I haven’t written a column like this in 17 months, so pardon me if I’m a little rusty. My mom says she hasn’t recovered her love for restaurants since the beginning of the pandemic because she realized how extraneous they are. I’m capable of cooking for and feeding myself, but I think the fact that restaurants aren’t 100% necessary to everyday life is what makes us want them. When your world collapses into only what’s needed, you miss what’s outside of that. Looking at food through the lens of consuming maximally nutritious categories leads to sucking down Soylent, not to joy. That’s not to say that I am comfortable in restaurants yet. But there are options that can work, like eating outside or take-out. The former can be tough in Georgia, and the latter generally isn’t representative of the best a restaurant has to offer, but this is where we are.
TAMEZ BARBECUE: Alejandro Tamez opened this wee, charming Texas barbecue spot at 1660 West Broad St. (706-850-3939) back in October and has found a way to make it work, adding breakfast burritos that have helped carry it. With no inside seating (there are uncovered picnic tables in front and covered ones off to the side), a drive-through and masks required inside, it feels pretty safe. Tamez does two things absolutely perfectly: tortillas and brisket. Everything else it does adequately to well, but most restaurants don’t even have one perfect item, let alone two. The tortillas serve as the base of those wonderful burritos, available pretty early in the morning and packed with eggs plus your choice of something else: bacon, chorizo, regular sausage, potatoes, cheese, beans, all with a side of thin hot sauce. Add-ons will cost you 50 cents each, but the basic burrito is a mere $3 ($6 for brisket). The tacos, available later in the day, are similar minus the egg, plus pork with onion (diced into exemplary tiny cubes, revealing the chef’s fine-dining background) and cilantro. It is incredibly rare, at least in Athens, to have a flour tortilla be the highlight of a taco or a burrito, but damn if it ain’t true here. Made meticulously in-house, they are good enough to consume plain, with a soft, complex texture and flavor that essentialize their nature. One could say the same of the brisket, which is the best I have ever had: gently, insistently intense, with unparalleled texture. Putting sauce on it would be a felony. I totally understand if a mouthful of beef fat is not your thing (and there are things on the menu for vegetarians), but whew, it is a real delight and a journey as one chews and contemplates. Tamez has a similar purity of approach throughout, with cilantro-rich beans, a coleslaw that relies on the simple beauty of cabbage, collard greens with orange zest and pickle slices that make you remember what cucumbers taste like. The ribs are good. The pork is the weakest of the three, but mostly by comparison, and it does benefit from a bit of the vinegary sauce. Maybe this is the restaurant that can last in that location. I sure hope so. Tamez is open Tuesday–Saturday for breakfast, Wednesday–Saturday for lunch and Friday and Saturday nights for tacos.
THE CAFÉ ON LUMPKIN: Speaking of perfectionists who try to make all their own stuff in house, this place in a historic house in Five Points (1700 S. Lumpkin St., 706-215-9240) falls into that category, too, offering a proper afternoon tea. That’s not something we’ve really had in Athens, and although I am not a fan of the restaurant’s opt-out from the ACC masking ordinance, it does have a nice patio on which to spread out. Order the tea, and you’ll get your choice of a whole lot of options (the folks at the ordering window can suggest something if you’re lost), brought to you nicely brewed in a pretty, small teapot with a three-tiered stand that holds fancy little sandwiches on the bottom (crusts cut off, cucumber, chicken salad, honey and apple), nice scones with housemade jam and clotted cream in the middle and sweets on the top. I’m not really a sweets person, but the macarons are proper and very nicely executed, and where else in town can you get a slice of Battenberg cake or the kind of shortbread made famous by “Ted Lasso”? The menu also includes lunchier stuff and breakfast options, all done carefully and neatly. There’s gruyère in the breakfast burrito, and the chicken salad is chickeny rather than gloppy, with no fruit or nuts to get in the way. Breakfast and lunch last from 8 a.m.–3 p.m., after which there are snacks and light fare, plus wine-based cocktails until 6 p.m. The patio is dog friendly, and there’s parking in the back, if you can navigate the narrow driveway.
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