The first night I ate at Food Terminal, the new Malaysian restaurant on Buford Highway, I brought a friend whom I consider to be about as food-obsessed as I am. He's spent much of his adult life working in kitchens and making food pilgrimages, whether eating his way through Southeast Asia or wandering the boroughs of New York in search of the perfect slice of pizza.
In other words, he’s got an appetite and I wanted to order a feast. Food Terminal is a big restaurant, both in size and ambition, and I knew I would need the help.
Our young server delivered the menus, glossy magazine-style books about as thick as a recent issue of Vanity Fair, and a round of beer. He came back to take our order and we sent him away. He came back again and we still weren’t ready. We had to apologize. There’s so much to read! There are more than a dozen chapters in the Table of Contents! Should we do soup noodles or flat noodles? A rolling hot plate or a roti plate? Crispy baos or steamed veggies? All of the above? How would we eat it all? Which section should we ignore? The combined power of our culinary brains couldn’t process the best way to approach things. When he came back a third time, we just started rattling off dishes in near random order, flipping back and forth between the pages like a reference dictionary. Our first round of beers was nearly done.
On paper, a restaurant of this size and ambition has the potential to be a disaster. The menu is so long and varied that one wonders how it all could come from the same kitchen, much less with any consistency in quality. A cavernous dining room of this size could be unpleasantly chaotic or deathly silent, depending on the crowds. And then there’s that name, Food Terminal, which oddly seems to summon all of the bland, impersonal touch of an anonymous airport restaurant.
In practice, Food Terminal has proved my skepticisms wrong meal after meal. I’m not only no longer a skeptic, I’m a believer. Given the option, there’s no new restaurant in Atlanta I’d rather drop in for a casual meal these days.
Much of that comes down to the simple, astounding fact that the kitchen actually pulls this huge menu off. That first night, our random assortment of dishes, chosen from nearly every section of the menu, landed on the table without a single dud. A bowl of garlic noodles topped with salty fish eggs (mentaiko) lit our taste buds up with lightning strikes of pleasure and flavor. Fried slices of pig ears were both crisp and gelatinously tender. Szechuan dumplings were fiery but focused, the depth of those peppercorns as well defined as the dumpling wrappers. Cumin beef skewers sang out their herby essence. A big plate of barbecue pork, cooked red, tender and salty sweet, brought us to meaty, glorious satisfaction.
I’ve even come around to the name. Food Terminal sounds a little impersonal, which is at least correct in signaling that this isn’t a singular chef’s vision. You never get the feeling that one chef is trying to satisfy an ego by putting personal or biographical touches on these dishes. In place of that singularity, Wong and Ewe have hired a small army of cooks, all of which can be seen in the massive open kitchen tending to various tasks. They’re ladling out rich bowls of bone marrow broth or cranking out hundreds of orders of fresh noodles or crisping up roti on the griddle or mixing bottles of San Pellegrino with house-made syrups for bright, flavored sodas.
There is still some room for improvement. A handful of beers are available on tap or in bottles, but a wine list would be a welcome addition. At a couple of recent dinners, I longed for a cold bottle of gruner veltliner or a dry riesling on the table, a crisp white would be such a fine pair for the mélange of flavors here. I’d love those homemade sodas even more if I could spike them into a cocktail at night. The servers are not quite seasoned at guiding diners through the big menu, though they’re friendly and helpful enough.
But these little gaps in finesse are more than made up for by Food Terminal’s versatility. The key to understanding the menu is knowing that your options allow for different experiences. Want a simple but satisfying solo lunch? Belly up to the bar and order a bowl of bone marrow noodle soup, as rich as any bowl of tonkatsu ramen in this town, floating with cubes of tender five-spice seasoned pork belly, a luscious runny egg and a couple of bones dripping with beef marrow. I like that one spiked with the spicy Szechuan chili oil and served with a glass of the refreshing ginger soda on the side.
Looking for a funky date? A bowl of the Thai chili pan mee, a massive order of flat noodles tossed with dried fish, ground pork, fried egg and a not-too-spicy sambal, with some curry fish balls and a side plate of roti canai will easily please two. You’ll nearly be in Thailand by the end of the meal. Want to drink beer and nibble the night away on a budget? The small plates and skewers all run about five bucks and include stone cold dim sum classics like nuomiji, a mild but deeply satisfying sticky mold of chicken and rice, and shiitake pork cheong fun (long rice dumplings). If you want to order one of the rolling hot plates, which are more or less sizzling stone bowls of fried rice surrounded by a ring of scrambled egg, count on bringing friends and ordering heaps of steamed veggies to balance it out.
But even if you go with no plan, like we did that first night, know that there’s no reason to be a skeptic. Whatever lands on your table will be a happy destination. Lately I think that’s the other reason Food Terminal chose that name. The menu will take you wherever you’d like to go.
Overall rating: 3 of 4 stars (excellent)
Service: friendly, efficient
Best dishes: bone marrow noodle soup, Thai chili pan mee, garlic noodles, nuomiji, crispy pig ears, roti canai