April 2009


Back in the day when the word ‘pho’ elicited the response ‘huh?’, the best pho in Atlanta was found in Pho Hoa. The restaurant is in Asian Square along Buford Highway, just a little ways south of the bridal boutique. The square itself is dominated by 99 Ranch Market, which was an important place back in the day before the International Markets and Super H began to own the ethnic food scene.

I came here more to see if the old restaurant had changed, perhaps had learned some new tricks. And no, it doesn’t seem to have changed much at all. The seating inside are long rows of tables. Every table has a selection of spicy sauces, chopsticks, and spoons within reach. The clientele is largely Asian. Walls are mirrored, and there was one loud TV playing behind me. There was one person waiting tables, a nice older lady.

Although I was seated quickly, it took a while before I was asked what I wanted. This is a restaurant whose service has never been snappy. If you want attentive service, What the Pho? is a better choice. I ended up ordering a summer roll, their #5 pho, and a soursop smoothie.

Pho, in this restaurant, are organized in terms of how ‘adventurous’ they are. In more explicit terms, fattier meats, cuts with more cartilage, things like tripe appear in the dish as you proceed from simple phos to adventuresome products. In this respect it’s no different from the sushi restaurants who label flying fish roe sushis and eel sushis as ‘challenging’. The pho can be purchased in small, medium and large bowls. Medium bowls are about $5.95 and large bowls are $6.50 or so.

The summer rolls weren’t bad, shrimp and vegetables visible inside a translucent wrapper. The pho was actually quite good. The broth was dark, and the meat was tender, falling apart tender, which I didn’t expect. The collection of mints, sprouts, and slices of pepper was a little smaller than I’m used to, but to be fair, I’m used to eating pho with a party, not alone. The soursop smoothie was really good, hints of the fruit’s flavor shining through.

Verdict:  Recommended. Good inexpensive food. Service is a bit slow. Pho Hoa is perhaps still the best place in town for a pho beginner.

Pho Hoa
5150 Buford Highway,
Doraville GA, 30340-1153
(770) 455-8729

Pho Hoa on Urbanspoon

Notes: The New York Times has been following pho for ages, from this article (seen in abstract) about the migration of pho from North to South, to this article, an eater’s guide to the phos of North and South Vietnam. The latter is my favorite pho article of all time. One thing that did surprise me while researching this article is that Pho Hoa is a chain. There are locations of this chain on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, and others in six other countries.

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Tastee’s Jamaican Cuisine is a small restaurant in a strip mall one block south of the Highpoint Road-Highway 124 intersection. It sits adjacent to Flame’s Sports Bar and Grill, facing 124. The day I arrived they were smoking their jerk chicken just outside the store.

tastees

Inside, it’s small. There are a few tables, but very few. The menu is scrawled on a whiteboard, there are covered containers of food behind a counter, and on the counter, a heating rack full of patties. They have chicken and beef patties at this place. Patties are cheap, less than $2.00 each. They also have dinner plates, with jerk chicken, oxtail, curried chicken and goat, brown stew chicken and brown stew fish. The dinner plates come in a medium and large size, have peas and rice and vegetables as sides.  Medium plates run about $7 dollars or so and large plates about $9.50 or so.

I was shopping for lunch. My wife only eats patties, so I bought 4 chicken patties and a large plate of curried goat to go. As appealing as the smoked chicken was, I had never had goat and this was an opportunity. We took it home, shared tastes. My daughter had never had goat either and there wasn’t any way she was just eating patties.

Goat is a dark meat, and some compare the taste to lamb or veal.  The curry spices, of course, were the dominant flavors in the dish. The curry was tasty without being too spicy or overpowering. Peas and rice were good, and the mixed vegetables (largely stewed cabbage) were good as well. The patties, in comparison to  Golden Krust, were larger, rounder, and the filling was creamier in texture. The patties had some spicy heat, which wasn’t immediately obvious but would creep up on you later.

Verdict: good first impression, recommended for now. It is inexpensive, as patties are cheap and filling. I will need to go back sometime and try their home smoked chicken.

