Growing up in a small southern town in northwest Florida, I was not exposed to a wide variety of cuisines. Going out to dinner meant the Italian ristorante in the plaza, the seafood restaurant on the marina or the wing place off of the main highway. Variety was not the spice of my life — that distinction was held by the Tex-Mex Tijuana Flats situated next to the McDonald’s.
Coming to Atlanta revealed an entirely different world to my relatively inexperienced tastebuds, and I continue to find new things halfway through junior year. These are my two restaurant recommendations if you want to experience excitingly different and enlightening foods. These are the spicy ones.
Probably the most distant on today’s list of destinations, Masterpiece, a Sichuan Chinese eatery, presents its customers with a whole host of flavors that I had never before experienced. Located on Buford Highway out towards Duluth, the small strip mall-based restaurant necessitates a healthy 25 to 30 minute drive from campus, but the food and their well-accoladed chef are definitely worth the drive.
Sichuan cuisine originates from a province in southwestern China and relies heavily on a style of spicing entirely different from the burn of good Thai food or the many competing flavors present in many Indian curries. The Sichuan pepper demarcates Sichuan cooking from the others; this pepper is not spicy hot but instead numbs the mouth and leaves a tongue-on-a-9-volt-battery feeling in its immediate wake, setting the stage for the spicy hot chilis present in a given dish to burn even hotter.
As far as dishes to order, I have a few to recommend in particular. First, the chicken with dry chilis was fantastic and has a satisfying, low-key burn that is not overwhelming but amazingly tasty. Second, the Sichuan hot and sour soup has to be the best of its genus, bar none. I have never before had a bowl that was spicy, tangy and thick without tasting or feeling of spoiled cough syrup. This stuff is hot and it alone merits the drive. Finally, for my last recommendation, I ask for you to try their spicy tripe dish. Labeled one of the spiciest items on the menu and holding one of the least appetizing names on the list spicy pig intestine is easily the ruling monarch of the place. I loved it, and if you have hesitations about eating intestine, get over them. Your mouth will thank you.
As an added note, Masterpiece also serves Sichuan hot pot, probably the most famous and well-known-in-the-West dish out of the region. I highly recommend trying it here if you get the chance because it is certainly the best I have ever had, but I believe you will get to experience the well-trained chef’s skills most poignantly in his other dishes.
Messi’s Cafe and Lounge
For those that are not used to eating with their hands, Messi’s will offer a quick crash course on how to get it done. A relatively new Ethiopian restaurant located in Emory Village that can be reached by taking the stairs adjacent to Saba down the side of the building, Messi’s features a decent variety of Ethiopian dishes that have all been immensely satisfying.
All dishes on the menu are organized into three categories: Stews (Wat), Veggies and Meats (Tibs), all of which are served with a hearty portion of injera, a spongy Ethiopian bread that functions as utensils, covering the platter on which the food is served.
Ethiopian food has a reputation as one of the spicier cuisines out there, and while none of its dishes include chopped up ghost pepper, it can certainly give your sinuses a workout. Keep open cuts on your hand covered or out of food’s way as well, because you will be using your hands if you eat everything here in the traditional fashion: using injera to bundle up a particularly large bite of food and then ferrying it cleanly into one’s mouth.
If I go on the weekend, I order doro wat, a chicken stew that Messi’s calls the national dish of Ethiopia. It is lightly spiced and fragrant, and the chicken is always tender and never chewy. If I need something spicy or happen to pop in on a weekday, I invariably order lamb awaze tibs, a spicy chopped meat dish. Injera mops up the juices and sauces of any dish and, when well-utilized, not one bit of food will be wasted. One stew or meat dish is enough for one person, especially with liberal amounts of bread.
Make your way down to Messi’s the next open lunch slot you have — it is not expensive for the amount of food and makes for a memorable adventure for those bored with their chicken McNuggets.