In May, South African-inspired sandwich shop Zunzi’s opened its first Atlanta outpost just off of Howell Mill Road in south Buckhead. It doesn’t look like anything special at first glance, just a run-of-the-mill fast-causal spot throwing colorful umbrellas and bold signage at you. They’re just sandwiches; how good can they be? But the Savannah-based shop has consistently topped must-eat lists: Buzzfeed named it one of 34 meals worth traveling the world for, and MentalFloss deemed it the best sandwich in Georgia. Yeah, that’s worth a bite.
As soon as we enter, there’s a flurry of activity. “Two at the door!” echoes from multiple employees down the line, alerting the team to our impending arrival at the counter. Before we can make it there, a friendly-faced roaming employee asks if it’s our first time at Zunzi’s. It was indeed, which leads to our first experience with the restaurant’s unique catch phase. “Shit yeah!” he says, before welcoming us to our first meal.
I should explain. The umbrellas aren’t the only things colorful at Zunzi’s—the language is too. Their raison d’être is for you to leave satisfied, exclaiming, “Shit yeah!” To accomplish this, they’ve blended together a laid-back, tastefully irreverent American fast-casual dining experience with South African street food, Italian influence, and a healthy dose of South Africa’s Ubuntu philosophy—that we gain our humanity through positive interaction with others. The end result is an extremely inviting environment serving up good food with just a cheeky pinch of profanity.
Okay, maybe more than just a pinch. Zunzi’s has wholeheartedly embraced “Shit yeah!” Their signature sauce is the Shit Yeah Sauce. The phone number on their catering van is 1-855-SHT-YEAH. It’s on their walls, their menus, and, coming soon to Atlanta, their cups. We heard no less than 10 utterings from staff during our time there—all in a positive context, of course.
The verbiage hasn’t been without its critics. Eater Atlanta reported some south Buckhead residents took umbrage with the casual swearing, voicing their concerns on everyone’s favorite busybody app, Nextdoor. Enter owner Chris Smith, who spoke with several concerned posters regarding Zunzi’s use of the phrase. Eater reports that Smith’s explanation was enough to satisfy them. Presumably, the Nextdoor crowd has moved on to other things to criticize, like the guy on the corner who refuses to move his trash cans or that dog that barked once.
Back in line, our greeter ran through the entire menu. Zunzi’s main attractions are its Gatsbys, a popular takeaway sandwich in South Africa’s Western Cape province consisting of meat, sauce, and basically any leftover ingredients you’d have lying around. Front and center are the star sandwiches, the Conquistador and the Godfather. Both start out the same with romaine lettuce and tomato resting in an H&F Bread Co. French bread carb-cradle. While the Conquistador brings chicken to the fight, its big brother, the hearty and hefty Godfather, sees the Conquistador’s offerings and one-ups it by adding provolone cheese, marinara, Parmesan, and two kinds of sausage—a traditional smoked variety and South African boerewors. Both sandwiches are then smothered—and I do mean absolutely drenched—in Shit Yeah Sauce and Zunzi’s Dressing.
These things are huge. The baguette itself is roughly a foot long, and by the time it’s been stuffed with everything, splayed out, and inundated with a deluge of sauce, you’re facing down a meal roughly the length and width of a regulation size football. Shit yeah.
Pick up one at your own risk—you will get sauce all over everything. This here is a hunching meal, as in, you’re going to be hunched over your tray, taking a bite, licking your fingers, and repeating until there is nothing more to consume. This is messy food the way God intended, absolutely terrible for a first date, and requires many napkins in reach. Chow down and enjoy it.
Interestingly enough, the sauces play first chair in this flavor symphony, not the meat. The Conquistador’s chicken itself is nothing to write home about without the Shit Yeah Sauce. The Godfather’s sausages and cheese pack more flavor than the chicken, but are still simply sauce-delivery vehicles, contrasting between hearty marinara and tangy SY sauce. Each bite is fighting to be South African or Italian. If the Conquistador comes together as a symphony, the Godfather is a rap battle.
If neither of those are your style, there are several other sandwiches and sauce choices, or you can design your own custom selections from the breads, fillings, and sauces. You can also opt for the Lekker (Afrikaans for “tasty”), which is simply pita bread, cucumbers, tomato, onions, greens, and a selection of spreads—hummus, tzatziki, avocado, and curry chicken salad. Pick two and you’ve got a “Shit yeah!”-worthy, healthy, veggie-filled lunch.
The main side options, should you even need them, are Zapp’s potato chips, in either regular or Voodoo flavors, and Byrd’s Famous Cookies, a 94-year-old confectionery imported from Savannah. Try dumping a bag of Voodoo chips over your Gatsby. You’ve just approximated South African slap chips, a popular Gatsby topping. Traditionally, these are French fries that have been twice-fried after going through a vinegar bath. Voodoo chips also have a subtle vinegar note, so as you make your way through your sandwich, each bite will mix together a combination of unbroken chips and fragments suspended in sauce. You’ll get a fair imitation of the crispy and mushy textures created by slap fries. Is it good? Shit yeah.
You won’t find the usual Coca-Cola drinks to wash down your meal here. Instead you’ll be treated to sweet South African tea, bottled Yoo-Hoo (founder Johnny Debeer’s favorite chocolate drink), and a fountain selection of both carbonated and still concoctions from Tractor Beverage Co. Pro tip: A 1:1 mix of the cola and the cherry cream sodas make a pretty nice Cherry Vanilla Coke.
While it still might seem fairly straight-forward as a concept, the true strength of Zunzi’s rests with how many choices you actually have. Think how easy it is to pigeonhole yourself at a restaurant, trying one or two things and immediately declaring them your favorites. But at Zunzi’s, its easy to tailor your meal to whatever your mood. You can lull yourself into a food coma with a loaded Gatsby, you can be healthy by sticking with a Lekker, or you can design something totally your own. No matter what you choose, the friendly staff and the food will leave you feeling like a million bucks—albeit a little slower, depending on how much you ate. Community is king here, and it shows. Worthy of a “shit yeah!” indeed.