Tastee’s Jamaican Cuisine
2671 Centerville Hwy
Snellville, GA 30078
(678) 344-7004

Tastee's Jamaican Cuisine on Urbanspoon

This is going to be a jambalaya of a post, so bear with me. In cookbooks, “Real Cajun”, by Donald Link, is out. This was a book inspired by Donald’s upbringing in southern Louisiana, and his interest in Cajun (as opposed to Creole) dishes.  And on both the cover and inside, it is one pretty cookbook:

real_cajun

The recipes inside are just delicious looking. It makes me want to go out and buy a few pounds of crawfish right away. In the boonie pepper department, the seeds from Reimer have arrived, in nice neat packages.  So in the end, all three sources of boonie pepper seeds delivered a product. My boonies are growing slowly on the windowsill, perhaps because this has been a cool wet April. I suspect I need some kind of greenhouse factor to improve the odds (one technique, called pop cloches, has been posted on the site You Grow Girl. Another resource for pop bottle greenhouses is the blog  Mr Brown Thumb. Finally the Instructables site has some blow by blow instructions for pop bottle greenhouses). In the meantime, I’m planning to plant some of the seeds from floralys.

As part of Earth Day, Jo and Sara of Innocent Primate have posted a link where if you click and look at some ads, you help feed a dog.

A lot of good food is simply a riff off the salsa base of diced tomatoes, diced onions, and citrus juice, such as most common black bean and corn salsas. One critical advantage this blend has is that it’s low calorie. In one case I believe I estimated a pint of one black bean and corn salsa to have less than 400 calories. In this recipe from Men’s Health, it’s about 180 calories a serving and they’re using olive oil to boot. We reviewed a bunch of black bean and corn salsa recipes here.

It’s encouraging enough that I think salsas deserve a higher place on the menu than simply a condiment. They should be treated as a side or perhaps the main component of a meal, perhaps lunch. One place that is thinking along those terms, but hasn’t quite got there yet, is the restaurant Fresh Mexi-Cali. They offer good, inexpensive border cuisine, but they also have a salsa bar that is pretty much all-you-can-eat. They serve at least 5 salsas by my count, a mango salsa, pico de gallo, a salsa verde, a moderately hot chipotle salsa and a very hot salsa. The restaurant I’ve been to is a little out of my blog’s normal range, in Sandy Springs, but they offer other interesting dishes, such as their bowl (black beans, rice, pico) that could be turned, with a little work, into something more calorie free, lightweight, salsa-centric, vegan and fresh. They could have people gushing about Mexi-Cali Grill the way this place gets the love.

Fresh Mexi-Cali Grill
6631 Roswell Road, Suite J
Publix Shopping Center
Sandy Springs, GA
(404) 256-6394

Fresh Mexi-Cali Grill on Urbanspoon

For a good introduction to salsas, this article by Mexican Food World is useful. For those who have never made their own salsa, a good salsa recipe is on the blog Wicked Good Dinner. Another easy salsa is the one posted by My Vegan Planet, called an Argentinian BBQ salsa.

A nice use of salsa is by Just a Taste, who mixes a pureed salsa with fresh pita chips. On the blog Blue Kitchen, there is a nice tomato-basil salsa over pasta recipe that looks wonderfully delicious. The blogger The Friendly Kitchen has a salsa recipe that also looks top notch. Hers is blended, so it isn’t quite as easy as a salsa cruda.

Finally, the blogger Cat Scratch Fever was looking for good salsa suggestions in her article, “In search of the perfect salsa” Too bad the comments are closed, else I’d have answered.

Mojito’s Cuban-American Bistro is a pretty little restaurant in downtown Norcross on Peachtree, run by the Fernandez-Cortez family. I commute through Norcross in the evenings, and it had caught my eye while commuting, the name etched gracefully in script in their windows. Once inside, it’s far longer than it is wide, with wood paneling being the dominant interior element, and ceiling fans pointing the way to the back of the room.

Once inside, I was quickly seated, though the staff expressed concern about a party that was being held nearby, the noise that they might make. I assured them it wasn’t a concern and then got lost in their menu.

