Come in from the cold 

Three great ethnic spots help fight the winter blues

February is our tough month in Atlanta. The chill has settled decisively in our bones, and days bleed together in unremitting shades of gray. The bed? So hard to vacate. Sure, we elude the snowbound climes that beleaguer a good portion of the country. But that doesn't make winter here any less gloomy.

A bit of homespun adventure can help abate the wintry ennui. Food-wise, it's the ideal time to seek out offbeat ethnic eats. It's daunting to grasp how blessed Atlanta is in this regard: There are hoards of mom-and-pop eateries serving unfamiliar yet accessibly scrumptious treats from around the globe.

Here are three low-cost, off-the-beaten-path places I've visited recently that stirred my benumbed spirits with vibrant, memorable meals.

Cafeteria La Oaxaquena

To be blunt, Cafeteria La Oaxaquena doesn't look so tantalizing from the outside. Its facade is a weathered white, with the eatery's name painted hastily in red. The small, beat-up parking lot has seen better days. But do not hesitate. Inside awaits one of the great culinary secrets of the city.

That would be tlayuda, pronounced by some mystery of linguistics as "cla-YOO'-da." Tlayuda is a Mexican pizza of sorts, a street food from Oaxaca (wa-HA'-ka), the culturally rich southern state of Mexico. It's really a cross between a pizza and an open-faced taco. A platter-sized corn tortilla is griddled until crispy and just blackened, then spread with a silky sheen of pureed beans and topped with a riot of saucy meat, shredded lettuce, slices of ripe avocados and stringy, melty white cheese.

Why this dish isn't better known is an enigma. It's a dream come true for the American palate -- a little sweet, a little smoky, a cross between pizza and nachos. It's the ultimate Super Bowl snack.

You get several choices of toppings for your tlayuda at Cafeteria La Oaxaquena. I'm partial to the cecina: strips of pork cooked in a mild red chile paste. Order at the counter, grab a drink from the cooler near the register (sweet Mexican soda or a tamarind-flavored beverage are fun options) and plop down in a booth.

When your tlayuda is ready, a good-natured staff member will hand it to you with bottles of green and red salsa. If you like to feel the burn, use the green stuff liberally. The tlayuda is sliced into four sections. How to eat it? It's a toss-up. The knife-and-fork approach is perfectly acceptable, but as it cools off, I grow impatient and want to pick it up with my hands.

Every bite offers a fresh surprise. The tortilla is crispier or more charred in one corner, or the lashings of red salsa bring an extra tingle to the avocado and pork in an especially satisfying mouthful. Eating this thing, which is the ideal size to be shared with one other person, I become frantic with joy.

The other menu item worthy of mention are the tamales wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with a thin yet intense layer of chicken mole. The rest of the menu is mainly sandwiches and quesadillas -- typical stuff. Still hungry after your first round? Order another tlayuda.

Tofu Village

"Whoa there, partner," I hear you thinking. "Don't be tryin' to sell me on some white brick of squishy blandness." While I can respect your position, hear me out before you skip over this section of the article. Because if you've ever had the slightest inclination or curiosity toward tofu, this spiffy Korean spot is worth a visit.

The difference here is that the tofu is made on-premises -- twice daily, in fact. That slightly fermented tofu taste that makes your mouth twist into unsightly contortions? Not to be found. The simple, thick slabs of pan-fried tofu are dense, meaty and milky mild. One steamed variety, where the tofu has been striated with spinach and tomato, looks like the Italian flag. Frankly, it's something of a revelation to encounter a restaurant that brings such loving attention to bean curd.

Servers with modest English skills will bring tea and homemade soymilk (I won't pressure you to try it), and place a pictorial menu in your hands. Your first trip out, I'd start with the pan-fried tofu and a soup. Colorful plates of kimchee soon arrive (the selection changes daily, but there was one variation of cabbage flavored with tiny, sharply salty fish that I would swear had Old Bay seasoning in it).

My favorite soup is a full-bodied brew with seafood and velvety soft tofu. It's boiling vigorously when the server sets it down. She picks up an egg with a questioning gesture and, if you nod, breaks it into the soup. Stir it in and it disappears, the instantly cooked egg whites barely discernable from the tofu.

The restaurant, decorated in beige wood and clean lines, is astonishingly modern. Along one wall, carefully designed posters describe (in Korean, unfortunately for nonspeakers) the method of making tofu. There's a large, strange photograph hovering above the server's beverage station. It's dark, but you can make out flashes of light and what look like metal buildings. Is it a picture of a UFO sighting in Korea? Stop in and then let me know your guess (yes, that is just another angle I'm working to get you to come try the tofu here).

Orient

Chinese restaurants in Atlanta always leave me wanting. I offer that as an explanation as to why I would drive all the way to Suwanee to investigate a restaurant that specializes in Shanghai-style cooking. Orient bills itself as a "fusion diner," a moniker that means it offers cuisine from several provinces of China and not, thankfully, fusion stylings like tempura lobster tail with Thai green curry and edamame ragout.

When you crack open the laminated binder of offerings, long lists of standards (General Tso's chicken, moo shu beef and such) stare back at you. Flip to the back to peruse the Shanghai selections. The owner, a cheerful woman named Alice, will be thrilled. "Most people aren't interested in this kind of food," she beamed when she came to talk to our table.

So, what is Shanghai-style cuisine? The cooking tends to be lighter, the sauces milder than its Szechuan and Cantonese counterparts. We began with an intriguing array of appetizers: fava beans sauteed with scallions; cold, sweet slices of duck whose fat had been nicely rendered; and crunchy bamboo shoots in a tangy shrimp sauce.

A stir-fry of pristine shrimp, scallops and vegetables is served in a gentle wine sauce over crispy pan-fried noodles. After a few minutes, the noodles become malleable and the dish takes on a soft, soothing quality that makes it difficult to stop eating. A dish of shredded pork and thin strips of firm tofu dusted with five-spice powder delivers an easygoing kick.

Crispy orange beef is listed under the Shanghai specialties. Is it different from the mall version I had loved as a teenager? Not really. The beef is overly chewy and glossy, not crispy. The fried orange peel gives it an appealing bittersweet edge. Traditional Shanghai dumplings don't seem radically different from your average potstickers, either.

Is it worth the trek? Yes, if, like me, you're frustrated with the unadventurous intown Chinese fare and are jonesing for something that ventures beyond the ho-hum norm. There are still lots of things I'm curious to try: shredded eel with yellow chives, buffalo carp with a dark brown sauce ... ooh, and I'm dying to check out "steam Oriental bacon with soft tofu." Could be just the thing to give my palate a jump-start on a forlorn, chilly night.

bill.addison@creativeloafing.com

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