GRAZING: Atlanta is a post-pandemic, post-pop-up dining paradise

Photo credit: CLIFF BOSTOCK
MORE HEAT, PLEASE: This is pop-up Humble Mumble’s take on SpagettiOs at the Full Commission recently. Everything was copacetic — the pasta rings, the manchego cheese, the tomato sauce — until the encounter with tepid (at best) and excessively ground lamb meatballs. Considering chef Justin Dixon’s talent, it was a shock, unfortunately not redeemed by another dish.

“It’s a miracle!” I shouted, looking into the pan atop my antique stove. There, simmering in their own fat and turning crispy, were chunks of pork — the authentic Mexican carnitas I have complained about being unable to find in Atlanta restaurants for 30 years. Lightly aromatic with chiles, garlic, and citrus, the carnitas begged to be folded into tortillas with salsa verde and pico de gallo. Unfortunately, I had not bothered to prepare those because, quite honestly, I did not expect the carnitas to be more than the usual soft roasted pork and planned to just throw them on a plate with some black beans and rice. Pathetically, I did heat some pita bread. It has no talent for impersonating tortillas.

These perfect carnitas were in a small container from Poco Loco, a fairly new burrito joint in Kirkwood. I bought them while ordering a burrito but began blithering about how I could never find actual, real, crispy carnitas in Atlanta. Owner-chef-cashier Nick Melvin tried to interrupt my rant, but I kept going. Finally he said, “If you will listen, I promise you that these will become crispy. The pork has been cured and cooked. All you have to do is put them in a pan and let them cook in the remaining fat” — I interrupted again, “Fine, OK, I’ll try them …” They were $15 for a pound, which seemed a bit pricey, but not really. They fed two of us that night.

My reason for visiting Poco Loco, which means “a little crazy” was to try out the breakfast burritos, a Tex-Mex specialty that I used to pick up on the way to work every weekday when I lived in Houston. Like the carnitas, the burrito I sampled was perfect. Each week, Melvin prepares one with meat, one ovo-lacto vegetarian, and one for kids with eggs and cheese only. There are also different frozen varieties available. The adult ones are dubbed with names that are indeed un poco loco. The week I visited, you could choose to eat fitness freaks Jess Sims or Cody Rigsby. Robin Arzon was available frozen.

I LOVE PIMENTO CHEESE!: But come on, Humble Mumble, don’t serve it so cold and glutinous that you can’t fully taste it or even scoop it on a cracker without breaking it. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
PREPARE TO BE DEVOURED: The gaping mouth of the ‘Jessica Simms’ burrito at Poco Loco reveals her delicious innards before she consumes your tastebuds. Ain’t no way to eat this without spooning on salsa verde. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
TINY BUT CRAZY: Poco Loco is on College Avenue in Kirkwood, next door to Molasses Barber and Beauty. There’s no interior seating but picnic tables out front are available — last month amid spooky jack-o’-lanterns, frowning owls, pinwheels, plants, and tombstones. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
THUS SPRACH GUCCI MANE: Poco Loco may be crazy, but there is such a thing in Tibetan wisdom known as ‘crazy wisdom.’ Read and heed before you feed. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK

The Jess Sims I chose was described as “green chile beef shoulder, Moore’s Farm eggs, home fries, roasted peppers and onions, pickled jalapenos, and American cheese in a house made flour tortilla, with salsa verde.” The burrito — medium-size compared to many — was rolled tight, wrapped in tinfoil, and easy to eat without spilling a drop. I know the ingredients sound like a kitchen-sink concoction. I balked at the home fries, for example, but they were a perfect complement to the creamy scrambled eggs. The sour green sauce was a nice way to wake up my body that morning.

There is no indoor seating here, although there are picnic tables out front on a patio that, in honor of Halloween, was more than poco loco itself. There was a steady flow of people picking up orders. During my meal, only two other people chose table seating. I noticed that the guy at the table across from mine was devouring two burritos. I, not being shy since my brain began its descent into Alzheimer’s, said,  “Wow man, you actually eat two of those? Is that the Cody Rigsby?” The man looked at me blankly, said “yes,” looked down, and took another bite. That burrito mixed the eggs with “cauliflower adobo.” I have to be honest. I used to love cauliflower. But I’m sick of it now, people. You finally pulled back a little from the kale. How about not turning cauliflower into meat?

