Pea Ridge Kitchen brings the farm back

Decades ago, the stretch of Lawrenceville Highway between Decatur and Tucker was so ripe with small farms growing peas and other vegetables that the area became known as Pea Ridge.

That’s according to the lore, of course. When I’ve lately driven to eat at Pea Ridge Kitchen and Bar, on Lawrenceville Highway near North Druid Hills Road, I see instead the towering signs of industrialized agriculture that closed those small farms: Golden Corral, Checkers and so on.

Among that crowd, Pea Ridge is a welcome sight. Here’s a joint that bothers to source and serve local ingredients, but is still unpretentious and affordable enough to serve a high ball for 5 bucks. Every neighborhood should have a place like that.

Judging by a recent Friday night, when three of us waited half an hour for a table, the neighborhood around Pea Ridge agrees with that sentiment. In fact, even the small waiting area was too full to stand in, so we mostly bided our time in the parking lot that adjoins a Pac-a-Sac store.

Inside, Pea Ridge has the familiar look of rustic wood and folksy pastoral paintings that telegraphs the message: “Our tomatoes are heirloom.” At the bottom of the menu, suppliers are thanked in a way that suggests first-name basis with the farmers: “Bruce Arnett’s Tomato Farm,” “Craig Tucker of Tucker Farms,” and so on. The draft beers are local and the tea is sweet.

The offerings here are mostly straightforward and familiar, a lengthy list of sandwiches and salads bolstered by a few appetizers and a handful of specials written on a chalkboard.

The wedge salad is a gigantic chunk of iceberg, crumbled with bacon, splashed with blue cheese, and accompanied by two big discs of ripe tomato. The Pea Ridge Casa is simple and nice, a pile of fresh, airy field greens tossed in a pitch-perfect sheen of shallot vinaigrette and studded with roasted tomato wedges.

White shrimp from the Georgia coast and thin slices of pickle are fried in a deep golden-brown cornmeal batter and served over a bed of greens and corn, lightly wilted by the fried bites.

The house burger is drenched in a rich, salty cheese sauce and chunks of roasted zucchini.

A riff on a banh mi sandwich is stuffed with a filet of trout from North Carolina.

All of this hovers at 10 bucks or less a plate, perhaps worth noting for the virtuous quality of some of these ingredients.

That said, I wish I didn’t always find something to quibble over in these dishes. Why’s the remoulade that comes with the fried shrimp so sweet? What the heck are roasted chunks of zucchini doing on top of a cheeseburger? What possessed the kitchen to load up that trout banh mi with an aioli that obviously clashes with the pickled veggies that accompany it?

I will say the fried shrimp were fine without the sauce, though a classic remoulade would have been welcome. When I opened up the banh mi, the trout filet was wonderfully crisp and moist. I ate that and left the rest of the sandwich behind. The burger was an exactly medium pink and I gobbled it up, even though I couldn’t figure out what the zucchini was supposed to be doing for me.

I should note that Brian Hogan and Patrick Dunn, who run the kitchen and share ownership in the restaurant with John Peter Casey, decline to be identified as “chefs” and prefer to call themselves “just cooks.” They’re being demure, of course. Dunn and Hogan earned their stripes working at Leon’s Full Service and Shorty’s Pizza and clearly know their way around the kitchen, though they’re still fine-tuning some flavors and execution.

Their closer attention might be devoted to the handful of specials on the chalkboard. Lately, they’ve offered a roasted flounder with a summer pea puree, sautéed mushrooms and basil-marinated tomatoes. Sounds lovely, right? Well, I tried to order it on two separate occasions and both times it was unavailable. I settled for a hanger steak and Creole creamed corn. The steak was cooked to a precise medium and cut for maximum tenderness. There wasn’t much Creole about the creamed corn, but it was a pleasant, summery dish.

Beyond the quibbles, though, Pea Ridge is an inviting place. I don’t live anywhere near it and, yet, the place feels just like the kind of neighborhood joint that I’d like to drop in for a plate of fried shrimp and a pint. Only, I’d ask for a different sauce on the side.

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