Food stalls of all types dot food courts at American malls. Inside these coliseums of consumption, you’ll often find Great Wraps and Sbarro and some childishly named cookie purveyor collectively peddling their wares. By en large, those meals don’t even register in a foodie’s memory bank. However, when we lucky Atlantans scurry up I-85 to our city’s sprawling suburbs, we enter a land of exception.
Several of the area’s Asian markets, like Chinatown Square or Hong Kong Supermarket in Ben Thanh Plaza, have a collection of ethnic eateries not found elsewhere. While intellectuals of all types debate superhero fallopian tubes and food court geography, I choose to focus on the grub coming out of these food communes. While a handful of these stalls are worth some individual mention, I’m focused on Lana’s Express, a Russian “restaurant” located in Assi Plaza’s Duluth outpost.
In the early part of the year, Lana’s got a visit and subsequent mention from Christiane Lauterbach. Though I have yet to see her write up, she got a tip of the hat in an AJC post back in June. I showed up in late March, during a blog hiatus, and foolishly thought I was tapping into uncharted territory. Nonetheless, after a subsequent trip a few weeks back, I thought I might as well put the pen to paper.
Lana’s Express is a family operation run by a group of ethnic-Koreans who grew up in one of the “-stans.” For brevity, I’m just gonna call them Russian. The 20-item menu is made up carefully handcrafted dishes that originated in the beltline section of Eastern Europe Russia through Central Asia. Roughly 60% of the menu consists of entrées, many of which are broth based, and all of which come with sides. The hot borscht ($6.99), is a hearty bowl of beet goodness. Holding together a lovely heap of smetana (or possibly sour cream – my palate is not so advanced that I can differentiate once it’s been placed in the soup), I usurped the bowl and promptly sucked and slurped it down. Lauterbach called it “the best and most abundant in the city.” My one bowl certainly agreed with that statement. In addition, I sampled the competent plov ($7.99), a steamed pilaf, and some underwhelming bites of salmon ($10.99).
When I wasn’t harassing tablemates, I was focused on the variety of dumplings and pie-like baked goods offered by Lana’s. An insane amount pelmeni demonstrated capable dough-making skills and a knack for straightforward flavor profiles. Thin layers of boiled dough gave way to flavorful, hand-packed minced meatballs. Not to be out done, the steamed plate of manti was equally impressive, capitalizing on the subtlety of flavors in much of Russia’s peasant cuisine. With various sides of high-quality pickled vegetables, two per plate, these were a steal at $7.99.
Not to be forgotten are the à la carte baked pies and pancake like dishes. My blinchiki (aka blintz – $1.20/per) were fried perfectly and equally successful in cheese and minced meat form, though I’m partial to the curd cheese samplings. The meat pirozhki were certainly no mistake at $1 a pop, I would have appreciated a little more filling from the potato example to balance the buoyant yeast dough shell. Whether you go the way of the meat or the potatoes, you won’t be disappointed in the quality of the executed ingredients. I wouldn’t bat an eye at the opportunity to sample their samsa, chebureki, or belyashi either.
While some of my dining buddies preferred Lana’s fried goodies, those with an appreciation for the meaty simplicity of Russian cuisine should be equally as pleased with the alternative options. After my brief flirtation with the fish, I’m not sure that’s what I’d run back there for. The soups, dumplings, and pies struck a chord with me. With a dearth of strong Russian restaurants in our area, this food is in short supply. Nonetheless, Lana’s delivers great value and something different.
Oh yeah … they cater too!