My multi-year quest for traditional German chocolate cake in Atlanta is over.
Recently on this blog, I asked readers where they go for this dessert I first enjoyed during my childhood. German chocolate cake is not commonly stocked in local bakeries and when it is, you’ll often find it dressed in obscene quantities of gritty over-sugared chocolate icing. After sampling countless versions around town, I’d resigned myself to revel in memories of a simple but delicious coconut-slathered chocolate delight.
In response to my blog post, several readers suggested the German chocolate cake at Gabriel’s, the next restaurant on my list to review. How serendipitous! On my first visit, I eagerly scanned the brightly lit cases filled with cakes large and small, cookies, bars, cupcakes, cinnamon rolls and every other traditional treat vying for id domination.
I zeroed in on the German chocolate cake, sold both whole and by the slice ($3.95). With a spark of hope, I spied a fluffy, pale buttermilk-chocolate cake with a traditional coconut-pecan filling. No globs of artificial-tasting icing here. Folks, you were spot on. Gabriel’s gets my vote for the best traditional no-frills German chocolate cake.
That should come as no surprise from this bakery-turned-cafe-turned-meat-and-two whose owner, Johnnie Gabriel, is a first cousin once removed to Paula Deen. Yet, Johnnie’s life plan didn’t originally include restaurateur. In need of additional funds to support her University of Georgia-bound daughter, she started making cakes out of necessity. In 1989, she offered to buy recipes from Marietta’s “cake lady,” Mary Moon. Moon, ready to retire, simply gave Johnnie the recipes and a modest version of Gabriel’s Desserts was born.
In the beginning, Johnnie and her husband Ed baked at home each evening after returning from full-time jobs. In 1996, they chose to open a brick-and-mortar bakery. Eight years later, Gabriel’s added soups, salads, Boar’s Head meat sandwiches and vegetables to the menu.
Now, at both lunch and dinner, Gabriel’s offers a rotating menu of meat-and-two choices simmering on a small steam table behind the counter. It’s all quite simple, much like good old Southern home cooking, as Johnnie’s two cookbooks will prove. A dash of pepper on the squash, a ham hock in the canned green beans, a hearty helping of cream in the corn and — voila! — you have a vegetable plate ($8.25 for three veggies) .
At Gabriel’s, like at any home-cooked potluck, you come to easily spot the “safe” dishes. It may be the vegetable plate or the straightforward meatloaf with a thick brown sugar-ketchup-mustard sauce ($9.95). Or, maybe you’ll choose the pot pie ($9.95) with its thin, floury crust encasing chicken chunks and veggies in a gloppy gravy-like broth much like that of the chicken and dumplings ($3.25 a cup).
As with any home-style supper, you also learn to avoid certain items that betray the idiosyncratic taste preferences of their creators. Sugar overwhelms dishes like the coarse, crumbly cornbread, bittersweet collard greens and pimento cheese ($7.75 a pound) so sweet that you’ll find no trace of the mild cheese Johnnie says she prefers.
And then, there’s the chicken salad — you know the one — swimming in mayonnaise with sweet pickle relish and grapes ($5.50). Grab a couple of cheese straws and the salad goes down easier. The sharpness of the cheddar and tiniest hint of heat in the straws will cut through all that mayo.
Simple Southern home cooking can take us for a stroll down memory lane and nourish both our bodies and souls in a unique way. Yet, much of the fare at Gabriel’s seems to be missing that “Y’all come back, now, ya’ hear?” quality. Except, that is, for the German chocolate cake.GABRIEL’S 800 Whitlock Ave., Marietta, 770-427-9007 Food: Full bakery with soup, salads, sandwiches, meat-and-two options and hot breakfast Service: Longtime employees helpful and gracious, newer ones young and inexperienced Best dishes: Cakes Vegetarian selections: Salads, sandwich choices and cooked vegetables (ask which are prepared without meat) Credit cards: All major credit cards Hours: 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays Children: Yes Parking: Yes Reservations: No Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Medium Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes