Buford Highway restaurants carry with them a certain pedigree that is often unsubstantiated. The straight shot road that stretches from the inners of the city to well beyond the loop is home to a number of ethnic delights. However, self-proclaimed foodies seem to treat any establishment located on or near BuHi with unabashed reverence. Call it guilt by association.
Public enemy number one, none other than the ever popular Café 101. The large, free-standing rotunda that sits about a half-mile inside the loop, has been there for years. It seems like a good two or three since I myself last sat down to sample C101’s goods. So though this isn’t quite a first impression, this isn’t a full review nor a quick hits post.
I cannot think of another in town restaurant that sports this layout, save the Sun Dial. Though even the parallels between those two are weak at best. Walking into the large cylinder, you’ll notice that roughly 4/5ths of the space is for tables. The fish bowl holds most of those tables, as well as the bar and server station. Meanwhile, the walls are lined with a raised seating area and huge glass windows.
In previous posts, I’ve spent a lot of time discussing the subtleties that are often overlooked when casual diners discuss Chinese food. For brevities sake, I’ll forgo the details of the regional nuances for this post. As bastardizations go, let’s call the food at Café 101 a mix between traditional and Americanized Chinese, ultimately settling on Taiwanese influences.
Service at restaurants serving Far East cuisine isn’t the same as it is at your average steakhouse. At even the best Asian restaurants, there is a haphazard quality to the engagement. Keeping that in mind, service at Café 101, at least during this past transgression, was nothing short of atrocious. Inside of 2m, we were approached by three different people four different times. Each wanted to know if we were ready to order … we had yet to even pick up a menu. There’s a whole long discussion that could follow here … but the short of the long is that we shouldn’t have been badgered by that many people and certainly not that many times.
This frustration continued throughout the night as it took a good ten minutes to flag down one of the servers once we were ready. Our frustration was further exacerbated when Ms. Vennerable’s plate was cleared away about halfway through the meal. Again, this may not be unusual for a restaurant of this ilk as they expect you to know what you want. The problem lies in the expectations of the customers, and I think more often than not … those that walk in would simply storm off if presented with a similar engagement.
Still … there was hope in the food. They say you can judge a restaurant by its clientele. At C101, the majority of the patrons are Asian nationals. Normally a fantastic sign, here … it just proves that just because you are Chinese doesn’t mean you know good Chinese food.
First up was an order of pan fried dumplings and the Dan Dan noodles. The dumplings were not even mediocre. The wrappers were crunchy, and not in that freshly fried sort of way. No, these were in the – still stiff from the freezer combined manner all the while being horribly undercooked. The pork mixture in the middle was barely hot, let alone cooked. The one saving grace for this wasn’t the flavor of the dumplings. Instead, the ponzu sauce with lots of chunked ginger and garlic, combined with the rice wine vinegar, was where it was at.
Meanwhile, C101’s Dan Dan noodles have been bitch slapped up and down the street by Tasty China’s rendition. Granted, they’re really two different takes on the same dish … but still … good is good and these my friends … were not good. The noodles themselves were gummy and undercooked. Make no mistake, these weren’t al dente, these were undercooked. The sauce was peanut based but too watery and too limited. Even after mixing the noodles up, the sauce held little flavor. Again, while TC’s is an oil-based, meaty take … it is executed far better. I put myself out of my misery by adding ungodly globs of spicy peppers.
Entrées consisted of duck strips w. green onion, a mix of chives/tofu cake/green onions, and braised beef belly over rice. Each was an epic fail. The universal truth was that every single bite was a an adventure in blandness. The duck strips lost any sense of crispiness, were hindered by the presence of sparsely included bones, and seemed to be lacking any significant spices other than salt (and even that was hard to detect).
The tofu cakes were actually stripped slivers, the chives were there, and the pork made the plate. All this came together in a fresh, but lukewarm serving of food. I wanted to dissect the spices, search for five spice or star-anise, or anything for that matter. Alas, it was futile. Regardless of what spices should have been in the dish … the only flavoring given to this was whatever was previously in the wok.
Last and certainly least was the braised beef belly. Beef belly is the moo cow version of pork belly. That seems rather obvious, but I mean that they often share some cooked similarities. Slow-cooking is the required method of heating. I was glad to see that this popular Cantonese dish seemed to get that right. The thick chunks of cubed beef showed promise on site. That was the last, and only thing, I liked about this dish. Ideally, a heavy use of chu hou sauce is advised so that the flavors stick around when sampled with the traditional rice accompaniment. Chu hou is made from garlic, ginger and soybeans. It’s similar to Hoison sauce … which many Americans see on Mu Shu. The garlic and ginger seemed non-existent. The appropriately thick sauce had little chance of masking the real problem: the beef. It had been cooked at too high of a temperature and was anything but soft. Even if the beef was right, the flavorless chu hou did would have held it back. A failure on all fronts.
So in addition to undercooked and cold food with little flavor … there was another problem: portions. Now mind you, had the food been good … this wouldn’t have been an issue. Still, the portions were tiny compared to most any Chinese restaurant I’ve ever walked in. Thus, the cost/quantity ratio seems a bit high. I suppose I should be thankful for the small portions so that I didn’t feel guilty leaving any more food than we did.
What was once considered a landmark of the BuHi, and by extension Atlanta, dining scene, is now a shell of its former self. Make no mistake, there are worse examples of Chinese cuisine in earshot of Café 101. But as highly touted examples go … this is just about as bad as it could be. With so many nooks and crannies to be explored, Cafe 101 has seen the last of me. I have any inclination to hit an “ol reliable” for Chinese, you can bet Tasty China will be my choice. And that just goes to show that while Buford Highway may have more depth to their ethnic scene, some of the best options are nowhere near that Atlanta darling. I guess the true failure of the meal is evident in what happened afterwards, the V and I took off down the road … hell bent on eating somewhere else. If you must attend, then make sure you try the shaved ice … which was adoringly described by the OctoSquid.