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

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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Seasons 52 is a smart concept, so smart I wondered why it hadn’t been copied by someone else. The food is good, seasonally adjusted, and calorie limited. They guarantee that the items in their entire menu is 475 calories or less. It takes the worry out of eating if you’re trying to lose weight.

One partial reason it hasn’t been copied is that the company is copying itself. Seasons 52 is a chain with 9 locations, and opening 3 more. There are 2 Atlanta locations, one in Buckhead and one on the Perimeter, a bit north of Perimeter Mall, but still in the same general parking area. This review will be of the Perimeter location.

I had come here once before, on an extended business lunch, so I knew a lot of their cuisine. I had their flats, their desserts, and I knew that they were quite good. I didn’t recall enough specifics to give anyone a decent review, however. So I went again recently at lunch. I ordered their mixed greens salad, and after considering the grilled chipotle chicken skewers for a long time, I got their oak-grilled chicken citron.

The salad was good, but the entree was better:

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I was impressed they could get as much flavor out of the chicken as they did. And if you wanted more, you could hand strip the herb on the plate and add it to bites of the food. In the pasta there was a brown sauce, probably the reduction mentioned in the Seasons 52’s menu.  The whole dish packed a lot of flavor in their 475 calories.

I didn’t have a dessert but my waitress (excellent, btw) allowed me a shot of their desserts.

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I’ve had their pecan pie mini (second from right) in the past. It was wonderful.

Verdict: Excellent place if someone is calorie conscious. Very good even if you’re not. Very Highly Recommended.

Seasons 52
90 Perimeter Center West
Atlanta, GA 30346
(770) 671-0052

Seasons 52 on Urbanspoon

Sugar in greens

I ran into it first at New Orleans, the People’s Restaurant and it’s been a preoccupation ever since. It took a while to realize the sweetness was coming from the collard greens, because any greens I’ve had prior to that experience didn’t have a bit of sweet at all. And I paid attention to greens back in the day, because I first encountered them in school lunches, and really liked them, thinking they were a better spinach. It took a while for me to stop telling my mom about how much better the spinach was at school, compared to the spinach we got from the can.

I’ve asked people at work about sugar in greens and two ladies I know say their grandparents do it. Since we can find extant recipes of this practice, it’s hardly dead. My understanding was the Southern way was to add some meat and fat (fatback, bacon, ham hocks, turkey neck bones, etc) to the greens while cooking, and now we have this interesting variant.

Recipes where collard greens are sweetened (or readers suggested sweetening) can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.

Is Hot Wok gone for good?

Chow Down Atlanta’s recent review of Blue Fin Sushi (a resurrected Sakana Ya) has me wondering about the fate of one other restaurant in Friday’s Plaza on Peachtree Industrial. Does anyone know what is going to happen to the people who ran/cooked for Hot Wok? This was a Chinese eatery that served Chinese food in a style than Indians prefer, a product of the fusion of cuisines when Chinese live in India. Are they going to relocate as well?

It was unique enough that out of town guests would ask us to take them there. They liked it quite a bit, as I recall.

Pizza (again)

Thanks is due to Bob Townsend, whose article on Hearth Pizza unearthed a great article by Alan Richman. The heart of this article is Alan’s take no prisoners attitude towards how pizza is made. It’s not rocket science that an overly wet, overly loaded crust is going to leave you with a floppy tie-it-in-knots pizza but some people just say it so much more forcefully:

I’ve eaten in Naples. From the ancient, brutally hot ovens emerge pies that most Americans wouldn’t recognize. The crust is charred and puffy in spots but tragically thin and pale beneath the toppings. The sauce is chiefly chopped tomatoes, sometimes fresh and sometimes canned, but almost always vivid and bright. (Those San Marzano tomatoes are as good as advertised.) The cheese is mozzarella, but the Italians are proudest when they can substitute fresh mozzarella from the milk of buffaloes and label their pies Margherita DOC. (It sounds like a wine thing, but it’s also a pizza thing.) In my opinion, buffalo mozzarella is pizza’s second-worst topping, exceeded only by whole anchovies—no hot, smelly fish on my pies, thank you. After that, those pizzaioli guys add oil, lots of it, and more liquid is precisely what tomato pies do not need.

This is what happens when a Neapolitan pie comes out of the oven, after it’s been cooked a remarkably short time: The nearly liquefied glob of buffalo mozzarella—now resembling a snowman melting on a warm March afternoon—has become runny. Water drains from the tomatoes. Oil joins the flood. All that excess liquid has to go somewhere, which is why the bottom crust turns to mush, not that it was ever particularly crispy.