The burrito I sampled has me wanting to go back, but the “provisions” case of the store that holds the carnitas and other weekly specials insures my return. Among those when I visited were a buffalo-chorizo dip, pineapple-citrus agua fresca, salsa verde, black bean and corn salad, smoked pork charros, sweet pickled jalapeños, fermented sweet chile sauce, house-made tortillas, and “frozen sicker-doozie dough.” The following week included carne asada marinated in salsa macha, chile-lime hummus, jerked black beans, and fermented poblano hot sauce.

Chef-owner Melvin was most recently in the kitchen at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q. He like, so many others, found himself derailed by the pandemic. The derailment turned out, as it also did for many others, to be a gift of sorts. He started Poco Loco as a pop-up operating out of his home with so much success that he was motivated to rent the space vacated by Dish Dive, located next to Molasses Barber and Beauty. “It’s a dream come true,” he told me.

POCO LOCO, GRAN MILAGRO: Yes, it’s a big fat miracle performed by Chef Nick Melvin. He is slow-cooking carnitas overnight and selling them for takeout, along with other provisions. These are real. He cooks the hacked pork chunks in their fat to the edge of crispiness. You take them home, put them in a pan, and finish them off. They are perfection. Get the house-made tortillas and some green sauce. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
IRWIN STREET MARKET: Bomb Biscuits is the latest to occupy the kitchen here on its way from pop-up to something grander. Owner-chef Erika Council is baking her already famous buttermilk biscuits (and sandwiches made thereof) for delivery, shipping, and pick-up on Friday and Saturday, when you can also walk in for a few hours with hope in your heart and belly that you’ll score a booster bite for Covid melancholia. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
BISCUIT WAVES ITS TONGUE AT MY MOTHER: Erika Council makes the iconic country ham biscuit with the perfect ham and disconcerting cornmeal. I am still trying to figure out if I can accept it since it’s such a refutation of my Southern mother’s flour biscuits with the same ham. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
STOP TEASING US: After being pressed against the cheeks, Erika Council’s buttermilk biscuit warms up to you, parts its lips, and— much like Nick Melvin’s burrito— invites your tongue to toy with its naughty crumbs. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK

Pop-ups are erratic and hard to keep track of, but they are producing some of the most interesting cuisine in the city now. Without the high overhead, chefs are freer to experiment and create unique niches for themselves. If successful, they may go on, like Melvin, to tie themselves to their own brick-and-mortar locations. One example I can’t wait to try is maybe a little more loco than Poco Loco, at least in its name: Pho Cue. If you know that “pho” is correctly pronounced “fuh,” you know you can’t wait to buy their merch.

The restaurant, not open at this writing, is scheduled to start serving by the first week of November. Located in Glenwood Village, it will be serving a menu of Vietnamese and barbecue dishes. Some, like the pho and a rack of ribs, adhere fairly strictly to their separate origins in Vietnam and Texas. Others, like smoked brisket eggrolls, are hybrids. The owners are Brian Holloway, a food truck manager, and Julian Wissman, a pitmaster from — guess where — Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, where Nick Melvin also worked. Thanks, Fox Bros., for the talent!

Another pop-up that’s gained significant attention is Humble Mumble. Owner-chef Justin Dixon has an impressive resume, starting in 2007 when he worked at Pano’s and Paul’s. Most recently, he’s run the kitchens at the Shed at Glenwood, Bully Boy, and Wonderkid. Yes, his pop-up’s name is borrowed from the Outkast song, and his website includes a virtual manifesto that weaves together themes of social activism, humility, fairness, music, and food.

Humble Mumble pops up now and then for lunch at the Pig and the Pearl in Atlantic Station, but mainly for dinner at places like Parlor, Dead End Drinks, and Full Commission, which I visited on a Friday night. I liked Dixon’s somewhat kinky cooking at Wonderkid but, to be honest, my meal at Full Commission fell short. I had the feeling I was eating food that had been prepared and plated well in advance. A funny take on Campbell’s canned SpaghettiOs ($1.50 or less at a Publix near you) included the pasta rings, a tomato sauce, and a ton of manchego cheese — all perfect for my inner kid. But my less inner adult was tempted by the fat lamb meatballs, not good for a ridiculous reason. As I told my inquiring server, “Uh-oh, my SpaghettiOs’ meatballs are unheated.” The meat was also too finely ground for my taste.

My other dish was similarly a throwback to the fairly old South — an appetizer of glutinous pimento cheese served with tasteless slices of flimsy radishes, spears of carrots and lifeless squash, sliced dill pickles, a stalk of weirdly pickled okra, and some crackers. Images of my mother’s kitchen counter kept bouncing in my head, so the humble allusions were spot-on, but the mumbling ingredients bumbled the dish.

