‘Unique Eats’ spotlights the flavors that define Atlanta’s culinary scene

Amanda Plumb explores the local dining scene in "Unique Eats and Eateries of Atlanta." Courtesy of Reedy Press
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Amanda Plumb explores the local dining scene in "Unique Eats and Eateries of Atlanta." Courtesy of Reedy Press

Author Amanda Plumb shares local eateries’ backstories, secret menu items and more

Chicago has its deep-dish pizza, Philadelphia has cheesesteak, but what is Atlanta’s signature dish?

“We don’t have our thing,” said Amanda Plumb, founder of Chow Club Atlanta, a monthly underground supper club that spotlights the international cuisines of Atlanta chefs. “I think that’s because Atlanta is such a city of transplants. We have people that come from all over the country, and all over the world, that are bringing their ideas, traditions and flavors to the city, and the food, and that’s what makes it so special.”

Plumb points to Heirloom Market BBQ, near Marietta, to illustrate her point. Founded by former K-pop star Ji-Yeon Lee and her husband, Cody Taylor, the takeout-only restaurant offers spicy Korean pork and green tomato kimchi alongside traditional Southern dishes, like barbecue ribs and Brunswick stew.

“They’ll tell you it’s Atlanta-style barbecue, because it is this marriage of flavors from Korea and Southern barbecue, and I think that is the flavor of Atlanta,” Plumb said.

Heirloom is one of nearly 90 restaurants and markets featured in Plumb’s new book, “Unique Eats and Eateries of Atlanta” (Reedy Press, $22.50). One in a series on restaurant scenes in cities that include New Orleans, Denver, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, the book focuses on businesses that are either unique in Atlanta or unique to Atlanta.

Boxed takeout from Heirloom Market BBQ includes wings, ribs, Korean spicy pork and brisket, plus sides. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
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Boxed takeout from Heirloom Market BBQ includes wings, ribs, Korean spicy pork and brisket, plus sides. Wendell Brock for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“And, if it was a chain, it had to have started here,” Plumb said. “The only one I broke my rule for was Chai Pani. The original Chai Pani is in Asheville, North Carolina, but Meherwan Irani really made his career here, so I did want to claim him as one of our own.”

Despite the book’s focus on food, the descriptions of culinary delights are secondary to the fascinating backstories of the chefs and owners behind the featured restaurants.

“I learned something new about each of the places that I featured,” Plumb said. “I didn’t know the bar at Manuel’s Tavern was from Manuel’s father. He had his own bar, and the physical bar that’s in Manuel’s is from the Tip Top. I didn’t know things like that, and I’ve been to Manuel’s a million times.”

Plumb also was struck by the many different reasons people get into the restaurant business.

“For some people, it’s a family operation,” she said. “They came from immigrant families who came here and opened one out of necessity, and the kids are kind of born into the business, whether they want to or not. Others were totally inspired by Food Network and went off to culinary school and worked at other restaurants before opening their own. You have people who started as pop-ups, selling bagels on the side of the road, or Philly cheesesteaks in a gas station.”

Tacos available from Bell Street Burritos include (from left): pork green taco on flour tortilla, chipotle pork taco on flour tortilla, shrimp chipotle taco on corn tortilla, and grilled chicken green taco on corn tortilla. Courtesy of Matt Hinton/Bell Street Burritos
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Tacos available from Bell Street Burritos include (from left): pork green taco on flour tortilla, chipotle pork taco on flour tortilla, shrimp chipotle taco on corn tortilla, and grilled chicken green taco on corn tortilla. Courtesy of Matt Hinton/Bell Street Burritos

One of her favorite origin stories belongs to Bell Street Burritos. “A pop-up before pop-ups were really popular,” she said, it was started by Matt Hinton in 2008, when he lost an adjunct teaching gig. “You’d have to send in an email on Wednesday, and he’d deliver your burritos by Monday. He wasn’t trying to start a food business. He was literally just trying to make some money. And, it ended up being something that people loved. He realized it was more secure than being an adjunct professor.”

Now, Bell Street Burritos has locations in Buckhead, Tucker and Inman Park.

In addition to being a resource for visitors to Atlanta, the book offers a lot of insider tips, and surprises for locals who consider themselves well-versed on the restaurant scene. Unexpected entries include Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, a dinner theater serving British pub fare, and the Starlight Drive-in Flea Market, where the street food offerings make you “really feel like you’re walking through Mexico,” Plumb said.

The book also shares intel on secret dishes that aren’t on regular menus, such as the George, a bowl of charro beans, turnip greens and rice served at Taqueria del Sol, and the McCracken, a taco of rice, beans, onions and avocado at Mi Barrio. Before they shut down at night, the kitchen staff at Ticonderoga Club whips up bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches, “so that when people in the industry get off work, they can go there and drink and eat,” Plumb said.

The most difficult part of writing the book, she said, was having to leave out restaurants she loves. “Some of my favorite restaurants aren’t even in it. There’s so much good food in Atlanta, it was hard.”

Here’s hoping for a second volume.

AUTHOR EVENTS

“Unique Eats and Eateries of Atlanta.” Author Amanda Plumb will sell and sign copies at the following locations:

Grant Park Farmers Market. 9 a.m.-1 p.m. June 20. 1039 Grant St. SE, Atlanta.

Refuge Coffee. 11 a.m.-1 p.m. June 26. 4170 E. Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Clarkston.

Posman Books. 1-3 p.m. July 10. Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta.

She’ll also host an online conversation with Read It Again Books at 6 p.m. June 30. read-it-again.com/event/unique-eats-and-eateries-atlanta-online-event

For more events, go to www.uniqueeatsatl.com.

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