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Oct 16, 2006 09:18 PM

Atlanta, Marietta, Tasty China. Full Report

After ten visits in ten weeks, I can no longer keep my lip zipped: The best Chinese food I have ever eaten is not at Frank Ma's on its best night ever. Nor at our pre-wedding banquet for thirty out of town guests at Honto back in the day. Nor the dim sum at Seafood Harbor in Millbrae near San Francisco Airport. Nor any of dozens of places in NYC.

Its at Tasty China here in Marietta, hidden in an innocuous Lower
Loop 120 and Franklin Road strip center far from Buford Highway,
cater-corner from Haveli socked in between a Mexican dance club and the International Deli.

Tasty China's Sichuan food focuses on the cuisine of southwestern
Sichuan. Sichuan food like I have never eaten, seen or heard tell of anywhere. Flavor and technique explosive food prepared by a chef who set Washington DC afire then vanished silently last winter to the dismay of local hounds, and whose picture with the President of China adorns the wall behind the cash register.

Since mid-August we have been to Tasty China weekly, sometimes more. We, who bought our house premised on the geographic imperative that it be no more than twelve minutes from Buford Hwy, Chamblee and Chinatown Square now slavishly schlep to Lower Loop 120 and Franklin road, and do so with relish. This past Friday evening, we drove for over an hour to get there--for what on the return trip took a scant twenty-two minutes. So what moves me suddenly at a certain age to pine to sleep within hailing distance of the Big Chicken?

What may be the best northern Chinese food not only in Atlanta, but in NYC, San Francisco and Vancouver. Dishes and flavor profiles that astound me.

A very large menu, and although there is no 'secret menu' hidden from non-Chinese language speakers, the English language menu listings translate dish names, more metaphorical in their original than descriptive. So ordering is generally a crapshoot, albeit one that yields routinely extraordinary results.

The menu begins with two pages of Hot and Cold Appetizers. These are almost all so good, that its challenging to get beyond them. Their average price is $5 and the portions huge, so we tend to order as many as possible with no intent of eating them all that night. Next comes two pages of Chinese American stalwarts such as chow fun, salt and pepper squid, moo goo gai whatever-- which can and should be skipped in favor of the three pages of Sichuan and Chef specialties and Vegetables that follow.

Some Tasty China caveats:
--Service is good natured, but the wait staff is new and still learning. Dishes get forgotten. I often have to ask for chopsticks and rice bowls and water.
--The owner/maitre 'd is very conservative in his recommendations, concerned to please you and somewhat ESL handicapped. The manager is a short woman with very good English who talks a mile a minute and aims to please. With either, insist that you like it full flavored, and spicy, have round eyes but a Chinese stomach, and refuse to take no for an answer.
--Trust the Appetizer/Sichuan Sections of the menu, and if you see something that looks good on another table, ask.
--The place is small, around 75 seats, and is already pretty busy on Fridays and packed on Saturdays. The word is getting out in the Asian community.
--There is a weekday lunch buffet of which you should steer clear. Chef Co-Proprietor Peter Chang cooks the menu, not the buffet.
--No license, but you are welcome to BYOB.

The menu is big, big, big. I'll try to describe from memory some of the dishes just to provide a jumping off point. Forgive me if I can't remember every name and or menu number!

Soups. The soup section is short. We have tried only one:
--Ground Fish and Parsley Soup. Clear broth very slightly touched with cornstarch, soft tofu and tilapia crumbled and abundant fresh cilantro. Very bland, yet very comforting. (Maitre 'd tried to push the Crab and Asparagus soup. Real crab, he said. Seeking a simple clear soup for the cold evening, we demurred.) Debie wanted hot oil to add to it. I pointed out that with all the flavors coming next, this was a good balance and a good jumping off point. Sat lunch on the reheat, she agreed. Note: soups do not seem to be a strongpoint on this menu.

