Xiang shrimp.

Superior Wok
6480 North Point Parkway
Alpharetta, GA 30022
(770) 343-9698

Superior Wok on Urbanspoon

Five Guys Burgers and Fries
6410 North Point Parkway
Alpharetta, GA 30022
(770) 346-0366

Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

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Weight this morning was 191.0 pounds. Yesterday was 191.3. Not much exercise at the moment, but something of a renewed commitment to sticking to calorie goals and not allowing those extras.  When I can exercise, it’s largely been aerobic.

Scary to think that in less than 10 pounds, I’m no longer formally overweight.

As I lose weight, though, I’ve been less and less affected by gout symptoms. Diabetes allows some alcohol, though one glass is considered 2 fat exchanges (I get 6 exchanges a day). Is it time to break out a bottle of Anchor Steam, or perhaps find Mike Stock for a Friday at Summits Tavern?

Jimmy, of Eat It Atlanta, suggested that Clay’s wings, of Clay’s Sports Cafe, were good. I’m here to say I tried them and yes, they are.

Clay's Sports Cafe on Urbanspoon

Maya Fresh Grill now has a menu. It’s a good looking menu, with an enticing list of smaller items. Things like takkos, quesadillas, salads, and more regional ethnic fare dot the menu. I had their rainbow salad, which was delicious. So I have to say to foodies in the Snellville area, and perhaps Chloe (if she trends out this far east): go now. Go before this place changes. It’s delightful right now, with owners in love with their craft. And if my experiences with gifted small owners is any indication, often a restaurant will grow popular and the owner disappears, or the restaurant dies and the owner is no longer around. So go. This place is worth a stop on the way from Snellville into Duluth.

Maya Fresh Grill on Urbanspoon

Soedulnyuk is popular. When I was entering this restaurant a party of 30 left. It wasn’t hard to get in, but once in, it was something of a Hotel California of food. The restaurant was slammed the day I arrived. You could see the worry and anxiety on the faces of staff, their body language radiated the effort it took to keep up with the crowd. This success has come at a price to customers though. The signs for “all you can eat” showed a price increase, to $11.99 and $16.99 respectively, and the wait before anyone would take orders was very long.

Yuk Gae Jang; sorry for the fuzzy photo.

Food was long in coming after the order. I was worried I might have to drop reviewing the restaurant altogether because of the waits when finally, food arrived, along with banchan.

The soup was good; beef and leek complemented each other well. The bowl was as big as my head. Banchan were plentiful. This is an easy, safe meal for me to eat these days, very little worry about the ravages of diabetes. Once finished though, there was that long interminable wait until the check was picked up.

Verdict: Good food. Overwhelmed by their success, so don’t expect much attention from staff. Recommended, assuming they fix their staff issues.

Soedulnyuk
2790 Lawrenceville Suwanee Road, Suite 165
Suwanee, GA 30024
(678) 394-5190

Sodeulnyuk on Urbanspoon

La Casona is a reasonably well known Columbian restaurant, roughly at the corner of the road that passes Brands Mart USA and the new Super H, and Buford Highway itself. It’s set back; to get to this restaurant, you have to make a sharp 135 degree turn to the right once the feeder meets Buford Highway. This is the place where BuHi’s third get together was held. As a consequence, this is going to be as much a report on the get together as it is the food. To note, the food is good. But some of the more popular items, such as La Casona’s empanadas, were sampled by others, and my impressions are second hand.

The hot Chrysler is BuHi's ride.

Who was there? I was the third to arrive, so already at the eatery were the star of the show himself, and an friend, Lena. It was Lena who suggested this spot. “Reader” soon came. I’m calling him “Reader” as he’s a reader of BuHi’s blog, a Tweeter, and has been at every meeting. I can never remember his name. Also present were Jimmy and Julia, oft found on “285 Foodies”. Julia works for a cheese merchant, and spun wonderful stories of dealing with cheeses. Later Mark, Julia’s husband, arrived.

Jimmy and Julia

Opposite where I sat were a friend of Buhi’s, male. Three other people arrived a bit after Buhi’s friend. There was the author of Hopeless Foodies, another blogger, whose name and blog escapes me, and a young lady who was a self described Yelper. I’m sorry if I have forgotten names, it was a dizzying place to be and I have hearing issues with my left ear.

l to r: Buhi, friend, staff, HF, blogger, and Ms Yelper.

In terms of food, first out was a dessert, a mix of custard and sweet. People seemed to like it. I couldn’t sample. They also had chicharrón (pork rinds), which I could. They’re really not like the kind of pork skins you’ll find at the gas station and quick mart, but more akin to pork belly half sliced into bite sized pieces. Pieces of this taste like thick chewy bacon.

Empanadas came as well. I’ve encountered empanadas since Guam. These were clearly hand molded, a bit smaller than the empanadas I’ve seen in Cuban restaurants in this city. They were very popular with this crowd.

