Something in me revels in traveling the hard way. It’s a potent mix of a sense of adventure, passion for maps and public transportation systems, frugality, self-sufficiency, and wariness of the unscrupulous taxi or shuttle driver. Sure I could land at my destination, fork over $50 or so, and be dropped off at my hotel. But where’s the fun in that? So when traveling to Marietta, GA for work, 20 miles northwest of downtown, far from the reaches of its limited rail system, heading straight for a shared shuttle to my hotel is out of the question. I’m bussing it!
Usually, ground transportation at an airport is straightforward enough. Follow the signs, pay a couple of bucks, and 20 or 30 minutes later you’ve arrived downtown on the cheap. But when you’re not staying downtown? When you’re staying at the Days Inn—Marietta amongst the strip malls of Southern suburbia? In a new town that I don’t know and knows no trains? I recently ventured to figure out as I traveled to the Atlanta area on business and reached the only conclusion possible…I’m bussing it!
Now I did say business mind you! Work was paying and an airport shuttle was certainly allowed. Heck, a rental car would have been authorized. But there I was on the Cobb County DOT website, figuring on poorly marked maps how to save my office $50. After a first look or two it didn’t seem feasible. I started calling shuttle operators to find a best rate. Then I thought to check Greyhound. They had a bus from downtown each hour. But after repeat visits to the site, my convoluted pieces began to come together. MARTA (subway) to Arts Center Station. Then the Cobb County #10 bus would get me within a half mile walk from my destination. Another discovery, the #50 bus goes right to where I need to go and intersects the #10 at the Cumberland Transfer Station! If I catch it, I can avoid walking along desolate South Marietta Parkway and be dropped right where I’m going!
As I touch down at Hartsfield-Jackson, I’m excited about my journey. I tell my plans to a friend I’ll be staying with in Atlanta later that weekend. “You’re crazy,” he exclaims over the phone. “I’ve lived here 4 years and haven’t been on a bus once, let alone a Cobb County bus.” Yeah, you’re talking to a guy who hopped busses all over Cairo where the numerals are different and we can barely communicate. I think I can handle Cobb.
And I execute my plans to a tee with schedules jotted down and Google maps in hand. Train: easy as pie. Bus: there aren’t a whole lot of signs at Arts Center Station, but there’s one bus waiting. The #10, and I run for it! When we finally get going a few minutes later, I pretend to have an air of confidence about me, like I know exactly where I’m going. Well, the truth is I do! But I do feel a bit out of place. Who the hell is this white guy with luggage and a backpack reading the Washington Post, they must be thinking. I put away the Post and reach for the weathered copy of Lolita I'm reading.
My bus is running early. I might make the transfer with the #50! Alas, the #50 pulls away from the Cumberland Transfer Station as my bus pulls in. Couldn’t wait 30 more seconds! There’s not another #50 for an hour. Stay on the #10 and walk the extra distance to my destination. The bus driver explains this to me, but though it’s my first time in the state, I’m well aware of the schedules and intricacies of each route, perhaps more so than the driver. And 20 minutes later, as it starts to rain, under the darkness of night, I disembark in front of the U-Haul center and began my trek. One other person gets off where I do, but a friend is waiting in her car to pick her up. I’m only going .57 miles down the road, and I think about asking them for a lift. But instead I keep walking towards S. Marietta Highway and hang a right.
And if I looked out of place on the bus, I can’t imagine how I must look now. A drifter walking down the highway with a bag slung over my shoulder, and a knapsack on my back. They don’t see this everyday. Damn Yankee! A car has to wait for a pedestrian—me—to cross and it’s 9pm! But I can see a traffic light on the horizon and I know I’m on my home stretch. And nearly two hours after landing, I’m at my destination, which is NOT the Days Inn-Marietta, by the way. Nazareth Shopping Center, an ethnic strip mall at the intersection of S. Marietta and N. Franklin. Tasty China!
My plan was to originally head straight to my hotel, but that was before I consulted Chowhound as to whether any noteworthy dinners could be had in Marietta, and Tasty China was the answer.
