Grazing: New and cheap
Visits to La Hacienda, Chow Bing, and Delia's Chicken Sausage Stand Westside
Some day, right here in the Southland, we shall see the coming of the Apocalyptic Palate. Its fiery tongue will scorch away the taste buds of the namby-pamby and grow new ones. We'll be one big happy family, indulging our love of weirdly exotic flavors, hot chiles, tingling numbness, spontaneous memories, and the rush of endorphins.
Meanwhile, we suffer on. Recently, I visited three relatively new, inexpensive restaurants that are members of small local chains. Two – Chow Bing and La Hacienda — are blandissimo, despite representing normally rather spicy cuisines. A third, the wildly popular Delia's Chicken Sausage Stand, manages to hurl occasional mild bolts of spicy flavor in the shape of weenies.
Let's start with the blandest. Chow Bing (3330 Piedmont Road., Ste. 22B, 404-816-8008, www.chowbing.com) in Buckhead is the spawn of a restaurant of the same name in the Pencil Factory Lofts that opened about a year ago. I still give owner Gary Lin props for his concept. His mainly Chinese-American dishes are made with sustainable, organic, and local ingredients. Microwaves are banned. The plates are free of lead.
But, alas, those plates are also largely free of the distinguished flavors they deserve. The blandness seems particularly strange since there is some playful blend of Tex-Mex and Chinese cooking. You can build your own burrito, for example, with ingredients including roasted brisket, fried tilapia, grilled shrimp, noodles or rice, and veggies. I'd done that at the original restaurant with moderate but bland success, so this time I chose another fusion dish: "wonton nachos" heaped with chicken, black beans, jalapenos, tomatoes and a not-at-all "spicy cilantro sauce." It actually ended up being my favorite plate on the table — not a bit different from nachos at a Tex-Mex joint except for the wontons subbing for chips. But it did have some zing.
The rest of the meal was so bland that even my wussy-mouthed friends complained. An exemplary case was my "chicken box." It sounded fun: thin slices of fried chicken breast served over rice, red-cabbage slaw, and French fries. Then it was scattered with red, grape-like pieces of a sweet pork sausage. The description includes words like "garlic," "honey & lime," and "soy sauce glaze." Sorry, but no can taste, or barely so. The strongest flavor by far was sweet. The rice was overcooked, as was a hardboiled egg whose yolk was thickly ringed in blue.
Moving up the proverbial spice route, I actually enjoyed La Hacienda (900 Monroe Drive, 404-941-7890), even though its food is almost entirely the usual Tex-Meh. Located where the Silver Grill stood for 60-plus years, the building looks like a movie set's typical yellow adobe cliché, inside and out. But all is forgiven. One wall features a portrait of Frida Kahlo, a perfect muse for Midtown.
I've sampled one dish of the typically gigantic menu that I seriously disliked — a taco whose carne asada tasted like it had been coated in a grocery-store chili powder. I couldn't eat more than a bite. (Do try the tongue taco and let me know.) Carnitas, as usual around town, wasn't really carnitas but succeeded fine as cubes of roasted pork folded into tortillas with plenty of the restaurant's quite decent green sauce. A plate of shredded pork with a virtually bland mole likewise worked inside a tortilla with pico and an inappropriate shot of comparatively complex chipotle sauce.
The real attraction here isn't going to be the food. It's the party scene. The restaurant has a rooftop patio for margarita-swilling.
The winner is Delia's Chicken Sausage Stand (881 Marietta St., 404-254-0408, www.thesausagestand.com). This second location solves the problem of very limited seating at the original on Moreland. In addition to a fairly roomy dining room, there's a rooftop space fashioned from a huge storage container. It's as quirky as owner Delia Champion's brain — the one that hatched the Flying Biscuit more than 20 years ago.
Much of the menu is sloppy kid food for adults — links in hoagies that are takes on hot dogs. But the sausage is also shaped into patties and crumbled in more complex dishes.
I almost always go for the same thing, "the Champ," a grilled link in a hoagie roll with sauerkraut and sweet and peppery mustard, an example of a mild but pointed blast of spicy. I also like the meatball grinder with mozzarella and marinara, a better-than-average reminder of my childhood days in Philly. I'm not fond of the breakfast dishes like the Mother Clucker — link sausage on a roll, topped with eggs your way, melted cheddar, and the sometimes slightly fiery "comeback sauce." Get breakfast anytime, starting at 7 a.m., when Delia's opens daily (it's open all night Friday and Saturday).
Presentation here can be a bit unappetizing. Meatloaf over rice looks like an unsparing study in beige lava, the meat completely hidden under gravy. But, to my surprise, it tasted great. When do we get a chicken-fried sausage-steak?
Delia's and Chow Bing are super-cheap, while La Hacienda is moderately priced. The goal of these places, overall, is fun. Friends and I encountered staff with striking personalities – especially Chow Bing's young Persian counter-man who confirmed my observation that the entire kitchen staff is Hispanic. Someday, perhaps, such restaurants will crank up the authentic ethnic flavors and consult the Scoville Heat Scale, which sorts the capsaicin-savvy from the dumb-of-tongue.