My dish was the muchacho relleno, a beef tenderloin stuffed. Thing is, it’s stuffed not by slicing the steak along the thin dimension, they stuff it by cutting an ‘O’ shaped hole in the middle of the meat and dropping extra goodies in there. I wasn’t expecting that, and it confused me when the dish arrived.

It was good, in a beefy stewy sort of way. Sides for the meals here typically included rice, and either maduros (sweet plantains), or tostones (green plantains, flattened). This led to a discussion of Mojito’s maduros, which are cooked a bit more than others. Actually, that’s the way my wife likes them, a little toasty.

While there, discussions ranged wide and it would be impossible to recount them all. There were discussions of Fung Mei opening on Pleasant Hill (and BuHi made it clear that it was *F*ung Mei), of bad experiences at the old one. We discussed where the old Fung Mei chef went (now if I could just remember where), where good Chinese could be found on Buford, on the ins and outs of chickens, and why “free range” is essentially meaningless. I kind of wish I had sat a little closer to Hopeless Foodie, as I think she has quite a nice site, and the hearing in my left ear isn’t the best in the world.

Before ending this article, I want to step back a little and echo something BuHi said during the dinner. This is that  La Casona is going to seem a little different for a typical American, when they enter. But staff here, if given half a chance, will go out of their way to accommodate you. I saw this in their handling of this meal. A lot of attention, a lot of very friendly staff. Yes, the food is a little different from the typical Mexican or Cuban eatery, but thematically a lot the same, and the staff is truly helpful. Of course, with Lena, Jimmy and Julia quite conversant in Spanish, it made things perhaps easier for the whole of us. But in short, la Casona handled this affair quite well, and I not only enjoyed the company, I very much enjoyed the presentation and the food.

Verdict: Go there. Friendly staff, good food. Highly Recommended.

La Casona
3820 Stewart Rd
Doraville, GA 30340

La Casona Taqueria Y Billares on Urbanspoon

Maya Fresh Grill is a restaurant I’ve spoken of before, because signs of the eatery opening have been around on Pleasant Hill for what has seemed like a year. Even now, with the OPEN sign lit in the window, they are so new they don’t even have a menu yet. Guillermo and Jehosaphat are offering a couple items for now, and promising a menu come this Monday. In the meantime, they quite open to suggestions.

The iconography of Maya has always been eye catching. This speaks of the pair’s background as graphics designers, working for a variety of businesses in the Atlanta metro area. The inside has art and graphic themes that reflect this interest in their “day job”; the walls have interesting mask art and pretty colors and graphics. But right now the restaurant is still a work in progress.

That said, I ate there recently and ended up talking to the pair quite a bit afterwards. They are the classic enthusiast, a sort often encountered in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. They are charming, pleasant, well spoken, and full of joy at the opening of the eatery.

The food: I had a burger, of a kind later described as common where Jehosaphat was raised. Not just beef, there was a slice of ham on the meat, slices of avocado and what looked like a mix of mayo and mustard. It was good, a thick bun gracing the meat, and the flavor combination reminiscent of milanesa steak. Accompanying the burger were some chips (fried in the store) and a good pico de gallo.

Verdict: Promising, but still a work in progress. Drop by if developing eateries are your cup of tea.

Maya Fresh Grill
960 Pleasant Hill Road, Suite A
Lawrenceville GA 30044
(770)-279-3748

Maya Fresh Grill on Urbanspoon

Clay’s Sports Cafe is a small inconspicuous bar, easily missed, on Roswell Road. Several booths and a few tables fill a tiny space in a cramped small strip mall along Roswell Road. The quality of the seating is modest. 2-3 televisions dot the area, perhaps 2 people were working when I arrived. Sometimes, though, size doesn’t matter, nor do expensive, trendy ingredients. All that matters are deft culinary skills with the means at hand.

Staff here are open and up front about their opinions. When I mentioned I wanted a burger, I was told that it was good, but that it came on a hoagie roll and it would take 20 minutes to prepare. When I tried to order a salad, I was steered to Clay’s “small”. “The large one is huge,” I was told.

The small salad, which came out quickly, was indeed a generous bed of crunchy romaine. No, hardly the organic baby lettuce of Farm Burger or Yeah!, but crisp and pleasing. The salad made the time to the burger seem very short.

The burger looks a little plain, but there is a ton of taste in this modest looking bit of meat. Juicy and flavorful, I ate half of it and doggie bagged the rest. People at work talk about Clay’s, and they do so in terms that are genuinely respectful. In terms of flavor bang for the buck, it’s an exceptional little eatery.

Verdict: Plain looking store that serves simple foods made extremely well. Highly recommended.

Clay’s Sports Cafe
6518 Roswell Road
Atlanta, GA 30328-3168
(404) 843-1233

Clay's Sports Cafe on Urbanspoon

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