Food Issue - Inside the kitchens of Zen on Ten, Bhojanic, and Tassa Roti
Three restaurateurs that shaped Atlanta's ethnic dining scene
Metro Atlanta's ethnic dining scene is growing rapidly as local immigrant communities expand. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that approximately 20 percent of the new residents Atlanta has gained since 2000 are foreign born. In particular, Gwinnett County is the most international area with one-quarter of its population having been born abroad. The majority of Atlanta's newfound diversity comes from Latin American and Asian migrants, but representation from practically every country can be found here.
The metro area's changing demography is helping to shape dining habits. There was a time when ethnic food choices around town were more or less limited to Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. Even those menus had to be modified to appeal to the masses. But now the spectrum of ethnic restaurants in metro Atlanta covers a large section of the planet: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, Greece, Jamaica, Korea, Lebanon, Nigeria, Nepal, Morocco, Poland, Peru, Spain, Turkey, Vietnam. You name it and it's probably here.
Of the Atlanta chefs nominated as semifinalists for the acclaimed James Beard Award in the past seven years, many are foreign-born serving regional cuisines, including, most recently, Meherwan Irani of Chai Pani, Asha Gomez of Cardamom Hill, and Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria del Sol.
For an immigrant chef, opening a restaurant often means facing the daunting task of introducing locals to an unknown cuisine while trying to survive the challenges of a new business in a new country. Three individuals in particular — Tom Phing, Zen On Ten; Archna Becker, Bhojanic; and Radhika Edoo, Tassa Roti Shop — introduced new and innovative concepts to the local ethnic dining scene. From expanding our knowledge of Thai food, to redefining the flavors of India, to offering a real taste of the islands, the following pioneering chefs have influenced and inspired others to take a chance.
TOM PHING, ZEN ON TEN
Veerasak Phingbodhipakkiya, who goes by Tom Phing, opened one of Atlanta’s first Thai restaurants in 1981. Originally from Bangkok, where both his parents owned and operated a restaurant, Phing learned to play with lemon grass, basil, and galangal early on. At 23, Phing’s father sent him off to see the world and make a life for himself. In 1972, Phing and his brother arrived in Georgia. He studied business at DeKalb College, worked his way from busboy, waiter, and restaurant manager to sous chef before opening his first solo venture, King and I, at Ansley Mall in 1981.
When Phing moved to Atlanta, there were few Thai restaurants in the city. Diners were unfamiliar with the cuisine. Phing made it his personal mission to raise awareness of his home country’s flavors.
“I cooked familiar Chinese dishes, and slowly introduced my clients to Panang and pad thai,” he says. “I talked my customers through every dish and adjusted the spice to make it palatable.”
Diners loved his simple and flavorful creations such as tom yum soup, chicken satay, basil rolls, and Massaman curry. Midtown residents flocked to King and I throughout its 30 years in business.
Other Thai chefs followed Phing’s lead and began offering similar Thai/Chinese menus, toning down chilies, adding more sweetness, and stressing presentation. Phing personally advised budding chefs and restaurateurs on making Thai food more accessible to the American palate. Meanwhile, Phing expanded his business to King and I 2 in Brookhaven (1998-2003), and Zen on Ten in Midtown (2008). What was a relatively unknown cuisine three decades ago has become a popular takeout and neighborhood dining option across the city.
At 5-foot-2-inches, Phing, 61, is a man of small stature. He is semi-retired and has sold all of his businesses except Zen on Ten (1000 Northside Drive, Suite 600, 404-879-0999, zenontenatlanta.com). He doesn’t spend much time in the kitchen anymore unless he’s cooking for himself, as he is today. He’s showing me how to make his favorite dish, pad thai. Zen on Ten uses the same pad thai recipe as Phing’s other restaurants in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, which are run by his sister.
“My mom always cooked this for me,” Phing says in his heavy Thai accent, “and I loved her tender noodles, sweet-spicy sauce, and crunchy peanuts all synchronizing in my mouth in the same bite. It is a delicious dish that is easy to eat for the young and old.” He gently picks up a large wok with his hands, and expertly sets it on a high flame.
Phing vigorously stir-fries eggs and chicken. He says that back in the ’80s, he wasn’t sure whether he would make it as a restaurateur, but people loved his cooking and reasonably priced dishes. He stirs in the rice noodles and adds a thick sauce made in-house with tamarind, fish sauce, and palm sugar. When diners ask for “Thai hot,” he throws in extra chilies, which is how Phing prefers to eat the dish.
Once he garnishes the bowl of noodles with sliced lime, fresh cilantro, and chopped peanuts, he takes me to the restaurant’s dining room. He humbly joins his palms together in front of a large canvas painting of Buddha, smiles, and affirms that, with Buddha’s blessings, he has made his parents proud and his life meaningful. We say thanks and dig in to a bowl of bliss.
