Viva Old AC!

It’s an exciting time for Atlantic City. The future is bright with Morgans hotels, celeb-chef restaurants, Olympian hotel towers, Armani outlets, extended Boardwalks, Crei townhomes, world-class spas, and new casinos. A crack-den in the middle of town will cost you half-a-million dollars, and with the Inlet district re-christened “North Beach,” South Beach with a Boardwalk and hookers, it’s only a matter of time before AC becomes the preferred destination of celebs in the know. Whether or not all this is a good thing depends on whom you ask, but it’s nice to know that the beautification and rampant development of AC hasn’t hurt its classic restaurants. Yes, you can get a $700 bottle of reserve cabernet of Bobby Flay Steak, but you can also get a carafe of homemade Chianti at Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern just through the Tunnel for less than $10. We had dinner recently at two of our favorites.

In the shadow of the Trop, back on Arctic Avenue (AKA the shortcut to the Marina tunnel), Little Saigon has been serving full-flavored Vietnamese fare since 1990. The owners seem to know every diner that walks through the door into the snug, sparsely decorated storefront. We started with beautiful New Zealand mussels swimming in a sticky black bean sauce that looked like snot but tasted like heaven. Menu descriptions are brief—vermicelli with lemongrass chicken—but the plates that are complex and vivid creations. That vermicelli benefited from mint, cilantro, lime, and other a dozen unlisted ingredients. Soft shell crabs (pictured), cloaked in impossibly crisp fried jackets, are infused with serious chili heat right in the batter and tempered by licoricey spears of Thai basil and leaves of cilantro. Orange wedges arrive free after dinner and taste fresher, sweeter than any other orange you’ve ever had, and potent French-pressed coffee is thickened the Vietnamese way with viscous condensed milk.

Like a rare flower growing in an abandoned parking lot, Atlantic City Bar & Grill has had its digs down by the Taj for over a quarter-century. Flat-screens show the Phillies and daily specials, like the whole Maine lobster (pictured) for only $20, and the walls are lined with celebrity photos and old-time black-and-whites snapshots. Our waitress points out the picture of the circa-1940s Atlantic City lifeguards; one of them is her grandfather. That’s when you know a place has character.

The crowd is a motley mix: parishioners from the Mennonite church around the block, comfortable couples, and one noisy family of vacationers with bratty kids. When the cell phone of the big guy behind their table rings, they bark at him to shut it off. “Relax,” he tells them, “this isn’t a five-star restaurant.” We would have told them to shut their children off, but dude is right. ACBG is no-frills, no bullshit. If you don’t order a drink, water costs $1. Basket of bread and butter but no entrée? That’ll cost ya too. No substitutions. No to-go orders. No free refills. It’s so totalitarian, it’s fun.

AC Bar & Grill gets away with it because the food is just so good, not to mention served by friendly waitresses that (a) treat everyone like regulars and (b) look like they could drink you under the table. That bargain lobster was full of sweet meat that, squirted with lemon and dunked in drawn butter, was pure summer. Spicy shrimp in fiery gravy (not buffalo sauce) were like little seafood-flavored chili peppers, and the meat clinging to sauce-slathered ribs seemed to pull away from their bones before we even picked them up. Available red or white, the signature Crab Pie (pictured) unites the crisp semi-thick crust of carnival pizza crowed with tons of crabmeat. It’s so good, we couldn’t stop eating, way after we were full. By the end of dinner, there was an empty pitcher of Blue Moon and dirty napkins strewn about the table. Inexpensive and without airs, it was one of the most satisfying meals we’ve had in a long time. Can't find that in any casino.

Photo: blogalicious

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