Yes, I know. Times change. The gentrification of Virginia-Highland -- the displacement of its impoverished kooks by the rich and homogenized -- is just one more marker of my own aging. But I submit there's more involved: a diminishment of authenticity. You, for example, might drive by the new, staggeringly corporate-looking Stars Steaks & Barbecue sign on North Highland and not blink.
I, on the other hand, know that it displaces Indigo and Partners, which began the gentrification of that neighborhood. And before that, the space was partly occupied by a hole-in-the-wall deli where you could buy the city's best chopped liver. Thus that one space discloses much: the change from small ethnic operation to boutique restaurant to corporate steakhouse. To me, this is the loss of character, even if it accurately depicts the neighborhood's transition. (And let me quickly say that, for all I know at this writing, Tom Catherall may be serving excellent steaks at his oddly fronted new restaurant.)
Where homogenization becomes especially problematic for me is in the appropriation and -- how shall I put this? -- the "insipidizing" of ethnic cuisines. I remain completely mystified by the popularity of Doc Chey's, a noodle house where everything tastes remarkably, blandly unlike its authentic Asian inspirations on Buford Highway.
Now Doc Chey's owners, having already expanded into the burrito market in Buckhead with Bajarito's, have entered the taco market too. Taqueria el Mundo is located at 832 N. Highland Ave. (404-897-1414), sharing space with Caribou Coffee and Highland Bagel.
I confess I was prepared to hate it. I admit I rather liked it.
Though I generally loathe the corporate Martha-Stewartization of coffee houses, I find this Caribou location quite simpatico. What I like is the way the restaurant has lined its tables up in long rows. You can be thrown into elbow-intimacy with total strangers, and I think this is a fine antidote to the contempt all of us nurse for one another in Post-Yuppieville.
The food is cheap. Fat tacos made with flour tortillas are $2 each, and the novel enchiladas, grandiose layers of corn tortillas and fillings, are only $4 each. I have two general complaints. The main one is that the restaurant uses about three times the onions that anyone conducting normal human relationships wants to eat. The other problem is that the food is unevenly heated. I assume much is cooked in advance and then reheated. A taco of grilled chicken with poblano peppers and tomatillo salsa is tasty enough if you ignore the onions, but why is some of the chicken hot and some barely tepid? Ditto for the otherwise fresh-tasting steak fajitas.
True to their multi-cultural experiments, the owners have designed one particularly forgettable taco. The Peking Pork taco is like poorly designed moo shu, with echoes of hoisin played against cilantro and cabbage. Not for me. I did very much like the fish taco -- nuggets of batter-fried fish wrapped with cabbage drizzled with jalapeño dressing.
The surprise was the vegetarian Harvest taco. It's filled with chipotle-seasoned mashed potatoes, corn salsa, tomatillo salsa, onions and cilantro. You won't miss the meat. Its creamy, crunchy texture is quite nice.
I think I like the tacos better than the enchilada "stacks," though the latter are served more uniformly hot if just as oniony. The carnita stack features roasted pork, pinto beans, poblano peppers, sauteed onions and jack cheese. You can have any of the enchiladas with a red or green sauce. I recommend the latter, a nice version that, granted, could use a good bit more heat, but keeping piquancy toned down seems to be one of the agendas here. Honestly, up the chiles and cut those damn onions! What's that all about? We won't burn your tongue, but we will destroy your breath?
Down the Street
It has been years since I visited Mirror of Korea, the longtime tenant next to the Plaza Theater, at 1047 Ponce de Leon Ave. (404-874-6243). In this case, an authentically owned restaurant has compromised itself for the local palate.
Or the not-so-local palate. Our meal was not improved by the endless prattling of a Dunwoody gentleman at the sushi bar. He congratulated himself continually for driving all the way from Dunwoody to eat there, while the sushi chef, a very pleasant woman, grew slowly cross-eyed and brutal with the fish.
Alas, sushi, cut from fish wrapped in plastic, is not very fresh tasting here and even the array of snacks brought to the table at the beginning of the meal tasted bottled. No zip, no tartness, no deep saltiness. The menu offers Chinese and Korean food and the sushi chef suggested the hot and sour soup. I ate it so that you might not suffer similarly. Avoid it, as you would flour and vinegar porridge.
Classic bul go gi -- the sliced, marinated and barbecued pork -- is so far from the splendid examples you find at restaurants like Hae Wan Do, that I'm at a loss to explain the chef's willingness to serve it.
What do I like about the place? It's kind of funky and fun, almost like a movie set. Hey, I've got it. Drop some acid and eat here.
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