After experiencing the skill of Chef Danny Ting at Bobo Garden and hearing of his departure, I was excited when Chloe Morris (Chowdownatlanta.com) broke the news of his return to Coco’s Chinese; knowing his nomadic ways, I took a group over ASAP. Coco’s isn’t much to look at from the street, or even upon entrance; it’s about as no frills as it gets…and that’s saying a lot for a Buford Highway joint; but hey we’re here for the food, not the aesthetics of the restaurant. It didn’t help matters that I mistakenly took the group in through the back door and had to walk through the kitchen.
However, everyone was pretty impressed by the array of live tanks that showcased the day’s offerings; eel, tilapia, crab, shrimp, etc…there was definitely no doubt we were getting fresh fare.
If you go at lunch, there are two menus, the $5.55 lunch special (yes $5.55) broken down into three sections, combo A, B and C and the main menu that is served all day. Lunch menus B&C are where you’ll find the Americanized dishes like Mongolian Beef, Sesame Chicken and the even the dreaded Kung Pao Chicken; however several of these were ordered at our table and all were quite better than you get at most places. The veggies were crisp, proteins well-seasoned and everything that came fried had a nice crunch and lacked that general sogginess that you find from typical specials that are cooked at 10:00am and stay in a warmer all day…
If you want to try something a little more traditional and in the Chef’s wheelhouse, order off of the main menu or Combo A. There are several interesting dishes like Yu Choi Beef, Short Rib and Bitter Melon and the ubiquitous Salt and Pepper Shrimp. All combos come with soup and an eggroll, so for $5 they’re hard to beat and the portion sizes are not small, but come on they’re only $5 so go ahead and order two or three so you can sample more food. On the day we were there they were apparently out of egg rolls and we informed that everyone would get a chicken wing instead…it was pretty funny, but they were actually pretty damned good and you should hope you are as fortunate on your visit!
For full disclosure, all the proceeding dishes were ordered from Combo A. First up was the shredded pork with pickled radish, which was pretty tame; the flavors were great, but I really couldn’t taste the pickled radish…it reminded me a little of mu shu pork, but with a lot more flavor.
The choice to order the Yu Choi was just dumb luck, as no one had heard of the dish and our mandarin and our server’s English couldn’t meet in the middle to decipher the code. The meat was very tender and was served with a huge helping of what could best be described as a cross between broccoli rabe and spinach; it had a wonderful smokiness with a hint of bitter that worked really well with the beef and the semi-sweet sauce; this dish was my favorite and definitely a must order.
We took another flyer on the short rib and bitter melon dish and in my opinion this one could have been skipped, unless you really like bitter melon…which I don’t. The short ribs had tons of flavor, but the pieces were really small and mainly bone and fat; you will definitely be rewarded once you get a hunk of meat, but I had to work a little too hard to find quality pieces. Bitter melon is an acquired taste, and most people either love it or hate it; when not cooked long enough it can be tough and really, really bitter…I’m talking cringe worthy. One person at our table liked it, and I tried several pieces in an effort to find that perfect bite that would enlighten my palate to its wonders…it just didn’t happen.
Salt and Pepper Shrimp (or Pepper and Salt at Coco’s) is a mainstay on a lot of Schezuan menus so I always order it to compare against other places, but mainly I order it because it’s usually pretty tasty. Coco’s version was no different, except they cooked them whole, in their shell, so be prepared to get messy if you don’t want to eat it in its entirety. They were ridiculously crispy and had that signature bite from the Schezuan peppercorns and the aromatics used in the cooking process.
Overall everyone agreed that it was a very satisfying meal and that a return visit would be warranted. I’m looking forward to trying some of the dishes from the main menu on my next visit, especially the crab and lobster options. If you go, it’s in the Orient Center Shopping Plaza just South of Chamblee Tucker Rd. on Buford Highway. As most others can attest, there’s no telling how long Chef Ting will be content to stay at Coco’s so go now while you still have the chance and don’t forget to touch the waving cat at the register for good luck…