I have enjoyed Chef Dixon’s food at his earlier gigs, so I have no explanation for this disappointment.

ANOTHER SHY FORMER POP-UPPER: Julian Wissman, formerly a pitmaster at Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q, has opened Pho Cue in Glenwood Park. This photo, posted on the restaurant’s Facebook page, bears this caption: The secret to Sunday Bunday is to find optimal angles in the grass. PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK
VERTICAL SEATING ONLY: Pho Cue’s dining room in its new brick-and-mortar location will hopefully be open by the time you read this. The restaurant, like its original pop-up incarnation, features Vietnamese and Texas barbecue in both classic and hybrid dishes. Stop by, enjoy a meal, and meet a pho buddy (as their t-shirts suggest). PHOTO CREDIT: FACEBOOK

Speaking of pimento cheese, I’m sure you often hallucinate a perfect buttermilk biscuit layered with it and a slice of fried green tomato. That is one of the breakfast sandwiches Erika Council of Bomb Biscuits creates. Council became well known for her prepandemic pop-ups around town and is now operating out of Irwin Street Market, whose mission is to help aspiring chefs build their business. Council is part of a Southern family of renowned biscuit bakers and restaurateurs. She’s also a skilled food writer.


ENJOY AMPUTATION AND EVISCERATION: Unlike Nick Melvin’s burritos and Erika Council’s biscuits, Tum Pok Pok’s massive squid opens its would-be mouth and shrieks that it is made of Silly Putty with nipples. Two of us who are addicted to the restaurant could not abide this dish, so we made a gift of it to someone we assumed would be horrified. Instead, he ate it. He in fact froze half of it and thawed it a day later and wolfed it down too. So don’t mind us. PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK
WHY YOU DO THIS TO ME?: I’ve reported several times that I am addicted to Hero Doughnuts & Buns in Summerhill, to the extent that this ‘Super Crunch’ chicken sandwich has caused me to abandon Popeyes. The cubist hash browns are also surreally habit-forming, just as Picasso planned them to be. Unfortunately, Hero has chosen to offend me and I’m sure others by removing the fried pork chop sandwich from the menu. I was accustomed to alternating it with the chicken, and now I am left only with the burger alternative. They also removed the fried bologna, but I’m okay with that. Until the pork chop with its panko crust and lovely ‘boom boom’ sauce returns, I am boycotting the pistachio and bread pudding doughnuts. Got that, Hero? PHOTO CREDIT: CLIFF BOSTOCK

I visited recently to try out the bacon-cheddar and the country ham biscuits and to fetch six not-so-plain buttermilk beauties for later consumption. I’ve not stopped thinking about them since and ended up hunting down biscuits at other venues. I admit that I yanked the bacon-cheddar one out of the box and ate it so fast in the market’s patio that I forgot to photograph it. I also admit that the country ham biscuit just wasn’t my thing. That biscuit was made with cornmeal. I know it’s not actually a sacrilege, but it defies my family’s tradition. My uncle cured country hams, and every Christmas morning we ate the ham, still my ultimate comfort food, with red-eye gravy and biscuits my mother made. So, the cornmeal just slapped me in the face even as I ate every crumb. The ham, by the way, was the real thing. The other biscuits, which you will want to press against your cheeks after warming, got eaten later with fig butter and honey. They are available for home delivery, shipping, and takeout. The market counter is only open a few hours on Friday and Saturday.

Alright, I have one other thing to admit. I picked up the biscuits after my visit to Poco Loco. Yes, that’s right. I ate a burrito, three biscuits, and a pile of carnitas on the same day with plenty of other stuff. Timing is everything when you’re visiting these postpandemic, post-pop-up venues with limited hours. I encourage you to check their websites and Instagram pages for hours before setting out. But do go. —CL—

Poco Loco, 2233 College Ave. Open 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Thurs.-Fri. and 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Satur. Find the week’s menu and place advance orders on the website, pocolocoatl.com @pocolocoatl

Pho Cue, 925 Garrett St. 404-549-7595. eatphocue.com @eatphocue

Humble Mumble. humblemumbleatl.com @humblemumbleatl, @issablackchef

Bomb Biscuits, 660 Irwin St. Open 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Fri. and 9 a.m. until sold out Sat. Order online only at bombiscuital.com @bombbiscuitatl.com, #bombbiscuits

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