Midtown crawl

Revisiting some popular cheapies

My favorite flavor has always been cheap, and that has usually meant speeding out to Buford Highway to an ethnic restaurant. But the Great Recession has made cheap fashionable in town now. More burger joints are opening, pizzerias are multiplying and soon, I imagine, hot dog carts will be rolling down Peachtree.

Last week, I took a break from new restaurants to do some updates of popular Midtown-area cheapies. Much of the week, I dined alone since my partner Wayne had abandoned me for three days to attend a square dancing event. This is what happens when you finish your Ph.D. in epidemiology. You start square dancing.

Most of my visits were pleasing. Probably my favorite was Hong Kong Harbor (2184 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-325-7630), where I had not eaten more than once in the last couple of years. I used to eat there constantly, but infatuation with other Asian cuisines, especially Vietnamese, has made me an irregular.

My favorite there used to be the salt and pepper squid, which I regarded as the best in town, and the oysters in black bean sauce. This trip, though, I caught sight of a board special I couldn't resist – two lobster tails in a ginger-scallion sauce for only $21.

I asked the apparent manager if I could have the dish without soy sauce – I don't care much for Chinese "brown sauces" – and she said, "Of course." The result was a light, delicious sauce, heavy on the ginger.

The two tails were hacked into pieces with the shell attached. This is a good thing because so much flavor and redolence seems bound to the shell. I confess, though, that the tails did not have a whole lot of flavor, even though their springy texture was just right. I'm guessing the tails are bought frozen, whereas you can pick a whole lobster out of a tank here. I'd order it again, nonetheless.

I haven't been back to Across the Street (688 Highland Ave., 404-781-0931) since its opening a couple of years ago. I don't quite get this restaurant. It's a comfortable space, best known for being earlier occupied by Roman Lily Café. But the food, although it has great presentation, is often poorly seasoned. The cooks seem to use an inordinate amount of chili powder that is heavy on cumin. I have detested this flavor since I was a kid. Besides being used in Tex-Mex cuisine, I also encounter it in a lot of vegetarian cooking.

My favorite dish here was a pair of tostadas topped with shrimp, refried black beans, (too much) lettuce, tomatoes, onions, sour cream and queso fresco. The shrimp had been lightly marinated.

The worst dish was classic elote – an ear of grilled corn rolled in aioli, dotted with cheese and sprinkled with the inevitable chili powder. The corn was juicy, not overcooked and served literally cold. I asked the server why it was served cold and he said it apparently wasn't left on the grill long enough after being removed from the refrigerator. To his credit, he removed the charge for it from our bill.

Wayne did make it to this meal with me and ordered chilaquiles – corn chips soaked with mole and topped with queso fresco. He added chicken to it. This is a dish I frequently encountered in its more commercial form, Frito Pie, during my two years in Houston. I have never understood its appeal. Wayne enjoyed it, though.

I did enjoy my carnitas here, and the dessert, a large slice of tres leches cake. It was a little less moist than the usual, but I'm not going to whine too much.

On Friday night, Wayne and I joined three friends at Cowtippers (1600 Piedmont Ave., 404-874-3469). I've had a contentious relationship with this restaurant since its opening. I've never found the food terribly good and the staff has been terribly sensitive in the past to any criticism. Mainly, Cowtippers is popular for its large see-and-be-seen patio. On an icy winter night, only a sparse crowd filled the interior.

I have to say, I found it much improved – maybe because the food is less ambitious. It's mainly burgers now. My triple-patty burger with bacon and provolone cheese was named after the zaftig Mary Edith Pitts, a performer at nearby Burkhart's. It was terrific, even though its size prompted one friend to gasp and say, "I've always wanted to see someone eat one of those. I didn't think it was possible." It was easy, real easy.

Wayne ordered the only steak at the table – an Angus rib eye. At $15, it's hard to find anything to complain about. You'll probably like it.

The night Wayne returned from his three days of square dancing, he could not lift his head from the bed due to exhaustion, so I went alone to dinner at nearby Tin Lizzy's Cantina (415 Memorial Drive, 404-554-8220). This Tex-Mex place has turned into a crowded favorite with Grant Park folks.

I decided to eat light and order a salad topped with Buffalo shrimp and lime vinaigrette. The salad was one-and-a-half times the size of my head – very filling, very cheap – and the shrimp were pretty fiery.

Something like slapstick comedy developed here over my usual order of tonic water. The server brought me something that tasted like salty soda water and I sent it back. This happened three times. The manager, I think, came to the table and said he was pressing the tonic button on the bar dispenser. "Well, it's not tonic water," I said.

"Well, really, yes, it is," he said.

I told him not to sweat it, I'd have a diet Coke. I also explained that I have this experience fairly frequently. (In fact, the same thing happened at Cowtippers.) Ultimately, he returned with a glass that held actual tonic water. He gave a technical explanation for the problem and I thanked him. Really, that was service beyond the call of duty. Thanks, guys.

Where else? Olive Bistro (650 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-874-5336) for another salad topped with rosemary-seasoned chicken, and Eats (600 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-381-1189) for the incomparably tasty and cheap jerk chicken. I still think Steve Masri, owner of Olive Bistro, makes the best traditional Middle Eastern dishes, like hummus and falafel, in town. The only drawback to his cooking is the heavy use of garlic. I can't eat there at lunchtime if I'm seeing clients afterward. Eats offers pasta and veggie dishes as well as lemon-roasted chicken and jerk chicken. But the latter is the best choice.

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