EDITOR’S NOTE: After some slow years for restaurant openings, Atlanta’s dining scene is on the brink of renewed boom times. That’s especially true when you consider that Krog Street Market, Ponce City Market, Buckhead Atlanta, Avalon (in Alpharetta), and 280 Elizabeth—all projects or developments with some degree of dining focus—are scheduled to open between summer 2014 and mid-year 2015. With so much activity, it didn’t seem enough for me, as Atlanta magazine’s food critic, to write just one review a month in print. So for the foreseeable future, I’ll be penning one or two additional reviews a month to keep up with the latest openings. You can find the reviews here and on our restaurant reviews home page. First on the agenda: Jim Stacy's Pallookaville —B.A.
I’m studying the drink section of the carnival-meets-deli menu at Pallookaville Fine Foods, wrapping my head around the list of over thirty soda fountain syrup flavors. Some options sound like death by sweetness (butterscotch, marshmallow), others intrigue (including papaya and especially tiger’s blood, which combines watermelon, strawberry, and coconut). But finally I fall back on a favorite treat from the soda fountains—already a dying breed in the 1980s—that I encountered in my youth.
“I’ll have a cherry and vanilla Coke, please,” I say to my bubbly server, who resembles Toni Collette in Mel’s Diner drag.
The soda's taste jogs summery memories, as does the sensation. My tongue tingles, and my gums throb. I might as well be hooked up to a sucrose IV. The vanilla syrup conjures real vanilla the way Velveeta recalls an aged cheddar, but I still take pleasure in the strange, round top note it adds to the Coke. How did I gulp this stuff as a teenager? If I downed a whole glass now, I’d probably drift away on sugar hallucinations.
Then again, this would be an ideal setting for the mind to skip off for an hour or so. Pallookaville is the latest turn in the twisty career of Atlanta native Jim Stacy, one of our great homegrown characters. Stacy’s former gigs include tattoo artist, lead singer for punk bands, co-owner of the Downstairs restaurant in Athens and the Star Bar in Atlanta, manager of the Starlight Drive-In, and the host of Get Delicious! on Public Broadcasting Atlanta. Six-foot-six and burly, he’s been known to make the occasional appearance as Santa Claus. His wooly red beard puts Kevin Gillespie’s tidy ginger bristles to shame.
Currently, Stacy is one of the judges on the Discovery Channel’s Deep Fried Masters, in which state-fare cooks compete against one another by showing off their best dishes—cheeseburgers, chicken skin, pecan pie, red velvet cake—battered and submerged in bubbling oil. Stacy earned his place on the show by mastering the corndog, which he sold at Atlanta-area festivals first out of a converted popcorn wagon and then a fire engine-red truck with a sign announcing “Pallookaville!” on its top. (He’ll still roll out the truck for occasional events.)
To bring his carny fare indoors, Stacy partnered with John Gianoulidis, a fellow tattoo enthusiast who previously operated The Greek Gyros and Pizza inside Sweet Auburn Curb Market. They found a corner space, appropriately, in Avondale Estate’s quirky village of Tudor Revival buildings, and they transformed it into an exuberant shrine to kitsch. Skittles-colored chairs surround metal and wooden tables. All manner of odd memorabilia cover the walls: a portrait of Colonel Harland Sanders, signed headshots of the actors who played Eddie Munster and Will Robinson on Lost in Space, a glass case filled with throwback robot action figures. Stacy used slats from a defunct bowling alley to build the glossily varnished bar.
The women servers—all friendly—totally work their white diner uniforms, often accessorizing them with striped or neon stockings and, when it’s chilly, red cardigans. I've seen only one gent waiting on customers: He sports the kind of squat hat worn by cooks in short-order burger joints, and he wears a striped sweater that brings to mind a pack of Life Savers.
You know, by the time you sit down, what to expect in terms of the food: fun, calories-be-damned Americana with the occasional wacky twist. Many of the dishes ring in under $10, and it attracts a steady, diverse crowd (families, older men in muscle shirts, women in studded leather jackets, couples of all varieties) night and day.
Stacy’s corndog is, indeed, a masterpiece of the genre. He engineered a cornbread batter that crackles on the outside, keeps its integrity with still melding flavors with the meat, and, the best part, reels back the sweetness. It’s a corndog for grown-ups. Choose from an all-beef hot dog, kielbasa with a nice snap to its texture, or a moderately spiced Italian sausage. Indecisive gluttons should opt for the “fryinstein monster,” which combines all three into one gargantuan frankfurter. And let’s be blunt, the thing is obscene-looking: It makes for easy jokes and suggestive smartphone pics. The batter can also come zinged with jalapeño or enriched with cheese, but to me it doesn’t need any embellishment.
The meats (made by local producers, including Patak in Austell) also show up in street fare-style sandwiches, couched in satisfyingly squishy rolls. I’m partial to the Midway: Italian sausage smothereed in a deluge of red and green peppers, griddled onion, and minced garlic.
You’ll want an order of fries along with your corndog or hoagie. They arrive hot and generously sprinkled with sea salt—and of course toppings for them abound. Might as well embrace the spirit of the place and order them “garbaged” with Swiss or cheddar cheese, onions, pickled jalapeño rings, gravy, and cheese curds, with a dousing of malt vinegar for good measure.
I’m not as taken with the more straight-laced items. The General Muir has upped the ante for pastrami and corn beef sandwiches in this town, so Pallookaville’s pastrami in particular, which shares more kinship with deli roast beef, doesn’t much enthrall. Salads are salads, bowls full of familiar variations (Cobb, Greek, Caesar, spinach with hard-boiled egg and bacon) that seem like concessions to quasi-healthiness. They don’t quite fit in.
And the pork burgers taste like a late-night stoner experiment using Jimmy Dean patties—though the sausage, to be fair, comes from the excellent charcuterie Pine Street Market nearby. Nonetheless, I’ll hold out for a classic beef burger.
But there’s plenty to lure me back to Stacy’s slice of alternate reality—not the least of which are the milkshakes. You can take your chances on the bizarro Sriracha version bombed with molasses, candied ginger, toasted coconut, and coffee ice cream. I’ll sip contentedly on a vanilla malt. And no soda syrups in my shake, thanks—but I will take a vigorous glug of Basil Hayden bourbon instead.
Pallookaville Fine Foods ** (Two stars out of four; very good) 17 North Avondale Plaza, Avondale Estates; 404-500-1785; pallookaville.com. Hours: Monday–Saturday 11 a.m.–11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Photographs By Caroline Kilgore