The most attractive dish to me was their shrimp creole, but I have Louisiana roots and I didn’t want my expectations of what a Louisiana shrimp creole is to diminish any feelings about the Cuban recipe. So I ordered a ropa viejo instead. This is a beef brisket simmered with peppers and onions in a tomato sauce. In the meantime I ordered beef empanadas as an appetizer.

The menu warns customers that the food may be a little slower than they might get from a chain, and the staff were obviously concerned about their party. And it did take a bit longer than a stock chain might, but it was rather pleasing watching staff of all ages, from the very young to grandfatherly men serving food to customers.

About the time the empanadas arrived, the owner appeared and introduced himself, and warned me that the sauce with the empanadas was habanero based and might be a little hot. I’m glad for the warning because it is hot, but not “to die a small death” hot. The empanadas were very good, by the way, nice crusty pastry stuffed with a mix of juicy meats and root vegetable. And the empanadas and the habanero sauce was enough to fulfill any need I had for complex flavor and heat.

I didn’t let them take that habanero sauce after the empanadas were gone, it was too good to leave behind.

The rojo vieja arrived, a decent sized serving and it was good. The meat was very tender, the rich tomato flavor came through clearly. It was not at all spicy, but I hated to waste that good habanero sauce, so I spiced up mine. There was white rice, black beans, and plantains with the dish, and the black beans and rice were good, but the plantains were excellent. They were a little crunchy outside, and creamy inside.

I picked up two desserts to go, fried plantains for my wife and a mango pie for my daughter and myself. My wife loved the plantains and she’s by far the pickiest eater in the family. The mango pie was also quite good.

The prices in Mojitos are reasonable, about 8 to 9 dollars for sandwiches, and entrees run from 10 dollars to 16 dollars. A typical entree costs 12 to 13 dollars.

Service is generally good. They are a family owned restaurant, so they don’t have an army of staff. They were focused on the big party when I arrived, but that soon ended and people, food and questions flowed my way. They ask the right questions, they do genuinely try to see that you’re comfortable, they are friendly and chatty and the owner comes out and speaks with you.

Verdict: Recommended, especially if you like tropical food. After trying the plantains, my wife told me I have to take her here soon, sometime.

Mojitos Cuban-American Bistro
35 South Peachtree Street,
Norcross GA, 30071.
(770)-441-2599

Mojito's Cuban-American Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tip:

You can get from Snellville to downtown Norcross quickly if you use the access road that parallels I-85 on the west, Brook Hollow Parkway. Take Ronald Reagan to Pleasant Hill, Pleasant Hill to I-85 S. Exit I-85 S at Indian Trail and at the intersection, head straight, do not turn left or right. Stay on the Parkway until you reach Mitchell Road. Turn right on Mitchell and take the road until you can go no further. At this point you are in Norcross and three turns from Peachtree Street (left, right, left).

I like Ruby Tuesday, at least the one in Snellville. Unlike the now closed Ruby Tuesday in Gwinnett Place, this one is color blind and delivers the same service regardless of the color of their patrons. They have well regarded salad bar and although they switch menu items often, certain items are reliable (wings, buffalo burgers, etc). What I’m here to talk about is their new tipping suggestions (printed on their tickets), which to me are a little outrageous.

I always understood you calculated tips by multiplying the tip percentage, divided by 100, into the total for the meal (see for example, this link, or this link). Later, friends and in-laws from San Francisco told me that you do this to the total of the meal before taxes. These days, 15% is a good tip and 20% is reserved for exceptional service. In my grandfather’s generation, 10% was an exceptional tip and in my father’s generation, 15% considered exceptional.

Therefore, if you have a meal that costs 10.00, and 7% sales tax, the meal with tax is $10.70. So to calculate tips my way, at 20%, I come up with $2.14. If I calculate tips the way my friends from San Francisco do, at 20%, they come up with $2.00. What Ruby Tuesday is doing, however, is taking $10.70, multiplying by 0.8, and subtracting the difference. For a meal of $10.70, the tip that results would be $2.68, and Ruby Tuesday is calling that a 20% tip.

