O happy times. Several years ago, food trucks promised a paradigm shift for handcrafted food and drink, only to be undone by mediocre product, nonexistent seating and exhaust fumes.But now we see that was just the trial run. The real revolution will take place in food halls like Krog Street Market. Walk around this new Inman Park destination at lunch or dinner time and you can practically feel diners’ souls expanding as they put the pieces of the experience together. They collect meals from chef-driven food stalls; drinks from Hop City, with its dozens of local craft beers on tap; and desserts from shops (the Little Tart Bakeshop, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams) that have earned the title of artisan.
Do you smell something wonderful roasting? Is it giving you an endorphin rush? That’s cacao — roasted, ground and conched on-site at Xocolatl’s chocolate micro-factory.
Yes, people, the most exciting thing happening in Atlanta dining today is a food court.
Today, I’ll take a look at the two sister stalls that currently attract the longest lines in the place — Yalla and Fred’s Meat & Bread. (The crush should abate once Spice Road Chicken opens and Grand Champion BBQ settles into more regular hours.)
These two spots come from Jennifer and Ben Johnson, Shelley Sweet and chef Todd Ginsberg, the foursome behind the General Muir. Yalla serves Middle Eastern fare with an Israeli street food sensibility: Think falafel, shawarma, kebabs, salads and dips tricked out with gourmet ingredients and seasonal produce. Fred’s slings nontraditional deli sandwiches, including Korean fried chicken, hot roast turkey with spicy romesco sauce, and a cheesesteak that is making a play to be the city’s best.
“Yalla” is an Arabic expression, meaning “let’s go, ” which has been absorbed into modern Hebrew. In much the same way, Israeli cooks have taken the culinary foundations of native Palestinians and Lebanese and overlaid them with a creole formed of various Middle Eastern, North African and Eastern European influences. You may call this emerging national cuisine an exercise in cultural appropriation or simply delicious, but practitioners beyond Israel — from Yotam Ottolenghi in London to Michael Solomonov at Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant — have made it both influential and trendsetting.
Maybe that’s too big a buildup to describe Yalla, the restaurant, which is essentially a falafel stand. Maybe not.
Customers line up to order an entree from a trim menu. Both falafel and chicken shawarma can be had in a fresh pita, split and stuffed; in the floppy flatbread called a laffa that rolls up like a burrito; or piled in a biodegradable cardboard salad bowl. The crunchy, bright green falafel are excellent, while the chicken shawarma is generous in portion, if not memorable.
There’s also a daily kebab, perhaps lamb with cumin or beef with aleppo and urfa pepper. Or you can skip the protein altogether and just load up on the salads. That’s where all the fun and some of the problems of this food stall lie.
As you walk down the line, you point to the two or three dozen spreads, salads and garnishes you want the staff to cram into your bread or arrange atop your bowl. Layla Walk, the chef de cuisine who oversees both restaurants, often works this line and offers a brisk tour.
Hummus and baba ghanouj? You will recognize these from any Middle Eastern restaurant. Israeli pickles, vinegary red cabbage shreds, fried eggplant? You know these from trips to Israel or Israeli falafel spots like Pita Palace.
Then come the flights of flora fancy: roasted sunchokes and carrots, pickled baby turnips, fermented fennel fronds, feathery mustard greens.
You like spicy? Get harissa (the Moroccan red chile condiment) or szug (a Yemenite green sauce made with hot peppers and cilantro).
Or get both, but you might end up with a lot of competing mush. The pickles are puckery, the roasted and fried veggies saturated with oil. Everything tastes earnestly cheffed, but I find myself wanting to sit with a bowl of hummus and some warm pita to recalibrate.
And a soda! My favorite part of Yalla comes right at the end of the line by the cash register, where you can order a hand-mixed beverage made with pineapple and turmeric, lemon and lavender or a number of other mature, refreshing flavors. The arugula-lemon? So, so delicious.
But I do think this restaurant needs to work more on helping you see the forest through the trees. One time, I ordered sabich, an Iraqi pita sandwich eaten as a popular street food in Israel that contains fried eggplant, hard-boiled egg slices and a swipe of amba — a tangy condiment made from mango pickle. It wasn’t until I got to the table and made some headway into this too-oily sandwich that I saw they forgot the amba, without which it has no soul.
The in-house bakery pita has great flavor but falls apart. The Boboli-like laffa seems far too thick to roll. For comparison’s sake, I ordered a falafel laffa at Pita Palace and found it both better constructed and more appealing. Sure, the garnishes seemed plain in comparison — unseasoned Israeli salad, cole slaw, banana peppers right from the jar. But the magic happened when they all came together.
When Yalla can satisfy basic Middle Eastern cravings while also dishing out fermented fennel fronds, it will be great.
Ever since he ran the kitchen at Bocado on the westside, Todd Ginsberg has shown himself to be a sandwich savant, someone who can mix bread and fillings in a way that feels good to hold and even better to bury your face in. He likes warm ingredients, rich condiments, creamy textures and a certain precariousness. His sandwiches all threaten to fall apart in your clutches. Open wide, then wider.
So, yay for Fred’s, where his auteur flag can fly. Adjacent to Yalla, Fred’s has a totally different shtick. You order one of nearly a dozen sandwiches and thick-cut fries with various seasonings at the counter. Then you wait for the kitchen to deliver it wrapped in butcher paper and sealed with a length of masking tape. If you’re lucky, you can snag one of the stools lining the counter.
Before I praise Fred’s, I need to get one major peeve with it out of the way. And before I can do that, we have to go to Philadelphia.
That is where I go to eat hoagies. I mean, to visit my sister, who buys me hoagies. We bring them back to her home wrapped just like the sandwiches at Fred’s. They are cold, the bread dense, the oil and vinegar soaking it here and there, making all kinds of texture and flavor. That 20 minutes under wraps makes hoagies better.
At Fred’s, all the sandwiches are hot and most sport some kind of mayonnaise-based sauce. When you unwrap them after just 2 minutes, the sauce is breaking, the bread greasy, and the sandwiches asking, why oh why didn’t you just put me unwrapped in a basket?
That time under wraps turned a cauliflower and eggplant banh mi (one of Ginsberg’s signatures from his Bocado days) into a soggy mess. But others fared better, and they’re so flavor-packed you will survive the greasy fingers as well as the 1,500 calories each of these puppies seemingly must pack.
Thick slices of roast turkey come bronzed off the griddle and packed atop honey-wheat toast with avocado, arugula and thick slathers of garlic aioli and nut romesco sauces.
That cheesesteak, impossibly juicy and swimming in a slurry of fat and cheese, piles with impunity into a split roll. No need to go to Philadelphia anymore: Here’s the real deal.
I enjoyed the garlicky bite of a porchetta sandwich — thin slices of warm roast pork piled with salsa verde, more aioli and crunchy cracklins — but felt it needed a better vehicle than its spongy ciabatta roll.
Yet nothing could improve the double-stack burger. Here, the foil wrapping enhances it and makes it all the more the apotheosis of a certain kind of burger, all steamy and knobby. It is just so meaty/juicy in all the right ways, and cheesy/goopy in all the right ways and bready/cottony in all the right ways, that for several minutes I couldn’t be disturbed with anything else in the world.
Well, maybe another beer. Love me some Krog Street.
Email John Kessler at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yalla, 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-506-9999, yallaatl.com. $-$$
Fred’s Meat & Bread, 99 Krog St., Atlanta. 404-688-3733, fredsmeatandbread.com. $-$$
11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11:3o a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m., Fridays; 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 5:30-9 p.m., Saturdays; 11:3o a.m.-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-8:30 p.m., Sundays.