We heart Chambodia
Two new ethnic chews along Buford Highway
Great minds think alike. That's why every food writer in this newspaper inadvertently ended up on Buford Highway this week. Okay, actually it has more to do with the absolute dearth of new restaurants in town this time of year, and the fact that we're unusually susceptible to exotic venues after two weeks of grandmother's bland holiday food, bless her heart.
I hit two I'd never visited before. First was Contigo Peru II (3567 Chamblee Dunwoody Road, 770-455-8338). Yes, this restaurant belongs to a mini-chain of three, but don't let that scare you away. It's not McDonald's gone Peru. A courteous staff served us a great meal.
The restaurant was empty the night we visited. An employee vacuumed the main dining room and someone in the kitchen sang at the top of his lungs. Two televisions over the cozy wood bar lined with red lights broadcast images of bosomy senoritas. "Que tetas mas ricas," I said to Wayne, who rolled his eyes and perused the very large menu. Images of Jesus as the Sacred Heart, bedecked in ribbons, eyeballed us.
Peru is near the equator and divided into three regions — coastal, mountainous and jungle. Contigo Peru emphasizes coastal cuisine but you'll find a good many dishes made with grilled meats. You won't find the weirder things Peruvians eat, like alpaca or guinea pigs — not even the kebabs of beef heart. Nor does it include any of the interesting Chinese food that has developed in Peru, which has more Chinese restaurants, or "chifas," than any other Latin American country. The accommodating menu includes dishes to make your grandmother comfortable, like spaghetti Alfredo, as well as giant hot dogs for kids and a few Mexican plates.
Peruvian food is spicy but not terribly hot. Potatoes are a big deal in Peru and here you should order the classic papas a la Huancaina: boiled potatoes under a yellow sauce with mild cheese and spices, garnished with hard-boiled egg and a lone black olive. I've had spicier versions than Contigo Peru's, but this makes a good appetizer or side dish. Wayne ordered six plump, fresh oysters on the half shell but you could opt for mussels marinated in lime juice instead. There is also a lengthy ceviche menu.
For his entree, Wayne picked the "Contigo Peru especial," a surprisingly good dish of grouper rolled around grilled shrimp and served in a creamy sauce that reminded us of remoulade with a bit of heat. Cassava and avocado slices were on the side. I ordered the most expensive thing on the menu ($20), a mixed grill of shrimp, steak, chicken breast, sausage and cassava. "A picturesque sight for a hearty appetite," the menu says. It was indeed, arriving at the table like fajitas sizzling in an iron pan and containing too much for any human to eat at one sitting. Despite some overcooked shrimp, the dish offered a terrific blend of novel flavors and, hey — it reheated well the next day.Eat your volcano
A few days later, we headed to Cho Dang Tofu (5907 Buford Hwy., 770-220-0667), where we were the only round-eyed folks in the dining room. While the English skills of the staff at Contigo Peru were limited, here they are nearly nonexistent.
Like 88 Tofu, this Korean restaurant specializes in soups made with tofu., providing a short menu of 12 soups and one meat dish, classic Korean barbecue. If you haven't eaten in such a restaurant before, prepare for confusion. I pulled an English-speaking person from another table to explain the procedure here.
Coming to your table almost immediately is a big crock of rice in a stone pot so hot that the rice clings to the pot's bottom and sides, turning crunchy. You also receive a little brass bowl. Our new best friend suggested we move the rice from the big pot to the small bowl and mix it with the eight nibbles that arrived at the table in the meanwhile. Smiling, she added that the residual crunchy rice will serve a mysterious purpose at the meal's end.
When your soup arrives, it bubbles volcanically in its pot and cooks the tofu and other ingredients. You also receive a raw egg to break into the soup.
I ordered the soup made with kimchi, tofu and beef. Wayne ordered one with beef, tofu, clams, shrimp and oysters. You'll be glad to see that you can choose the degree of spiciness. At the bottom scale is "white," which I'm sure is not meant to be a joke on Caucasians. At the top is extra-spicy. I don't recommend selecting that unless you lack taste buds. Although I have not tried Cho Dang Tofu's extra-spicy soup, I have at other Korean restaurants and it was way beyond my own threshold, which is considerable. I settled for the spicy and Wayne ordered medium-spicy.
Of the soups, Wayne chose the better. The oysters proved particularly good with the creamy tofu and the broth was more complex and flavorful. The beef used in the soups is the same stuff you get in Vietnamese pho — what I call "beef baloney" — and comes in very short supply in the combo soups. The kimchi is a good addition and you can add it from the sampling of nibbles if you don't want to order the particular soup made with it.
The meal ends with a server pouring tea into your crock, which dislodges the crunchy rice. You can break up the rice and mix it into a virtual pudding, but I preferred keeping it in large sections. Either way, the tea and the smoky, crunchy rice is wonderfully refreshing.
Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.