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In search of comfort

How would you like to have to eat in a new restaurant several times a week? You might develop reliably predictable favorites for which you develop cravings, but you'd have to eschew them, repeatedly, for the task of visiting newbies.

Last week was one of those weeks I headed out several times in search of new places but got drawn to a couple of old faves. I just couldn't face the couple of big-name restaurants that have recently opened, and I wasn't in the mood to sink my teeth into new weirdness. In other words, I was looking for some culinary comfort.

In fact, I'd made two earlier attempts to dine at Pung Mie (5145 Buford Highway, 770-455-0435), long one of my favorite Chinese restaurants. In one case, the restaurant was closed for a private party and I got stuck in the parking lot, literally, for 20 minutes while the oldest person on the planet got into a car to leave. The second time, I was talked into going to a new Mexican spot instead, El Veneno, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

But I made it back to Pung Mie, finally, last week. This restaurant is eccentric, though less so than in the past, for featuring Hong Kong-style cooking by Koreans. Besides this bit of strangeness, it was also known for being originally located in a former clubhouse of Narcotics Anonymous. A group of us took a friend there for dinner when he reached his first anniversary in that program. The kitchen whipped up a delicious "cake" – actually layered, sweet pancakes – and brought it to the table with a single candle.

That was probably 15 years ago. Pung Mie later moved to its present location next door – a comparatively palatial building with a private upstairs dining room and lobby with a staircase fit for posing the entire population of this year's debutantes from Charleston, Miami and Atlanta. The swanky interior worried everyone at first. We feared the home-style menu would get gussied up, too.

But it wasn't. I've had some favorites here for years. First are the dumplings, available in various forms, although I prefer the glossy fried ones, browned and full of spicy pork. A seasoned soy sauce is served with them, but I like to add a touch of the rice vinegar on the table.

My longtime favorite entree is the "hot braised chicken." The chicken is not braised at all. It is fried (boneless or bone-in) and used to be served with a light, oily, chili-filled sauce with some sweet notes. That seems to have been scaled back, but the dish is still delicious. I also douse this with rice vinegar to which I add the mild red chili powder on the table.

I resisted ordering another fave, the "meat ball," which is actually rather like a large, seasoned chop steak. Instead, at the server's suggestion, we ordered braised shrimp and abalone with mushrooms. The server said the shrimp came in a white sauce, and I told her I dislike white sauces. So she said I could have a brown sauce. I said I don't like brown sauces, either. So she suggested a "spicy sauce." Sure. What we got was a white sauce with some vaguely pink coloration.

The seafood was cooked just fine but was thickly coated in the cloying sauce that always tastes like corn starch to me. There was nothing "spicy" about it. I couldn't eat it, which was fine with Wayne, who liked it.

We also ordered eggplant with garlic sauce. I'm sorry to say the eggplant was greasy as hell and dotted with minced pork. You can order it, we learned, without the pork, and that would be my advice.

So, I'm afraid Pung Mie did not provide the comfort of the past. The service was still great – there are even red buttons at each table to call your server – but the food has lost its edge, or had the night of my visit.

Here and there

I also recently visited El Taco Veloz, near Pung Mie on Buford Highway. I had a major addiction to this taqueria for years, and for one reason: the chile relleno. It's still probably the best in the city. The restaurant uses whole, fresh poblanos stuffed with Chihuahua cheese and fries them in a deliciously spongy but thin breading.

You can order a burrito that contains two of the chiles or get a taco with one. I promise you that nobody else's chile relleno tacos and burritos come close. The restaurant, which has several other locations, also serves plates of popular meats such as carne asada with rice and beans, but you're a fool if you don't order the chile relleno.

You can eat inside here at a tiny bar but beware the view. The miniscule kitchen area doesn't, um, please the eye. The entire interior needs redecorating. There's also a patio, well-insulated with plastic, but the great majority of people use the takeout window. ...

It had also been years since I visited Agnes and Muriel's on Monroe Drive near Piedmont Avenue when I lunched there recently. This restaurant has the bizarre distinction of – read closely – featuring a retro, Jetson-style decor that has become archaic. It's uncoolly retro formerly cool retro. Got it? It needs a big redo.

Lunch was good, however. I had a fat burger, cooked just right, with too few slices of fried green tomatoes, and my friend Michael enjoyed a crab cake sandwich with squash casserole. The staff is still friendly and efficient, but I know they are dying for an updated stage on which to perform. ...

Please go to David Sweeney's Dynamic Dish at 427 Edgewood Ave., reviewed here last week. I've sent everyone I know there and have yet to hear a complaint. It is by far the best food of its type – organic, ovo-lacto-vegetarian – I've tasted in our city and, frankly, I want the damn place to prosper. I want the menu to expand. I want to continue feeling more energetic, stronger, more sexually vital and able to meet the Christmas season swinging both fists. It's amazing!

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