Grazing: Love shack

Revisiting R. Thomas' Deluxe Grill, plus Honduran on the horizon

Let's go back. Way back. I'm a freshman at William and Mary. One day my friends Larry and Diana invite me to a "happening" on the banks of the James River. There, amid an encampment of hippie squatters living in lean, we get totally fucked up on very good acid. Later, we feast. I, seeing God out the corner of one eye, am presented a plate of big white lumps that turns out to be my first encounter with tofu. I nearly hurl my love beads.

This scene inevitably flashed back to me when I visit R. Thomas' Deluxe Grill (1812 Peachtree Road, 404-872-2942). I've been visiting the place since it opened in the mid-'80s and fell in love with the psychedelic interior instantly. The ceiling of the dining room used to be festooned with the same kind of hippie crap that I had in my dorm room. But, happily, owner Richard Thomas served good, straightforward food — probably the city's best burgers at the time and a great breakfast. The diner also distinguished itself by offering an alternative to the Majestic for late-night dining. Most agreeable of all, Thomas installed a magical garden on the site.

The garden has only gotten better. The gorgeous organic flowers grown in containers seem to climb into the sky by virtue of colorful whirling wind machines. Around the side, parrots inhabit cages. It looks, seriously, like a piece of 1960s San Francisco dropped onto Peachtree.

Around 1990, Thomas began venturing out of the burger-and-breakfast nook. He added fresh juices to the menu. It's hard to believe, but back then, R. Thomas was one of very few vendors of fresh juice. It was so much the better that you could sip juice and eat a burger without a Rastafarian glaring at you through wheat-grassed eyes. Then, Thomas went ... wacky.

I'm sure Donna Gates, author of the Body Ecology Diet, is sincere and I know, because of conversations I've had with him, that Thomas believes in the menu of strange food, much of it raw, he has developed with her help.

I don't want to suggest that you have to eat weird raw food here. There is still some meat on the menu — burgers, chicken, salmon — and some pretty conventional pasta dishes and straightforward breakfast items. The meats are organic and free-range, which is cool. But they want you to eat weird stuff.

I don't have a principled objection to nachos made with salty tortilla chips and melted white cheese, served with hummus, red bean dip, guac, sour cream and salsa. But it didn't taste good. The salsa tasted like a mediocre bottled variety and the raw hummus had insufficient moisture to permit easy swallowing. The mashed red beans, equally dry, do not deserve to exist. The best part of the dish was some shredded carrots and zucchini with a pleasantly pickled flavor. The guac was missing.

Wayne's starter was much better. Slightly pickled vegetables and quinoa were rolled into nori wrappers with a spicy, garlicky dressing. Wasabi was on the side. He stuck to the meatless choices for his entree, selecting the "tempeh master" bowl — pieces of sauteed tempeh over quinoa with veggies and ginger-tamari sauce. (Cilantro, promised by the menu, was missing, as it was from the nachos.) Wayne kept repeating how much he likes tempeh but it is artlessly prepared here, compared to what you'll find at, say, Harmony, the Chinese vegetarian restaurant on Buford Highway. The ginger-tamari sauce was vague and the tempeh itself had the texture of fudge. Loved the quinoa, though!

Much better was my organic salmon dusted with amaranth flour and sauteed in lemon and clarified butter. It too was served over the ubiquitous quinoa with a dollop of something called Dijon hiziki, which our waiter said would aid my digestion. The restaurant was out of the raw collard-kale salad, so I ordered the raw ginger beets, which tasted more flavored by onions than ginger.

I ordered my favorite carrot-apple-ginger juice which, along with the delightful garden, was adequate to redeem the funky health food. The staff is as kooky as ever, but I've got to say that a walk to the restroom is a frightening journey here. All seating is on the patio. The old dining room was long ago turned into kitchen space. It is a shock to the eyes and nostrils and imparts a keener recollection of my hippie youth than I want.

br>?Looking for Honduras
I have exciting but tentative news. I have found a menu of specialties from Honduras. I call this news tentative because in two visits to La Pastorcita (3304 Buford Highway, 440-321-3500), I've been unable to order it. "Mañana," I've been told twice.

I will keep going back until they cook me yucca with pigs feet, yucca with chicharrones and fried chicken with banana slices. I haven't had the dishes since a visit to an L.A. restaurant five years ago.

Thus far, I've contented myself with the Mexican dishes. The specialty here is the al Pastor. But like so many restaurants in Atlanta, the dish doesn't come close to what I used to eat in Mexico. Al Pastor is pork meat that has been thoroughly marinated in a complex chili sauce and then cooked on a rotisserie with pineapples on top. The meat should be cut from the rotisserie when you order it. It makes, in my opinion, the best taco and restaurants in Mexico City are quite competitive about their different versions.

Here, as elsewhere, the al Pastor doesn't seem to have ever seen a rotisserie and the meat is cut into little chunks, many of them gristly. It's not bad in one of La Pastorcita's big burritos slicked with melted white cheese, but it ain't nothing like the real thing. I do like the barbacoa here, though, and there are some good sandwiches.

This restaurant, which has walls in a green that does not occur in nature, is kin to one of the same name on Jimmy Carter Boulevard.

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

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