Alan, for what it’s worth, has his own blog.

Indescribably delicious

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This was an apple tart at Gourmandises. Every time I show up at this small bakery and restaurant, I end up impressed by the way Jennifer Allen and Christophe Houy handle themselves and their customers. True pros, and they are a pleasure to watch do business. If you have a day off, you could do far worse than heading out to Suwanee to visit this fine eatery.

Guam Boonie Peppers

I’ve been taking photos of my boonies, and this is one of my latest shots.

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To note, the railing on which most of them sit is 35 inches high (an older photo, with a yardstick in the view)

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If people can’t figure out that these simply aren’t Thai ornamental peppers, then they must be blind. Just to emphasize, let’s take a picture of a single leaf beside my hand.

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How could this be a plant that is 12 to 18 inches high? How can the Wikipedia be so silly as to promote the notion that Marianas boonie peppers and the Thai ornamental are the same?

Michael Pollan

I, too, read in early August Michael Pollan’s article “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch”. The thing that touched me most, though, was the quality of his writing. When he spoke of Julia Child’s voice, he just cracked me up.

…Julia’s voice was like nothing I ever heard before or would hear again until Monty Python came to America: vaguely European, breathy and singsongy, and weirdly suggestive of a man doing a falsetto impression of a woman.

How many of us have thought something like this, but couldn’t find a way to say it? And this isn’t the only time his sentences are wonderfully evocative. When speaking of the pleasure Julia Childs found in the kitchen he says:

Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

and this kind of writing peppers the whole article.

Wasabi House is a Pynchon character writ large, a Benny Profane or Nathan Levine of an eatery, cut off from the world of hip, and largely not caring. You can tell from the moment you get inside, because otherwise the outside is white, safe, sane, and seemingly just another ultra sanitized Dunwoody eatery. Inside,  however, the differences strike you, and you can see the real character of the place: the twisted bamboo pole on which a blue cloth Mount Fuji separates the kitchen from the rest of the restaurant; the mirrors on the walls, the plain plastic booths, and the only really good seating, in the middle of the sushi bar, right before the square hole through which you can see the chef cook.

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This is not a place for the squeamish:

“The inside of this place needs some serious revamping– it is mega depressing and dark and old yucky wood everywhere. Its dingy and icky.”

Yes, if it weren’t for the whitewashed outside, this would be a true hole in the wall. But, like true hole in the walls, there are some food bargains. Yakitori for $2? Where does that happen in the Atlanta Japanese food universe? Another Yelp writer, WaiLing C, writes with much less revulsion and a lot more insight:

“I would highly recommend the Godzilla, Dragon, Tuna Avalanche and BiBimBaps.  Yes, they have Bibimbaps!  This place is owned by Koreans.. go figure.. what isn’t owned by Koreans in Atlanta..  But they make some meannnn sushi.”

Other comments are also worth noting, this one from Emily R:

“I usually only get the spicy tuna chirashi.”

Chirashi sushi is worth noting anywhere. Bai bai little dynamite roll, you’ve just been pwned.

Being a “I’ll eat the sushi last” kind of person, I had the nabeyaki udon. And guess what? It arrived in a genuine iron bowl. Yes, and it was tasty too, with tempura, chicken, beef, and shrimp mixed in with the udon noodles.

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I couldn’t help eyeing the flying fish roe as I ate and so asked the sushi chef if he could make a couple for me. They’re smaller than some I’ve had but I wasn’t complaining at the time. I was on a minor high after having watched my food cooked, watched the bowl being prepared, the grey in the chef’s hair, his baseball cap, the nifty use he made of ordinary tools, such as ice cream scoops.

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I enjoyed this place. I like eateries that are, to quote BuHi, “comfortable in their own skin.” It’s not going to please someone who needs an exquisite tea house ceremony of an eatery, but for those looking for value, I’m sure it’s to be found here. Further, I’m equally sure this is the kind of place that appreciates it when you noisily slurp down your noodles.

Down sides: There are no ‘to go’ menus, no web site. You can’t find out online if your particular Japanese specialty is being made here. Service is pretty laid back. If you need it, you have it, but the staff might slip to the back and start doing homework on laptops. The lack of a web site is perhaps their biggest drawback. The fact they have inexpensive Japanese dishes other than sushi will draw in a crowd of Asians and people who have lived overseas.

Verdict: Inexpensive Japanese foods in an informal environment. Highly recommended.

Wasabi House
5500 Chamblee Dunwoody Road
Dunwoody, GA 30338
(770) 804-8400

Wasabi House on Urbanspoon

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