Simply put, what in normal parlance would be called a 25% tip, Ruby is calling a 20% tip. It’s done by a bit of sleight of hand in terms of the calculations, and people need to be aware of what is going on.

Take home: calculate your own tips, and don’t overtip because Ruby Tuesday thinks you should.

Update:  June 11, 2009 – The last time I bought food to go here, the tip suggestions had been adjusted to the more normal values.

Ruby Tuesday on Urbanspoon

My wife is the chicken lover in our family. She tells me she can eat it every day of the week. So if we buy chicken, we consult her. Over the last couple years, when we have purchased fried chicken in Snellville, we largely purchase it from Popeye’s.

Popeye’s originated in a suburb of New Orleans and has a spicy New Orleans influence in their products. I’ve known of Popeyes for at least 25 years. My wife and I saw one first in Houston, where it had competition in the form of Frenchy’s fried chicken.  In Snellville, however, there is no Frenchy’s and there is absolutely no competition in the spicy New Orleans chicken category. Moreover, finding good fried chicken in a fast food chain has as much to do with the individual store (manager, cooks, etc) as the chain.

I suspect this store is just a cut above the norm. The chicken we’ve gotten from this store is spicy when it needs to be and is dry, not greasy. The biscuits we have gotten are tender and fresh, with a hint of a butter taste. Among Popeye’s sides, the dirty rice is quite good, but the red beans and rice side has the consistency of a thin soup. I avoid their red beans and rice when possible.

When we eat this chicken, we usually like to add 3 or 4 small hot banana peppers to the food mix. Brands we recommend include Trappey’s Torrido Santa Fe Grande and Mezzetta Hot Chili Peppers.

Verdict: Recommended. It’s among the best fried chicken restaurants in the city. Just please, avoid the red beans and rice.

Tip:

There is often a special of the day or week, usually adding an extra piece of fried chicken compared to a similar item. This special is usually a better deal, piece for piece, than the standard combos.  If they have one, I recommend you get it.

Location:

2330 Ronald Reagan Pkwy.
Snellville, GA 30078
(770) 736-8633

Popeye's Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

Five Guys is a burger chain from the Washington D. C. area with a lot of good press and a lot of momentum (see local reviews here by Chow Down Atlanta and here by Blissful Glutton). I saw my first one while driving down Jimmy Carter, and soon after one appeared in the Tucker, GA area, across the street from Cofer Crossing in a strip mall. I had never been there, but my wife likes to shop at the Wall-Mart in Cofer Crossing and she came back one day really praising their hamburgers. As far as I know, the Tucker location is the closest to Snellville.

I snuck into the Tucker store recently, and my impressions are.. peanuts! nice to have peanuts to shell when you’re in line. The color scheme is pretty, a red and white checked scheme. Reviews and “Best Of” awards for Five Guys pepper the walls. Burgers seem affordable, but it’s a pain in the pocket if you buy a regular cheeseburger (4.99), fries (2.59) and a coke (1.99).  That’s 10.24 for a burger, Red Robin territory. The “little hamburger/cheeseburger” turns out to be a single. The regular is actually a double burger. And the fries are huge and easily feed 2 or 3. For a family of 5, I would get 5 “little burgers” and 2 fries.

The burger, once I dug it out from all the fries, isn’t flat like most burgers. It’s a round ball of food. The cheese is sandwiched between the two slices of meat and then all the other fixing ride on top. Bun seemed thin, really, it’s all about the meat and toppings here. The burger is good and juicy. The fries are exceptional, meaty and hot as can be. Good stuff, and there isn’t the “extras” overload you get at Red Robin.

The service was good for a place where you order at a counter and pick up your food, and more so, every one working in the store seemed to be enjoying themselves, having a good time. It’s a sea change from the long gone Burger King that used to abuse its customers a block south of this location.

Verdict: very good burger, excellent fries. Note that their regular is really a double burger, their little burger is a single and not really little, and the fries can feed three easily. Highly recommended.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries
4306 Lawrenceville Highway, Suite 140
Tucker GA, 30084
(770)-496-9990

Five Guys on Urbanspoon

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