Driving through Chamblee area Atlanta in the rain around 9 p.m. looking for an allegedly delicious-as-it-is-dingy Chinese cafeteria may not sound like a prime Monday night excursion. However, we found that if the Atlanta Chinatown Square were to transplant itself to someplace like the Varsity, no Tech student would be spared from its slew of tastes and dishes, intriguing character and easily agreeable prices.
When we finally made it, we easily spotted the brightly-lit facade of the square. From the outside it almost looks like the typical highway-side strip mall, although like much of the Chamblee food scene, it is undoubtedly East Asian. The entrance to the inner courtyard is flanked by two stone lions and several stores like an herbal shop and Chinese bookstore populate the road side of the square.
Passing the lion statues, we found ourselves in a courtyard certainly not shared by most other dinky shopping centers. The main feature here is the small Chinese garden with a bridge over a pond with a few fish. The walls are covered with two elaborate murals from China. All this was added during a major makeover in 2000; before that there were just a couple of pots with fish that kids tended to poke a little too often.
Our friend Xie, who grew up in the area, has frequently come to the square with her family, and she still finds the same people cooking the same things since she was a kid. She was also the only member of our party who speaks Chinese, a huge help in this excursion where almost all of the text was in Chinese. We entered the slightly dingy-looking food court, lit by a few dim and blinking fluorescent lights overhead. Tables and floors showed their many years of heavy traffic. The seating area seems to seat about 100 and is surrounded by the restaurants’ counters on one side and windows to the courtyard on the other.
There were only a handful of people there at the time, likely because it was a weekday night. A few older men were playing Xiangqi, a Chinese chess-type board game, at a table. However, the photo galleries on their website and the popularity we have noticed among North Atlanta residents strongly suggests the opposite during high-traffic hours.
The price range for all the restaurants had a average price of about $6 and a short range. We made a meal for the four of us by sharing dishes costing less than $7.50 each from three of the nine restaurants: China Kitchen, Hong Kong BBQ and Yanmi Yanmi. Fortunately for us, the large boards behind the counter written entirely in Chinese were accompanied by English paper menus.
From China Kitchen we ordered sliced fish in hot chili oil and a plate of chicken and mushrooms; from Hong Kong BBQ, we ordered barbeque pork over rice with bok choy; and from Yanmi Yanmi, we ordered udon. All the restaurants offer free black tea, which we happily accepted, as well as extra rice.
China Kitchen’s sliced fish in hot chili oil was a masterpiece and easily our favorite of all our dishes. It was served as a deep bowl of cabbage submerged in dark red oil and broth with bits of chilies and green onions floating under slices of fish. The spicy oil and broth even worked well with rice served with other dishes. It also won in presentation, whereas the other dishes were not too spectacular-looking. However, their plate of chicken and mushrooms fell flat, simply being a typical take-out dish.
At Hong Kong BBQ, with several very barbequed birds hanging in the window, we opted for a plate of two-way barbeque pork over rice with bok choy. The thickly sliced chunks of pork were moist and a little sweet, and the shredded pork was crispier and saltier.
Both would have been nice on a snack platter rather than a main dish, and it was a rather boring dish overall. Yanmi Yanmi offered the only Japanese cuisine in the food court, and we decided on the udon. The noodles were cooked perfectly and soaked up the broth’s nice mild flavor well. This also nicely complimented China Kitchen’s sliced fish.
Overall, we have never encountered such a place before, and it is certainly more than meets the eye. Comparing it to a mall food court would be disgraceful, but no single restaurant carries the whole place. This food court is one of many singularities Atlanta has to offer, and it is perhaps one of the best places to hang out and eat on a shoestring budget. Just be sure to bring cash, or be prepared to use the ATM outside.