This weekend I decided to go for a low cost, but filling lunch. My wife had once brought me to The Real Chow Baby, and I loved it. We decided to revisit the location we patronized last time, on Howell Mill Road in Atlanta. They also have a second location located on Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta. TripAdvisor rates our location at #244 of 1,446, and the other at #800. The concept is Mongolian Barbecue, or Asian stir-fry, where you create your own meal and they cook it.
The building can be easy to miss. It sits high above the road behind some trees, with only a small sign attached above the window bay. To the right of the building is a side street where you’ll find valet parking. If you’ve never been here before, just be sure to watch for it closely or you may drive right by without seeing it.
Right around the corner is the garage with complimentary valet parking.
Stepping inside the door, you’ll find a wall separating the few high top tables to the right, and regular seating on the left. Straight ahead are the preparation and cooking stations to be discussed later.
Taking a right will bring you to the bar, where following the theme of the restaurant, they encourage you to create your own drinks as well. Passing the bar, you’ll find yourself at the attached structure that allows fully covered seating, but gives the feel of outside seating. This area appears to almost double the seating capacity of the restaurant.
The menu explains the general procedure. You choose the ingredients for your meal and they will cook it for you. Prices are really low for an all you can eat restaurant. Not counting buffet brunches at fine dining restaurants, the only other all you can eat place I can think of in the Atlanta area is Golden Corral. While the Corral will have a much wider variety of food choices, The Real Chow Baby is specifically Asian ingredients, but it’s cooked to order. On top of that, their ingredients are healthier (mostly vegetables and raw, unprocessed meats), locally sourced, and fresh. To have all you can eat, fresh food, made to order for only $8.99 during lunch is a bargain. Even the $12.99 dinner is a deal. It will have the same ingredients as lunch, just eaten at a later time.
The other side of the menu has some appetizer choices for anyone craving a traditional item that isn’t stir-fry. It also describes the sauces that can be found at the preparation bar for your meal and lets you know which diet/allergy category they fall under.
The process starts at the table. The server will give you a small wooden stick with a flat panel that you write your name on with the pencils at the table. Then you head over to the preparation stations at the back of the restaurant. The first thing to do is take a black bowl. A sign located here reminds you to grab a colored plastic stick to place in your bowl if you want any changes (soup, wrap, or salad) to your meal, have an allergy, are vegetarian, or want any add-ons (shrimp or salmon) in your bowl.
If you prefer your stir-fry to be made with rice, there are two large pots with a choice of brown or white rice. You begin filling your black bowl here or at the next station.
The next station has the noodles and some of the dozens of vegetables that are available for your meal. Choices may vary from day to day, depending what they were able to snag from local farms and also depending on the season. As I’ve only been twice, I can’t tell you how much change you can expect, but I would guess many of these ingredients remain fairly close to what you see here. The noodle choices were: gluten-free penne, lo mein, chow mein, flat rice. Vegetables in this section were mushrooms, cabbage, carrots, sprouts, red cabbage, zucchini, broccoli, bok choy, and spinach.
The next station had an additional 18 ingredients. These are a little easier to read, so I won’t name them all.
The walls are covered in different proverbs, information, and on this wall a suggestion for different entrée creations and the ingredients required to make them. I personally like to just wing it and pick random ingredients that I like the most.
The last black bowl station has a few herbs (mint, cilantro, and basil), squash, and peanuts. The rest of the line are all the available sauces to flavor your entire meal, twenty in total.
I’m not positive why some options are marked with one or more stars, but while there, I assumed they meant spicy options. Ask an employee if you really must know before pouring one in your bowl. Don’t forget that the menu tells you what’s in the majority of the sauces. The ones written in on the glass here probably will not be found on the menu.
In between the last station and this one are a new stack of bowls, these ones red. The red bowls are for your protein, which is all found at this station along with the seasoning spices. The meats generally remain constant and include the three primary proteins; beef, chicken, and pork. There are usually some fish options, and today it was calamari and tilapia. There was also sausage, and don’t forget if you had picked up a red or yellow plastic stick earlier, you’ll receive a skewer of shrimp or salmon with your bowl for an upcharge of $1.99.
