August 2009


Arizona’s at Stonecrest is a great looking restaurant.  It’s spacious inside, surprisingly so given how compact the building appears from the outside. The waitstaff dress all in black, and are efficient but unobtrusive. The background music is jazz, not too soft, not too loud. There is a bar on the left as you enter, two good sized flat screen televisions on view, and sofas are available, so you can sit and watch while your party assembles.

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These virtues, and the lack of other functional alternatives, have turned Arizona’s into the best place for adults in Lithonia to meet and greet. It also makes it a place where parties happen. A party was happening as we entered, a girl’s night out, perhaps, or a shower or wedding party. They were happily and noisily taking photos of each other, and drinking plenty of wine.

This leads to one central problem that Arizona’s does have. The restaurant is, in essence, one large shared room. If a single table is loud, everyone gets to hear it. If a party is loud, then to a first approximation, that party is being shared by the whole restaurant.  And that wasn’t much of a problem when we arrived and were hungry, but it made it very easy to leave after the entrees were finished. Now I’ve done reviews of restaurants that were having parties and seldom has a party affected the mood of my eating. I think the difference is that in the other instances, the parties were being housed in separate rooms, and the noise reduction was substantial.

That said, let’s talk about food. We ordered a starter, the Denver lamb ribs, and we ordered the hickory grilled Atlantic salmon, Arizona’s baby back ribs, and their signature sirloin. We ordered salads with the ribs and the steak. My daughter had a side of mashed potatoes with her salmon. Before the food arrived, a loaf of bread arrived at the table.

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It was a decent bread, even if I found crusts on the very ends a little dry. The house salad was also a nice plate of greens.

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Pretty soon after the lamb arrived. I liked this appetizer a lot, as did my daughter, considering how quickly she went for seconds.

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There was a bit more of a wait, a second loaf of bread appeared, and then the entrees arrived at the table. Of all the dishes, perhaps the salmon was the best received. It had two good sides, the grits and the mashed potatoes, and the salmon was very appetizing as well. My wife didn’t like the sweetness the spinach and chili oil imparted, but I liked the bit of fish I tried, and my daughter ate most of her fish.

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The baby back ribs are a huge plate of food, mostly dry and have a bit of a smoke flavor. I was a little surprised, not expecting that from steakhouse ribs. I’d call this entree a success as well.

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The least successful entree was the steak. It had taste, and was a genuine medium rare for the most part, but the meat was relatively tough and chewy. I’ve had consistently better and more tender sirloins at much less expensive steakhouses. The steamed vegetables were also just okay. Had I known, I’d have gotten the same dish my daughter ordered.

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More quibble perhaps than critique: Arizona’s seems to rely a lot of sauces, marinades, and coatings to get more flavor out of their dishes. I find this curious since steaks need little more than salt, cracked pepper and garlic to bring out their best flavors. The best proofs, however, of the success of this approach are the full restaurant we saw when we came, and the crowds that mark up this restaurant on review sites such as Urban Spoon.

Verdict: Mostly good food. Highly recommended if you’re looking for a place to hold a party.

Arizona’s at Stonecrest
2940 Stonecrest Circle
Lithonia, GA 30038
(678) 526-7775

Arizona's at Stonecrest on Urbanspoon

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Thai Taste is a restaurant found just minutes up 78 from Mellow Mushroom, on the left side as you travel east. It’s on the end of a strip mall and easy to miss. And I don’t usually head east on 78 but this time I did, and this eatery is closer to Snellville than most spots on Pleasant Hill road.

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I came for lunch. The inside of the restaurant is neat and clean, and on a blackboard they have posted specials.

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I had the curried catfish. That came with a good tasting soup. The catfish itself was crunchy and the curry base had just the right amount of heat and was well spiced.

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You can adjust the heat of your dishes. My waiter asked if I wanted my food mild, medium, hot, or Thai hot. The medium at Thai taste is enough heat to know it’s there and you can feel it build as you eat.

If you search the Internet for reviews of the place, phrases like “undiscovered gem”, “best of the Snellville/Lawrenceville area”, and “great food” get used repeatedly. And while I’m not giving up Benny’s Bar and Grill or Danthai for Thai Taste, it is good enough to be part of any discussion of the best eateries in the Snellville/Loganville area.

Thai Taste
1009 Athens Highway
Loganville, GA 30052
(678) 344-7444

Thai Taste on Urbanspoon

MGR Palace is one of a number of restaurants in a mall near Wall Mart on Rock Bridge Road that include Cici’s Pizza. The eatery is roughly across the street from the Metro Diner. I’ve been here a couple times, and in general I’ve liked the food. It is, however, the kind of cuisine that leaves me fighting for words to describe it. What doesn’t help is that just down 78 in Decatur is the Udipi Cafe, also vegetarian and Indian, and though similar, they have very different cuisines. I’ve been to both, and entrees at one I like I can’t find at the other.