Hot and Cold Appetizers. Almost two pages, maybe 90 items. Here are some of the few that I can remember:
--#11 The big round Sesame Scallion bread, what I can't help but think of as Chinese Jewish rye bread. Don't miss, feeds four to eight. Great the next day, and with ALL and any of the appetizers/entrees.
-- The 'Puffy Bread'. These are like wheat based puri's not cooked in ghee, dusted with cumin and perhaps crushed sichuan peppers. Exc.
--Three Flavor Bean Curd. DO NOT MISS. Crisped sheet of dried tofu, atop layer of sticky rice atop layer of shitake mushrooms. Comfort food of the highest order.
--Fish and Cilantro Fingers/Rolls. Cigar shaped tubes filled with
cilantro and fish. Exc. Must have, every time.
--Won Tons in Sichuan Spicy Oil. Factory wrappers are ok, Sichuan Spicy Oil is more akin to a broth. Very bracing. Very good.
--Spicy Beef Roll. This is fast becoming one of my favorites. I dream of it all alone as lunch. Inside are precisely sized slivers of the similarly dressed beef substance as the 'Husband and Wife' Beef and Lung app, some cabbage and some chiles. No hoisin as in Shanghai versions of this dish--thank goodness.
--Sichuan Noodles. Always good. Noodles not hand made.
--Dan Dan Noodles. Tried once, it had a gloppy sesame/peanut sauce. Probably need to retry.
--Sesame Smoked Chicken. Tried once, it didn't grab me. The second time it was like the best tea-smoked duck ever, and would gladly reorder.
---Husband And Wife. Slices of Beef and Lung, dressed with cilantro, chiles, garlic. Exc.
--Pork in Garlic Mud. Slices of pork belly, dressed in what else, garlic. Absolutely must not miss.
--Small Fried Fish, the very last app on the bottom on the right hand page. Small head on smelts, halved, light coating fried once, then sauteed a second time with chiles, garlic, salt, cilantro, scallions maybe the very slightest hint of cumin. Highly addictive.
--Eggplant with sesame. just ok. Too many other wonderful things to reorder.

So that's a capsule of about maybe fifteen per cent of the appetizer section. Hell, at $4 to $6 a pop, I try to order two per person just to get through the whole section. With 80% of the items we've tried qualifying as must haves/greatest hits, we are not doing too well in that respect.

--Dry Fried Eggplant (off menu--just ask the Maitre d' for it). Logs of Japanese Eggplant fried once, then a second time with a dusting of crushed Sichuan red peppercorns, chiles, scallions and garlic. Debie won't leave without it. tongue in cheek, I think of these as the 'best french fries in the world'.
--Golden Ribs. Sections of full sized spare rib, under a mountain of crumbly fried light as air nubbins of mysterious deliciousness and origins. Can't quite figure what the fried nubbins are, but they are delicious.
--A whole duck dish, under a mountain of the same delicious fried
nubbins. There are only two or three duck dishes, you'll have to figure it out.
--#98 Fish. You have the menu number, sorry, can't remember the
name. Fish filets layered with soft tofu in a clear-ish broth in a flat glass bowl and on top a layer of the most incendiary minced (habanero?)fresh peppers. The hottest dish I have ever eaten. Cannot get enough of this.
--Roasted Fish with Green Onion. Must try on first visit, as this dish typifies Chef Chang's style. Two inch fish fillet sections, fried in a light coating, then tossed with his signature infusion of cumin and aromatics, ground sichuan peppercorns, garlic, cilantro, scallion all served under a woven cane lean-to like canopy.
--Chen Cang Beef. Another must try. Finely minced beef, coated, fried, tossed with flavorings, served with fresh buns. Save your #11 Scallion bread and eat with this.
--Hot Braised Beef. A thick clay pot of pounded pieces of beef (round, I think) atop thinly sliced cabbage in a slightly thick brick red sauce redolent of Sichuan peppercorns. This is a 'hot' dish, but nothing compared to #98. Excellent.
--Roasted Fish. Two whole fish, the flat out boniest ugliest scrawniest fish I've ever seen. Fried crisp, sauced brown with major chiles, garlic cumin, sichuan peppercorns...the usual suspects. Sucking the bones is mandatory. Would reorder again and again.
--Hot Braised Fish. Fish filets and soft tofu in clay pot, sauce same as 'Hot Braised Beef'. Excellent.
--Beef and Chile Hot Pot (don't remember the number, its top of the page right). Pounded round steak sauteed with chiles, garlic,
scallions,cilantro, cumin served on a platter over sterno. Exc.
--Sichuan Beef. Listed under 'Beef and Chile Hot Pot' right side top section, but the english translation is crossed out. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. Beef, coated, fried and yet again tossed with another blend of Sichuan flavorings.
--Shredded Pork with Young Bamboo Shoots (off menu, depends on market availability). Try it if they have it. I love the baby bamboo shoots.
--Home Style Tofu. Soft tofu, jalapenos and a lot of other ingredients make this a star, whereas most other versions seem mundanely poured from a bottle.
--String Beans with Ground Olives. Intense and Amazing. A friend said her Taiwan born mom makes a similar dish, but this is much better.