RADHIKA EDOO, TASSA ROTI SHOP
In Marietta, a ranch-style home has been converted into a Caribbean restaurant. Tassa Roti Shop (224 Powers Ferry Road, 770-977-3163, www.tassarotishop.com) co-owner/chef Radhika “Ria” Edoo is a fourth-generation restaurateur who grew up with 10 siblings in Trinidad and Tobago. She moved to Atlanta in 1996 with her husband, Shaffick, in the hope of creating a better life for herself. She cleaned houses, cooked, and catered for her clients, always looking for an excuse to be in the kitchen.
“I wanted to open a restaurant, but since I didn’t have enough financial resources, no one would give me a loan or lease a space,” she says.
In 2006 the Edoos purchased and renovated the Marietta property, which was in foreclosure, and started what was probably Atlanta’s first Trini buffet restaurant.?“When we arrived here, there was some awareness of Jamaican cuisine, but nothing beyond that,” says Edoo.
She was eager to introduce her native island’s food, a cuisine that incorporates African, Creole, Chinese, and Indian styles of cooking, to Atlanta. To encourage diners to try the cuisine, she offered a variety of dishes served buffet style for $7.49 per person. She also had a “don’t like, don’t pay policy.” At first, her clientele was mainly Caribbean immigrants looking for a flavor of home. The restaurant’s popularity grew and, in 2012, the Edoos opened a second Tassa Roti Caribbean Buffet in Alpharetta (4005 Old Milton Parkway, Suite 104, 770-977-3163, www.tassarotishop.com).
In her tiny kitchen, located just behind the counter, Edoo shows me how to cook crab and callaloo, the national dish of Trinidad and Tobago. Crab and callaloo is a thick stew often made with dark greens, okra, coconut milk, and fresh whole crabs. She recalls Sunday lunches in her hometown of Barrackpore, which included a feast of rice and peas, roti (a flaky flatbread layered with ghee or butter, cooked on a tava, and beaten with a wooden spatula to look like shredded rags also known as Buss up Shot), chicken stew, daal (lentils), and callaloo. It was the first dish she learned to cook, when she was only 11 years old.
Callaloo is an easy-to-make, one-pot dish, provided you have the right combination of spices. Traditionally, dasheen (eddo and taro leaves) is used as the base, but we make do with dark leafy spinach. Edoo informs me that one of her proudest moments as a chef was when retired NBA player Julius Erving, aka Dr. J, asked her to cater a banquet for 500 people for the NBA at the InterContinental Hotel in Buckhead in 2009.
Edoo brings out a jar of her special seasoning, a spice cocktail of Cajun seasoning, Total seasoning, salt, and pepper, that she adds as she cooks.?Edoo claims that her “mother’s grandmother was the first woman to import curry from India to Trinidad and Tobago” and says “cooking has been in my blood ever since I have been alive.”
With passion that reveals itself in every bite of the hearty, creamy stew, she serves a generous portion of crab and greens with shredded warm roti and we eat.
ARCHNA BECKER, BHOJANIC
Archna Becker brushes back her long curly black hair and walks into the kitchen at Bhojanic Lenox (3400 Around Lenox Road, Suite 201, 404-841-8472, www.bhojanic.com). She begins to prepare alu ghobi, a home-style Indian dish of spiced cauliflower and potatoes.
“Alu ghobi is a good place to start if you want to learn to cook Indian,” she says as cumin seeds crackle in hot oil.
Becker, chef and owner of Bhojanic, moved from New Delhi to Ohio with her family at age 14. Growing up, she watched her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, picking up family recipes as she savored their North Indian regional creations. She observed as her grandmother packed her school lunchbox with her favorite dishes: alu ghobi, paratha (pan-fried layered flatbread made with whole-wheat), and raita (homemade yogurt with chopped cucumbers).
Today, Becker replicates a similar menu in Buckhead.
“I opened my first venture with my mom and dad, while I was still in college,” she says as she sprinkles coriander, turmeric, and red chili pepper on the vegetables. The aroma of fresh cauliflower roasting in spices makes us both nostalgic for North India’s cold winters, a season when alu ghobi is prepared at practically every home. She adds tomato purée to impart a slight tang and brownish color to the dish, then covers it with a stainless steel lid.
Becker has been working in the food business in metro Atlanta since 1993, with family ventures Rasoi (open 1993-1996), Atlanta North India Cuisine catering company (1999), Bhojanic Restaurant in Decatur (2003), and Bhojanic Restaurant at Lenox (2013). Becker’s father, Surender Malhotra, quit his corporate career to help with the family restaurant business and acts as the executive chef of catering.?While the vegetables simmer along with the seasonings, Becker explains that her concept for Bhojanic came about from her passion for home-cooked traditional food, often a well-balanced platter of carbohydrates and proteins, cooked without heavy creams or fatty oils.