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If a rule of thumb at Udipi might be “it’s hard to go wrong with chickpeas”, then a rule of thumb at MGR Palace is “it’s hard to go wrong with potatoes”.  It’s very hard, however, to remember the names of the dishes. Thankfully, MGR Palace has the equivalent of a combination plate called a thali. So this day I ordered a thali and that’s what I’ll be describing. It’s a good looking plate of food, with or without the naan (flatbread).

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Along the bottom of the plate are three vegetable curries. The left side has a chutney (pickles), a yellow fruity dessert and above it, yogurt with some vegetables. Along the top are two different kinds of rice. The right side has two soups, a soup called a sambar being the upper of the two. The sambar is a little spicy.

What can I say? I liked and ate pretty much all of it. I thought the curries were excellent, the dessert was a pleasant suprise. The rice I mixed in with other foods or ate plain, and I like the sambar a little better as a soup because of the spice. The food is not especially hot but it is nicely spiced. The naan was about as close to butterless perfection as can be. I tore it into pieces, dipped it into the yogurt and the soups, or used it as a wrap for chutneys or curries.

The clientele here is largely Indian, with the occasional collection of curious Americans. Staff, in my experience, is friendly and helpful.

Before leaving, I ordered samosas to go. A samosa is roughly akin to an empanada, a stuffed pastry, and MGR Palace’s samosas are really good. I’ve also had MGR Palace’s dosai, a kind of crepe, and they are quite good as well. Finally, MGR Palace is inexpensive. The thali is one of the most expensive dishes on the menu, and it cost 12 dollars. Most entrees are under 10 dollars.

Verdict: Surprisingly good Indian food outside 285. Very affordable, and very highly recommended.

Madras Sri Ganesh Ram Palace
1825 Rockbridge Rd
Stone Mountain, GA 30087
(770) 413-1415

MGR Palace on Urbanspoon

Notes: Meredith Ford Goldman has an excellent review of this restaurant.

Lee’s Bakery has been hard to find for me. I usually drive up and down Buford, stopping where the CDC has a branch office. It always seemed to me to be the end of all the ethnic stores in the area. Finally, this time, I drove past and kept going south, and I finally found Lee’s Bakery in a strip mall on the left hand side, near a Chevron. Interestingly, there was also a branch of Co’m Vietnamese Grill in the same strip mall.

I came here because Lee’s Bakery is always the store by which Quoc Huong is compared. It’s one of the best known banh mi sources in the city.  And they do have banh mi. $2.50 a sandwich to go, $3.00 on site. They also have some interesting soups, and the crab noodle soup was the one I ordered. The banh mi came first.

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Number 4, grilled pork banh mi (excellent!)

Eating that sandwich was one of two WOW banh mi moments I’ve had. The first was my first Quoc Huong sandwich. And other, later Quoc Huong sandwiches never were quite the same, never matched the freshness of the bread of the original. This sandwich just has good warm bread, warm tasty meat, good balance in its vegetables and then you get hit by a dose of heat and spice. Short version: the sandwich was excellent.

The crab noodle soup had a surprise waiting for me, even though it looks awesome.

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Number 6, crab noodle soup

It’s made using fish sauce (good links on fish sauce are here and here). I hadn’t had any dishes made from fish sauce before, that I was aware of, but you could smell it in this dish. The crab is ground fine and then made into small rounded masses about the size of the end of my big finger. You have to hunt for them through the dish. And of course, the soup has good taste. When I mentioned the scent to my waiter, he replied, “Smells kind of fishy, huh?”

Service, if I haven’t said, was extremely good.

Verdict: Considered a banh mi haven and it is surely that. Other interesting ethnic dishes abound. Highly Recommended.

4005 Buford Highway Suite C
Atlanta, GA 30345
(404) 728-1008

Lee's Bakery on Urbanspoon

One of the more intriguing chapters in Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book “Salt: A World History” was chapter four, which discusses the development of the Roman fish sauce garum, and the independent development of fish sauce in Asia, almost certainly beginning in Vietnam.

Phnom Penh is a half block south of the Main Street – Highway 29 intersection in Tucker, and has been noted by other reviewers, the sign out front still says “Beef Stix.” The restaurant looks tiny from the outside, and in fact is pretty small. Still, there are pretty photos of Angkor Wat, pretty wood carvings on the walls, and nice looking, functional chairs and tables inside.

