DAY 2 MARY MACs Aquarium Centennial Park VARSITY
Sunday morning was my first real exposure to Atlanta. Everyone had told me I would be shocked by how friendly people were, but I’m so aggressively friendl I felt very much in my element. My cab driver, Alatese and I had a beautiful brunch at Mary Mac’s. The tearoom was one of many women-owned restuarants that cropped up during WWII. Although it is on its third owner, each was hand-picked and commited to cntinuing the legacy. You can read more about the history here
. A complimentary cup of pot likker (the nutrient and flavor-rich water from boiling greens) and corn bread is brought to first-timers. “Now, you just crumble that cornbread right up in there.”
After a greeting, a drink order and short history, you are given a check to fill out with your order. The embossed pencils are a popular and frequently stolen souvenir (yes, I have a pencil. With my waitressess’ blessing). Not being from the South, I had the order the de rigeur and obvious fried green tomatoes. Under the thick fried coating was a sweet, sour tang that is understandably addictive. They are accompanied by a Parmesan dressing similar to Ranch. Alatese declined to try them.
For my main dish I ordered the fried chicken, which was recommended by Roadfood. I noticed the fried food in the South is still a little greasy, but the grease is clean and not off-putting. Normally I judge fried food by its lack of greasiness, but this is a different ballgame altogether. By now I had broken through Alatese’s shell of politeness which had caused him to refuse to taste any of my food. This time when I shoved a chicken wing at him and ordered, “Here, eat this” he took it without argument. Sometimes good food wins out.
The Brunswick stew was smoky and earthy and filled with pork. The cheese grits were like really good mac and cheese made with grits instead of macaroni. I was looking around for my other sides and I had to call the waitress over and explain that when I ran out of room I continued writing my order on the back of the check.
Clockwise from left: Sweet potato souffle with melted marshmallow, a good dish to save for dessert. Tomato pie, with an ethereal topping of breadcrumbs, Parmesan and butter that is somehow as light as air. Dressing, just like you hope it will be, dense with cornbread and topped with gravy, Mac and cheese perfection.
I tried Alatese’s baked catfish. Normally I would have it fried, but it made me a convert. He kept saying in disbelief, “It is so perfect. It melts in my mouth.”
Do I dare to eat a peach? Yes! Take a nice fresh fruit and load it with butter and sugar, add a pie crust and some ice cream, and I will make room. I did have to take half of my main dish home to make room, but slurping the slippery peach slices up like wiggling fishies was worth saving room for.
Regular readers may have noticed that I love aquariums! Last week I happened to catch a show called “Really Big Things” about the Atlanta Aquarium
. They have the largest tank in the West, maybe the world, and they are the only place where we can see the world’s biggest fish — the whale shark. I couldn’t get there fast enough.
The Ocean Voyager Exhibit holds 6.3 million gallons making it the largest aquarium habitat in the world. It is home to 4 manta rays and 4 whale sharks. It was recently home to hammerhead sharks until some unauthorized snacking landed them in isolation. Although the whale sharks aren’t yet full-grown, they are still enormous.
I wanted to jump right in the aquarium and take a swim. The tour guide saod, “Oh you can do that. Talk to them up front about special programs.”
I had a run of luck. After visiting the Aquarium I heard the faint strains of music coming from Centennial Park. I followed my ear and found an Arts Festival. People were spread out on a huge expanse of grass relaxing on blankets.
Omar Sosa was onstage playing his particular brand of Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz. Born in Cuba, he now resides in Barcelona so it was a rare chance to see him perform.
An order of conch fritters with peas and rice set me back 12 bucks. Conch is often compared to clams. Fried into as fritter at its best it is like a flavorless clam. At its worst it shrinks up into a chewy wad that sticks in your teeth like Jujubee candies. That being said, the fritter dough was fantastic, as were the peas and rice, which we call kidney beans in the US.
After such a long day I was feeling a little peckish. We pulled up to the Varsity
. According to the website, “The World’s Largest Drive-in sits on more than two acres and can accommodate 600 cars and over eight hundred people inside…It sells more than two miles of hotdogs daily, a ton of onion rings, 2500 pounds of fresh cut potatoes, 5000 homemade fried pies, and 300 gallons of chili, all of which are made from scratch daily. The downtown Varsity is also the world’s largest single outlet for Coca-Cola.”
Compared to the monster burgers of LA, the Varsity chili burger looked a little wimpy. But good things come in small packages, and somehow the patty and their house-made chili melded together into one explosive meat bomb of flavor.
Not only was the hot dog covered in that rich chili, but the dog itself was quality. A nice, intense Nathan’s kosher dog flavor stood up to the chili making for one hell of a dog.
In spite of their impressive record with coca-Cola, the Varsity is all about the Frosty Orange, known to regulars as the F.O. It is like an orange shake with a slushy texture and real juice flavor instead of that artificial “orange drink” taste.
My only disappointment was the peach pie, which was soaked with grease. An hour’s wait to eat it may be to blame, but judging by the taste, even eaten hot I would guess it would be more greasy than crispy.
Car hops, or ”Curb men” holler to each car that pulls into the long row of parking spaces, letting everyone know that they are on their way, even when there are four cars ahead of them.
“What’ll Ya Have?”
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