“Everyday Indian food doesn’t have to end in heartburn; it can be tasty and healthy, too,” she says.
When Becker opened Bhojanic, most metro Atlanta Indian restaurants were serving lunch buffets and stereotypical dinner entrées. Becker took a leap of faith and introduced small sharable plates and street foods, including bhel puri, chat papri, and kathi rolls, in a fine dine setting. At a time when the Indian fast-food concept was relatively unknown and found only at a few hole-in-the-wall cafes off Lawrenceville Highway, Bhojanic created a fusion environment wherein diners from all nationalities felt comfortable.
Becker sprinkles half a cup of fresh chopped cilantro over her cauliflower dish and plates it on a steel tray with multiple compartments known as a thali. “We make our own little buffet, but with personal preferences,” she says referring to the menu’s thali section.
On my way out, I run into Ajit Kumar, consul general of India in Atlanta, who is just finishing a business lunch at Bhojanic Lenox. He says he comes back for the tandoori prawn, naan, and rasmalai regularly, as it reminds him of home. “It is one of the best in Atlanta” Kumar says.
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
?• 4 pounds medium-sized rice stick noodles
?• 4 eggs
?• 2 pounds chicken breast
?• 1 cup green onion, sliced
?• 1 cup bean sprouts
?• 1/2 cup raw peanuts
?• 12 ounces pad thai sauce (see below)
?• 1 lime, cut into wedges
Boil the rice noodles in hot water until soft. Cut the chicken into ½-inch pieces and boil in another bowl for 5 minutes. The chicken will still be pink. At the same time, heat oil in a large wok on very high heat. Add chicken and eggs, and stir fry continuously for 1 minute. Add the cooked noodles and stir together for another 2 minutes. Now pour in pad thai sauce, green onions, and bean sprouts. Stir together until vegetables are evenly blended but still crisp. Transfer to a serving dish and decorate with crushed peanuts and a lime wedge. Makes 4 servings.
PAD THAI SAUCE
• 1 tablespoon fish sauce
?• 2 tablespoons palm sugar
?• 2 tablespoons white sugar
?• 2 tablespoons tamarind paste or concentrate
?• 2-4 tablespoons water
?• 1 tablespoon salt
?• 1 tablespoon paprika (more to taste)
?• 3 tablespoons white vinegar
?• juice of ½ a lime
Whisk all ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to a simmer and then remove from heat. The sauce is ready to use. It may be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four weeks.
RAHIKA EDOO'S CRAB AND CALLALOO
• 2 teaspoons Total seasoning salt
?• 2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning salt
?• 1 pound spinach, frozen
?• 1 pound okra, frozen
?• 1 small carrot, chopped
?• 1 small yellow squash, chopped
?• 1 small onion, chopped
?• 1 14-ounce can coconut milk
?• 2 tablespoons fresh cilantro paste
?• 2 cloves garlic
?• 1/2 habañero pepper (optional)
?• 1 ounce Golden Ray seasoned margarine
?• Additional salt and pepper to taste
?• 2 cups water
?• 2 whole blue crabs
In a small bowl, mix together the dry Total and Cajun salts. Use 1 teaspoon of the salt mixture to season the crabs. Keep aside for up to an hour in the refrigerator.?Add rest of the ingredients, except for the crab, to a large stock pot. Cover and cook on medium heat for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the vegetable mixture is soft, insert a hand blender directly into the pot and blend until smooth. Add crab and cook for another 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and serve with a side of steamed rice or roti. Serves 4-6.
ARCHNA BECKER'S ALU GHOBI
• 3-4 teaspoons oil (any oil you prefer)
?• 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
?• 2 teaspoons tomato purée (canned)
?• 2 medium potatoes, chopped in size equally to florets
?• 1 medium head cauliflower (in florets)
?• 1 teaspoon ground coriander
?• 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
?• 2-4 teaspoons powdered cayenne pepper
?• 2-4 teaspoons salt or to taste
?• 2 teaspoon ground ginger
?• 1 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat the oil in a heavy-bottom wok or pan. Once hot, add the cumin seeds. Once they pop, add the tomato purée and stir. After 30 seconds, add the potatoes and sprinkle in half the salt. Mix well, cover, and cook for 8-10 minutes on low heat till the outer layer of the potato is cooked. Add the florets, and top off with dry spices, remaining salt, and ginger. Stir gently without damaging florets. Cover and cook 15-20 minutes. Stir in 1⁄2 cup cilantro while finishing cooking. Transfer to serving dish and sprinkle rest of the cilantro as garnish. Serves 4-6.