Back in 2006 in the DC burbs, a man named Peter Chang became a legend on the DC food scene. With a pedigree that included the Chinese Embassy in Washington and Beijing's Dynasty Hotel before that, Chang quicly became known by those in the know as a cuilinary master, albeit one with a wandering wok. His combination of a mastery of the region's numbing cuisine paired with his inventive style dazzled diners at China Star in Fairfax, then TemptAsian by the Landmark Mall. A treasure of Chowhounders and DonRockwellians, it was soon after his March '06 move to China Boy that the WaPo and Washingtonian began to take notice and the mainstream diner began flocking to the unassuming Chinese joint for food that was anything but. Months later he was on the move again and seemingly gone from the area. A true loss...and I never even got to try the place. That autumn surfaced in some random suburb of Atlanta. So much for that. Or so I thought.
That random suburb? Yep, Marietta. My trip to the land of the strip mall? By chance, I had struck food gold.
It was certainly no surprise that Chang was long gone from Tasty China. "He left long ago," said my waitress, who doubled as the owner. "That man cannot stay put. Gotta move around." She had no idea where he was. Back to DC, please! Knowing that he was gone before I arrived, I was no less excited to check the place out. The JEDI master (the restaurant discribes Chang as such on an old menu) has taught his apprentice well.
Salt and Pepper Eggplant is a revelation. “Salt and Pepper” meaning deep fried on many Asian menus, you’ll get a heaping plate of what look like breaded steakhouse cut french fries. The starch of the eggplant holds up to the fryer while making more of a nuanced fry than a potato ever could. The salt and spicy pepper makes the strips explosive and addicting.
Fish and cilantro rolls return 6 fried cigars of white fish and the loved or loathed herb. Greasy, thin papers are wrapped around minced white fish, making something that tastes like crunchy fish balls. The fish flavor dominates the cilantro, leaving no need for a dipping sauce, and it’s not served with one.
Dan Dan Noodles here are like Chinese spaghetti. The red chili sauce doesn’t shine past the mushy noodles and the sauce is more oil than chili pepper. I find the same thing when I try the Ma Po Tofu the next day. The red sauce that the dozens of white cubes of bean curd sits in looks ready to numb, but lacks much depth.
Fish with Green Onion is a star of the menu. White, moist fleshy chunks are perfectly fried in a salty, spicy, cumin breading. The blend is a Chang calling card. However, after a few pieces, the dish becomes too overpowering. Too many spices and far too much salt distract from the fish and dries the tongue. I put away a few pieces, but am happy to save the rest for leftovers. There’s only so much of the cumin you can eat in one sitting.
A dish being served with green pepper in a Chinese joint means cuts of the bland bell variety sautéed with chicken or beef. Not so here; Sautéed Green Pepper is one of the most boring sounding and tastiest dishes on the menu. It’s brought out to a table near me but returned to the kitchen. “Did they not order it,” I ask the owner/server, obviously hinting at something. “Oh, it was a mistake,” she replied. “That’s for the staff meal…I’ll bring you one to try.” The peppers are smaller and tastier than a bell pepper, slightly larger and much less fiery than a scotch bonnet. Cooked whole, seeds in, soft and wilting, swimming in a sweet soy marinade, I order a plate full the next time I’m at the restaurant.
I forget that Szechuan Chicken and Beef means deep fried, crispy meat when I order one order of each for a lunch party. The crispiness yields what can be thought of as “popcorn” beef and chicken. The peppercorns and salt are a recurring theme, but the taste is somewhat muted at the table, partly because of the temperature of the dish and partly because of all of the other flavors and heat from everything else. It’s not until I start snacking later that the explosive taste shines through.
A dense circular loaf of sesame bread provides either a foil for the spices on your tongue, or a medium to soak up even more of the sauces remaining on your plate. And if you can take the heat, you won’t want to let a single bite go to waste.
Video of Chang in the kitchen with his peppers (Atlanta Journal Constitution):
585 Franklin Road