Before we even get to the vegetables (fruited Jell-o, pickled beets, chicken-less dumplings) at Mary Mac’s Tea Room, may we stop and admire the cocktails?
It’s such a perfect pick-your-poison list: Mint Julep, Hurricane, Martini, Bloody Mary, White Russian, Mimosa, “Georgia Peach.” Or, if you’re a teetotaler, you can get a cool glass of buttermilk. Not me. One of these days I will go to Mary Mac’s, get tanked on White Russians and wander the dining room reciting lines from “The Big Lebowski.” Until that day comes, I will eat my, um, vegetables.
I have to admit that during the 12 years I’ve lived in Atlanta, I have only been to this 62-year-old classic once. Why? I don’t know. There’s something about feeling like a tourist in your own town that’s a turnoff, and for whatever reason, Mary Mac’s has always seemed just a teensy bit like an Epcot Center restaurant.
Maybe it’s the carpeting, or the antique-ish sideboards, or the endless mullions, or the gift case, or the loudspeaker that calls guests to the front desk, or the way you actually have to write out your own order on a chit with a pencil and show a preference for yeast rolls or cornbread.
But we are all guilty of being blind to interesting things in plain view, and Mary Mac’s is a very interesting thing, indeed. We could just stop with the White Russian, the buttermilk and the Jell-O, throw in a fried chicken leg or two and have a meal of indisputable character.
But before we get to any of that, we must sample the potlikker. “Have you not had it?” the waiter will ask as soon as he approaches the table. It’s our specialty, he persists as he brings you a complimentary cup.
The potlikker — salty, oily and cloudy with mysteries of flavor, with a stray collard leaf floating within — comes alongside a miniature cracklin’ corn muffin.
Crumble it into the cup, the waiter instructs, and release your inner Rhett. But first, try a bite of the muffin by itself and appreciate the porky goodness imparted by the sticky bits of rendered fat and skin. This is a soulful starter.
But now you must turn your attention to your chit, your pencil, and the bodaciously long menu, with its “Tearoom Favorites,” “Grill Menu,” and side dishes to leave you wringing your hands with indecision.
If the waiter marks you as a newbie or a tourist, he will pull out his decision-making semaphores and direct you to the inviolate menu of bad-for-you stuff that everyone surely craves here: fried chicken, sweet potato soufflé and mac and cheese.
Ordering at Mary Mac’s can remind you of the Chinese restaurant where you want to explore the menu but the waiter seems bent on making sure you get the meal he has planned.
After many questions, I end up with these tasty fried pork chops — slices of loin, actually, that fry up so crisp the coating actually puffs away from the meat like it would for a properly made wienerschnitzel. I loved the simple preparation, though in an ideal world the frying oil would have tasted fresher.
The side of collard greens was excellent — the greens soft and velvety in that fine potlikker.
The other side — tomato pie — was the single scariest thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. With its Ritz cracker crust and cream cheese filling, I knew it was up to no good. I just wasn’t expecting it to be swimming in grease.
You think I’m exaggerating? You want proof? Watch this video, if you dare:
My friend orders the smothered chicken, and I’ve got to say this dish isn’t a looker. Again, proof:
Yet this fried and then gravy-glooped bird tastes just right — the meat damp and firm, and somehow all the more chickeny for it. On the side are fried green tomatoes (mostly breading with very little tomato tang for counterbalance) and the famous green beans that the menu boasts are hand snapped in the kitchen. Alas, they seem to have gone through a flavor-stripping machine soon thereafter.
We finish with a slice of peanut butter pie, which seems on the verge of morphing into peanut butter cheesecake. I think I may have cottoned to it better had not the tomato pie scared me off of cream cheese for the foreseeable future.
Be that as it may, I am happy to have rediscovered Mary Mac’s Tea Room. The next time I have out-of-town guests, I’m going to bring them here for smothered chicken, potlikker and White Russians.
Somehow, I can think of few meals that would say “Atlanta” better.
Did I miss anything good on the menu? What should I order next time? And can anyone step forward and defend the tomato pie?