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Staff is spare but helpful. If you order an entree here, you’re given the choice of a soup or an egg roll to start. Of the two I prefer the lemon grass soup, lighter and less oily than the roll. There are also appetizers available, including vegetable rolls, and a tasty seafood salad. I liked the salad, which has a lot of flavor but has only a small amount of pepper, compared to the Thai equivalent.

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lemon grass soup.

vegetable rolls

vegetable rolls

seafood salad

seafood salad

We’ve tried three different entrees on two separate visits. My daughter tried their chicken stix, my wife their lo mein, and I’ve had the spicy basil chicken both times I’ve come. All the dishes were good, but I distinctly preferred the last dish. The dark red-brown broth the spicy basil chicken comes in is so appetizing if I had that and white rice, I’d be quite happy.

The chicken stix came with a side of rice and white and orange pickles.

Chicken stix. One kebab has been eaten already.

Chicken stix. One kebab has been eaten already.

lo mein

lo mein

spicy basil chicken

spicy basil chicken

Service, in my experience, has always been good.

Verdict: A totally worthy addition to Atlanta’s ethnic scene and a nice addition to the northeast side of the city. Very Highly Recommended.

Phnom Penh
4059 Lawrenceville Hwy
Tucker, GA 30084
(770) 493-3598

Phnom Penh on Urbanspoon

When the first On the Border appeared just off exit 8 on Highway 400, I can’t tell you just how much of a change that eatery made to my day to day existence. The red salsa was excellent, the best I could find in the city. It had good curved chips, hot and made on site. We could take snotty New Yorkers there, and after a bite or three they would be ordering beer and asking about risque clubs in Buckhead.  It had real chile rellenos, not these fakes, these inch wide strips of bell pepper into which a stingy chef poured a couple tablespoons of ground beef and cheese. The fajitas were good. So what if it were a dollar or two more than the typical Mexican eatery? It was good eating.

On the Border's red salsa is excellent.

On the Border's red salsa is excellent.

Fast forward to 2009. There are On the Borders a lot closer to where I live now. One used to be in Snellville, but it always had service issues, and is now closed. There is a good On the Border on Pleasant Hill Road, off I-85, near the Barnes and Noble and that’s what this review will cover.

These days the chile relleno is no longer a featured entree item, and the kind and types of fajitas have expanded. There are more kinds of tacos these days, beef brisket tacos, fish tacos. But there seems no way to mix and match kinds of tacos; you’re stuck with one or two of whatever type you choose. Now perhaps there is, perhaps there are tacos a la carte. When I asked my waitress about chile rellenos, I was told I could have them in a combo or a la carte. So off the menu is a real possibility here.

I ended up ordering a pepper jack chicken grilled enchilada. It looked to be a reasonable compromise between simplicity and expense.  And it’s good looking when it arrives:

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And this dish exposes the good and bad of On the Border. Their serving size is large. All their serving sizes are large. And the dish is shot through with high calorie items. The enchilada has cheese of course, but so do the black beans. They are drizzled with cheese. The chile verde also has a shot of sour cream in it; you can’t avoid it. The upshot is that On the Border has a calorie rich cuisine, and it’s hardly a place for a dieter.

This may not be a bad thing in an age where Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cookjing” is a #1 best seller. But for those of us who have grown to a point we can’t eat as rich a cuisine as we once could, it means we have to eat less of this kind of food and a lot more plain simple foods. Black beans, with a little spice, have very few calories. The same can’t be said for the cheese on top.

The enchilada is quite good. It’s hard to taste any grilling in the chicken; it’s a bit overwhelmed by the cheese and the chipotle sauce. The sauce and the cheese and the peppers are good, and the toasting of the enchilada shell can’t be missed.

Ultimately, however, I can’t escape the feeling that the concept of the restaurant is a little out of touch in the climate of the times.  If I’m looking for dishes in the 5 to 10 dollar range, I don’t feel wanted here. The push is all up menu, to buy more expensive things. The focus is to upscale their customers into eating their fajitas, and more and lots of them, when perhaps for some of us, a simple taco or two and some chips, and nothing else, would do.

Verdict: Good food. Great salsa, great chips. Tends to be rich and high calorie. If that’s what you want, highly recommended.

On the Border Mexican Grill
2275 Pleasant Hill Rd
Duluth, GA 30096
(770) 232-9169

On the Border Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon

At the Ted’s Montana Grill on 124 and Webb Ginn Road, there is an advertised lunch special these days:

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And the local Polish Catholic Church is sponsoring a pierogi festival, to be held in Lawrenceville.

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These are photos of the local Bonefish Grill and the wine store Winestyles, also at Webb Ginn and 124.

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