Frank Ma South

2088 Briarcliff Road, Atlanta, 404-417-9990

Three stars

Anyone who follows Chinese restaurants in this town recognizes the name Frank Ma. And if you've tried a scallion pancake or steamed pork buns in Atlanta, you more than likely have Ma to thank for it. A name among the city's foodies for more than 30 years, Ma and his wife Amy have owned many restaurants, and the history behind each is as muddled a mystery as the names given to wherever Mr. Ma decides to work his wok.

Keeping track is harder than following the plot line of "Twin Peaks." Not long ago, Ma resurfaced at a restaurant on North Peachtree he was calling Dan San Yuan, though the sign called the place Dinho. Almost as soon as word was out that he was back, Ma was gone.

This past summer, he rose again, this time on Briarcliff Road. Here, the bright neon sign says Chopsticks, but underneath that name on the door is smallish lettering calling the nondescript spot Frank Ma South.

Inside, the space is split between two areas, one with folding chairs that give the feel of church bingo night; the other with wooden-backed seats that have coffee cup cut outs in their upright backs. The only thing with any color is the large flat screen TV, which babysits the lone waitress's adorable daughter on most nights.

The menu, ostensibly titled in large red letters, "Frank Ma's Authentic Chinese Menu," offers most of the items Ma-bies will come for: light scallion pancakes, flecked with bits of the green onions and delicately fried; steamed pork buns, plump with light dough and filled with savory minced pork; Shanghai juice dumplings, deliciously steamed.

Placed into Western denotations of "appetizers" and "noodles," et al, it's hard to trace the kitchen's roots, though Szechwan- and Hunan-style dishes are largely represented. In truth, Ma's dishes are in a class of their own: Pork belly with leeks offers tender strips of bacon-like pork and sliced leeks with little other flavoring. Clean, fresh and surprisingly non-greasy, it's perhaps the menu's best offering, noodles and dumplings aside.

Appetizers of "drunk" chicken and braised gluten are too weird for words, and salt and pepper shrimp "with head" could be gotten just as good at any other place that serves it.

But Szechwan beef in hot oil redeems all. Part soup, part sauté, beef strips swim in a not-too-hot peppered au jus checkered with baby bok choy and cilantro. Dry sautéed green beans are alone worth the trip, delicately seasoned in hot oil.

"Paultry" offerings include Szechwan and Hunan-style duck, though if you order one you may get the other. Service is littered with this kind of Keystone Cops kookiness — it took the length of the meal one evening to get an order of steamed pork buns; we eventually took them as a to-go order. And on more than one occasion boiled pork dumplings and Shanghai juice dumplings were exactly the same thing.

When we asked about the signage, we were told that Chopsticks is the name of the takeout part of the business (which, considering the restaurant's proximity to Emory, is bound to be a busy undertaking).

This food goes well with beer, and though Frank Ma South doesn't have a liquor license, the liquor store next door does. Settling in with an order of large, half-moon shaped chive dumplings, deliciously pan seared, makes for lots of happy sighs around the table.

Ma's habit of lending his name and dishes to various spots across the area doesn't seem to dilute his popularity. He debunks Shakespeare altogether, because if his name is involved — whether it's over the door or mysteriously placed elsewhere — foodies flock, knowing the dishes will taste just as sweet.

Overall rating: Three stars

Food: Chinese

Service: Kooky, but unendingly polite

Price range: $-$$

Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard

Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Best dishes: Pork belly with leeks, Szechwan beef in hot oil, chive dumplings, steamed pork buns, scallion pancake, dry sauteed green beans

Vegetarian selections: Home-style tofu, braised tofu, stir-fried snow pea tips

Children: Yes — dumplings please just about anyone

Parking: Front lot

Reservations: No

Wheelchair access: Yes

Smoking: No

Noise level: Low

Patio: No

Takeout: Yes

Address, telephone: 2088 Briarcliff Road, Atlanta, 404-417-9990

Web site: None

KEY TO RATINGS
Five stars Outstanding: Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
Four stars Excellent: One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Three stars Very good: Merits a drive if you?re looking for this kind of dining.
Two stars Good: A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
One star Fair: The food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated Poor.

PRICING CODE: $$$$$ means more than $75; $$$$ means $75 and less; $$$ means $50 and less; $$ means $25 and less; $ means $15 and less. (The price code represents a meal for one that includes appetizer, entree and dessert without including tax, tip and cocktails.)

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