The signs recommend a light seasoning of 1/4 or less of a teaspoon. The spoons are your typical meal spoon that most restaurants probably use at their tables, and I can guarantee you that I always use at least a level, if not a heaping spoon of whatever spice I decide on. I have never had the issue of an overpowering flavor in my food. However, all this may be dependent on how many ingredients you put in your bowls to begin with. Mine are usually heaping. This trip, my wife complained of a lack of flavor in the food, and it was due to her putting close to the recommended 1/4 teaspoon worth on her food. Just a fair warning…
The last step is to put your wooden stick with your name, plus the colored plastic stick if applicable into your black bowl, and place both the red and black bowl onto the counter to the right of the protein station (seen at the bottom of the photo below).
At this point you can head back to the table and wait for your creation to be delivered to you (the wooden stick with your name also has your table number on it). What happens while you wait is that your food is placed on this giant round grill. As it appears here, they cook the meat first to ensure it’s cooked to temperature, then add your black bowl ingredients. If you used the white plastic stick indicating an allergy, they will cook your food in a location different from the rest.
Since everyone creates their own meal here, it’s tough to complain about your food unless it truly has an issue that’s out of your control, like improperly cooked meat. Otherwise you can only blame yourself. It also leaves me little room to rate any dishes that I try here, since every single dish will taste different. Even if you copied my ingredients, the quantities may differ, giving them a different taste. I’ll still show you my finished bowls, just to give an idea of what the final product looks like, and because I know most of you are here to see food photos, and the writing probably just gets in the way sometimes.
The food is served very hot, but otherwise ready to eat. I had time to pull out my camera, snap all my food photos, then put the camera away and the food was still too hot to eat. I had to let it sit another couple minutes while using my fork to let air through to cool it. Your wooden stick sits in the bowl, letting the server know where to deliver the food. When you take it out, keep it in a safe and clean place (we place ours on the side of the bowl) because you’ll be using it on successive runs for more.
My first serving was lo mein noodles with broccoli, bok choy, scallions, water chestnuts, baby corn, green beans, garlic, and one ladle of teriyaki sauce. From the protein station it had chicken, ginger, and seasoned salt.
Picking up on the earlier comment about hot food, the servers deliver the food as it comes off the grill. This means that if you and your party possibly had people in between you at the station lines, or if you and your party have a dramatic difference in quantity or type (vegetarian vs. meat) of food, your bowls may be served at different times. Think of it like a buffet, everyone will have new plates of food at different times depending on their speed and other factors. In most cases though if you dropped your bowls at the grill station at the same time, they will probably be served at the same time or within a minute or two of each other.
On my next run I made sure both the black and red bowls were heaping so high that things were practically (maybe actually, shhh) falling off the top and onto the counter. This time I went with beef.
Other ingredients included chow mein, carrot, bok choy, red onion, peanuts, bean sprouts, and two ladles of peanut sauce. Along with the beef I included sesame seeds and a heaping spoon of 5 spice powder. I really don’t know what I’m doing when working with this type of cuisine. I really just throw random items in the bowls and hope for the best.
This last serving I went for pork, and it was cooked wonderfully. The pork is cut thin, so when cooked it gets really crispy on the edges, but without being dry inside.
I included a repeat of chow mein noodles, bean sprouts, broccoli, garlic, and scallions. I added basil to this one, knowing that it has a strong flavor that would hopefully stand out, and it did. I finished with two ladles of dark soy in my black bowl. It was spiced up with about a quarter to half teaspoon of paprika, and a heaping spoon of Thai spice finished with a spoonful of sesame seeds. This was a great flavor combination, especially the basil. The Thai spice really perked up the flavors of everything, especially the pork.
We passed on appetizers today since I figured why spend $4-7 on an appetizer when I could eat all I wanted from my $8.99 lunch price. We got an appetizer last time (I believe it was the calamari) and I remember really enjoying it. The Real Chow Baby has about the best quality food I’ve ever had at fast food prices. To be able to have all you can eat food that’s fresh, local, and as healthy as you’d like it to be, all for a little over $19 plus tip for two people ($27 for dinner) is really not something you ever see. This restaurant is very unique, and also fun since you get to be involved in the creative process of your meal. It’s becoming a new favorite of mine, at least as a lunch option. It’s certainly not fine dining, but it’s well above any fast food place. I really recommend you give it a try, especially when in the city and just looking for a quick place to stop and get lunch.
I give the entire restaurant a rating of 7.5/10.