Understand, the above reflects only about ten of maybe a hundred entree and vegetable dishes. Getting all the way through this menu is impossible, as every return visit I want to order the greatest hits from previous visits as well as one or two new things. On nearby tables I see that the Lionshead meatballs are enormous--the size of a softball--but for the same reason, have not yet tried.

And to further complicate matters, on weekdays when its not so busy, Chef Chang suggests special stuff on an ad-hoc basis.

Nevertheless and notwithstanding the foregoing, I hereby vow a relentless effort to taste the entire menu, for so long as my wife will put up with traffic.

Tasty China
585 Franklin Road SE, Marietta, GA 30067
Tel: (770) 419-9849

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  1. Wow. Thanks Steve. Finally a Chinese place to recommend in the ATL. This is quite a statement and I guess must not be missed. Will have to check it out soon, at a non trafficy hour of course.

    1. Steve

      Allow me to add a bit of backstory to your most comprehensive post.

      I am a former DC area 'hound now living about 2 hours from Atlanta. I was among those who appreciated Chang's skills; he made quite an impression among DC Chinese food lovers, and is certainly missed up there.

      Briefly, as I understand it, Chang won a couple of very prestigious awards in China (the certificates are on the wall of the restaurant) and wound up as the personal chef of the country's president for a while. He then came to the Chinese embassy in Washington. He left there and went to a place called China Star where his cooking started to get noticed among chowhounds, as a quick search of the DC board will show. Then he left CS and went to a place called TemptAsian. He was there for several months, and became really popular and well-known. I myself hosted a series of lunches there last Summer, with the purpose of doing the same thing you are trying to do, i.e. work through the menu. We had the same problem--too many of us wanted to repeat the great things we'd had previously.

      Then he suddenly disappeared from TemptAsian. Later we found that he was quite unhappy there, having been worked "like a slave." After keeping our ears to the ground, we finally found him at a place called China Gourmet (old name) which was going to have a name change to Sichuan Boy (lots of strange names I know). Anyway, his new digs info hit the boards and the press, and the place was soon mobbed. Then after a few months something must have gone wrong, because he disappeared again, and was said to have left town and gone to various places, Ohio being the most frequently mentioned, but at least one mention was made about Atlanta, which of course interested me since I knew I'd soon be near there.

      Here are two links: the first is to a thread I started on a local DC food board, about TemptAsian; it includes a discussion of the series of lunches I mentioned above. The second is a review of China Gourmet/Sichuan Boy which appeared in Washingtonian magazine, written by Todd Kliman, their James Beard Award-winning dining editor; it has a lot of information about Chang.

      Briefly, Atlanta is very lucky to have a Chinese chef with his talent. However, a couple of things need to be kept in mind: For one, his cuisine is not like anything you've ever had before (at least I'd ever had before) and it probably isn't for everyone. This is serious stuff and may take a bit of taste bud recalibration. Also he is a master of cumin and of Sichuan peppercorns, and you need to be a little careful in ordering to insure you don't overdo those flavors, since many of his best dishes incorporate them in various ways.

      Let's hope he stays put for a while.

      Here's a link to another post I put up on the DC board after we found him in Atlanta.

      1. Very interesting quote from the Washingtonian review of Chef Chang at TemptAsian:

        "Every chef, every restaurant, has its time, that moment when every force aligns, when every aim and purpose locks in place. Not forever, and not for long. This is Chang’s time. Savor it while you can." From the May 2006 Washingtonian.

        Seems Chef Chang was gone completely from DC and already decamped to Atlanta before that recent review even appeared.

        Thanks for the back story. We here are lucky in the extreme. Now it all begins to make sense.

        1. Wow is right! Steve - thanks for all of your work in posting such a review. We are there....

          1. Ditto here. Reading this late last night made my tummy growl.