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Fat Chance

L.A. burger chain invades the ATL, plus Thep Thai

The name, all the press materials say, doesn't mean what you think it does. Fatburger (2625 Piedmont Road, 404-844-0444), founded in 1952, is an allusion to the way "fat" meant superlative (like "fat cat") in those years. You know, the way "phat" meant "cool" in the '90s, so you could get away with saying, "That chick has a phat ass," and claim you didn't mean it in the conventional sense of "fat." Get it?

Fatburger started life in Los Angeles and is in the middle of a huge franchise expansion. The look is retro but not particularly campy. The decor amounts to an overdose of red and yellow with a shiny kitchen open to view. The staff is congenial - weirdly so. And that may be your first clue that this is not really a fast-food operation. Nobody is standing around in earphones or shoving pre-cooked burgers into a microwave while they pop gum in your face.

Somewhat witty signs decorate the place. One of them says, "They say cooked. We say cooked to order. They say homemade. We say 'You big fat stinkin' liar.'" The sign is a bit misleading, since your burger is not really cooked to order. When I asked for mine to be cooked medium rare, the cashier told me that wasn't an option.

Nonetheless, unlike the usual fast-food joint, Fatburger cooks your burger when you order it and uses only lean, fresh ground beef. Frozen and pre-cooked patties are nowhere in sight. You can expect to wait 15 minutes for your order and, I'm pleased to say, the wait is worth it. The one-third-pound fatburger and the larger kingburger are both far better than the average gray atrocities hidden in spongy bread at McDonald's and Wendy's. Even the turkey burger deserves props, mercifully free of the over-abundance of seasonings many restaurants seem to think turkey needs to compensate for not being beef.

Hand-cut onion rings and fries are way better than average, too. You can have your fries cut thick or thin. I almost always prefer thin fries, but Fatburger manages to correctly cook thick fries with a crispy/creamy texture that beats the mainly crispy thin fries by a mile. Milkshakes are not extruded from a machine and taste like real ice cream instead of fat particles suspended in god-knows-what.

I have not sampled the chicken sandwich or the hot dogs (which I eat maybe every five years to remind myself what it's like to be a tortured child). Nor have I tried a burger topped with an egg. Fatburger has been in something of a public relations war with the Carl's Jr. chain, which it argues has incorrectly laid claim to being first to top burgers with eggs. I so don't care!

Fatburger is not going to usurp my fave burger joints - the Earl and Ann's Snack Shop - but it has one thing going for it that will keep me returning: an absolutely killer free jukebox. Forget that the entire Michael Jackson discography was playing while we were there. I actually found lectures by lefty linguist Noam Chomsky on the box's download list. Dat is so phat!

More Thai I was way annoyed when Bali Indah closed. It's not as if Indonesian food is common in our city and it was especially cool that such an exotic restaurant was located so close to Midtown. But gone it is and in its place now is Thep Thai (2257 Lenox Road, 404-321-3119).

You have to give the owners, a Thai couple who came here via New York, credit for gutsiness. One of the city's most popular Thai spots, Little Bangkok, is right around the corner. It's hard to imagine that even with a name that means "Thai Angel" they are going to compete effectively with their inexpensive but talented neighbor.

As I always do at Thai restaurants - because so many seem like cookie-cutter undertakings - I asked our server what distinguishes Thep Thai from the countless other Thai restaurants in town. "Well," he said, "it is no longer Indonesian."

I put the question differently. "It is how it is cooked that is different," he said.

"How is that?" I asked.

"Let me get the owner," he said.

The owner, wife of the chef, came to our table and, although we found her delightful, she didn't do much to make a case for the restaurant's difference, either.

And we really didn't find much to distinguish our appetizers. Papaya salad with beef jerky and sticky rice has become a fave at Little Bangkok, but Thep's version needs work. The sticky rice was so dense, it bordered on inedible, and the beef jerky had a peculiar gamy taste. The salad itself - shredded green papaya with string beans, tomatoes and ground peanuts - was juicy and spicy, however.

Another starter, weirdly named "Eskimo shrimp," featured shrimp and ground pork wrapped in rice paper and fried. Very tasty.

When our entree specials arrived, we got a better sense of the chef's talents. A dish of tilapia in tamarind sauce really was unique and far more fancifully plated than dishes at most Thai spots. Another special, seafood in basil sauce, featured abundant mussels, squid, shrimp and scallops with red and green peppers topped with many crispy basil leaves. Both dishes were more detailed than average.

For dessert, we combined fried bananas and fried ice cream. Such food seems straight off a carnival midway to me, but we polished the plate.

Question for West Egg Lunch at West Egg Cafe last week was a bit like trying to eat during a Chinese fire drill. The folks taking orders at the counter seemed to suffer from mild ADD. Nonetheless, I enjoyed chef Patric Bell's "redneck Reuben" sandwich of turkey basted in tea with Monterey Jack cheese, cole slaw and barbecue sauce. I even liked my Coca-Cola cupcake. But, as I happen to know Bell is infatuated with the cuisine of Mexico, I want to know why some south-of-the-border dishes aren't offered?

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.



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