November 2009


Uncle Julio’s is a chain that started in Dallas and is, in general, respected there and well appreciated by Texas expats.  And to make it clear, this is a border food restaurant. It says so explicitly on their catering truck. It says so implicitly in their choice of words and spellings, such as sopapilla instead of sopaipa. The former is used in what the Wikipedia calls the New Mexican style of sopapilla.

This particular Uncle Julio’s, a Sandy Springs location, opened Tuesday, November 18th. I actually dropped by on the 17th and they were handing out $10 discounts for showing up early. And I missed opening day, only to come back the next day. There was a large, but not overwhelming crowd. I managed to get a window seat and waited for the food. If I haven’t said already, it looks pretty good inside, the dominant elements (other than a very large amount of glass) are wood and plaster, with a whole lot of photos on the wall – vaqueros, mothers, sons, many still lifes. There are cow horns tacked on the wall and other indications that this didn’t come out of, oh, an environment such as Mexico City.

Waiters are well dressed, in white shirts and black aprons and ties. I asked some questions about fajitas (no, he didn’t know the meat they used on their fajitas. Yes, he did know that even at lunch, fajitas come out on metal plates), but drifted to the quail. Quail are what my globetrotting brother insists on when my family gets together for Christmas every year. Whether he come in from Stockholm, Berlin, Santiago, or Beijing, as regular as clockwork he wants his quail. So I couldn’t resist. Grilled quail is what I ordered.

First came a chipotle salsa and dry chips. The chipotle was rich in flavor and had a decent bite to it. The chips were excellent.

The quail, when it arrived, came on metal, but it really was a heavy duty plastic plate with a metal liner. This thing is much easier for a waiter to handle than a comal, and when it arrived, the plate was hot. The quail were flattened. I wasn’t quite used to that but the taste didn’t change. The quail were tasty and  tender and the grilled flavor came through. The grilled jalapeño looked so good I ate it. And it was fairly mild (as jalapeños go) until the very last bite, which packed a surprising punch. Delicious though.

The Spanish rice was good. The beans were rich in flavor but had too much salt for my tastes. I ordered extra pico de gallo and it was pretty good as well, though the tomato chunks had that “shipped green” feeling, hardly grown on the vine. The tortillas were good, and exceptionally soft. I was scooping up my sides and making soft tacos out of them.

About this time a group of 99X staffers showed up on a table next to mine. It was pretty obvious, as one of them had a station shirt on with the word STAFF in large letters. It was kind of fun, as this is one of the stations I listen to. I was also almost done at the moment, but managed to be talked into Uncle Julio’s sopapillas.

They’re cute. Smaller than I’m used to, they sometimes don’t open well and make it harder to pour honey inside. But yes, I felt almost transported back to Texas.

Verdict: Quality Tejano food at reasonable prices. Highly recommended.

Uncle Julio’s Fine Mexican Food
1140 Hammond Drive
Sandy Springs, GA 30328
(678) 736-8260

Uncle Julio's Fine Mexican Food on Urbanspoon

Coffee and tea are probably the most common sources of a bitter taste in most people’s diets. Beers can be bitter, as can certain additives in fancy cocktails (such as Angostura bitters). For older folks, a common bitter flavor is the aftertaste of a chlorhexidine rinse. But Chinese foods also use bitter tastes, such as this beef with bitter melon in black bean sauce, from Canton Cooks:

To note, bitter melon is quite bitter, but hardly in the same league as chlorhexidine. The most interesting bitter flavor I’ve run into recently is Chinese broccoli. If you go to Ming’s Bar BQ and order a dish rich with broccoli, they’ll ask, “leaf broccoli or crown broccoli?”, or perhaps “Chinese broccoli or crown broccoli?” The Chinese product has a stem and a large dark green leaf, and a very mild bitter flavor. I’d say the dominant flavor and textures I note in Chinese broccoli are the freshness of the green vegetable and the sweetness of it.  The combination of green freshness, sweetness, and a bitter so mild it could be a bubblegum flavor are an interesting and refreshing combination.

Have you encountered an interesting flavor combination recently? Care to post about it?

F2O is a chain, with seven locations in two states, and it’s one with quite a decent reputation. The one I’ll be describing is on Roswell Road near Hilderbrand Drive. It’s a nice looking place on the outside and a nice looking restaurant on the inside.

Despite the looks, the layout of this restaurant leaves certain things to be desired. Service? You stand in line and order. Once finished, they give you an oversized flag to take to your table. Seating? It’s cramped, seats so close if there were two of me side by side (very possible in this restaurant), my elbows would clash. Privacy? Forget it. The seating has been deliberately arranged so that people must look at other diners in very many circumstances. This place would be a seating and privacy nightmare if full.

The crowd was largely female when I showed. There were a few men, mostly in starched collars and business shirts. Women were largely attractively dressed. No Blackberries, no PDAs, no patrons with heads buried behind a laptop screen. Phones, yes, but no sign this restaurant had anything of an IT crowd.

While standing in line, you can pull out a placemat sized menu and you can also read one of the many signs announcing specials. Their blackened tilapia looked attractive but I ended up settling on their chicken tortilla soup and their grilled salmon.

Both were exceptionally good. The chicken had grill marks and the chunks were pretty big. The soup tasted fresh and the half bowl serving just the amount I wanted. The salmon serving (3/4 size) had a salad with baby greens and an excellent side, the wheat berry rice. The rice was peppered with the brown grains of wheat, and bits of stuff that was rounder. Perhaps the spheres were broken wheat, or maybe couscous. The salmon itself had a sweetish sauce and was topped with corn and nuts. The salad had fresh tender greens and perhaps too much dressing. The greens didn’t need that much flavor, they were good enough to stand on their own.

It’s nice to say that the best part of this meal was the meal itself.

Verdict: Trendy, attractive and fast, this place gets you in and out with some flair. Highly recommended for the food.

F2O
6125 Roswell Road
Sandy Springs, GA 30328
(404) 567-8646

F2O Fresh To Order on Urbanspoon

Jovalto’s is a smallish cafe in a Kroger shopping center on Grayson Highway. I ran into it while doing business with Comcast, which has a brick and mortar store in the same strip mall. From Webb Ginn Road, simply head north until it ends. Turn right and continue until you see the Kroger strip mall on your right. Couldn’t be simpler to get there.

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Jovaltos’ calls itself an American/Caribbean fusion restaurant. They have some island favorites, but also hot dogs and hamburgers, and varieties of wings, in jerk spice or hot sauce.  They also have $3.99 lunch specials and savings available during lunch hours during the day.

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Steaming hot jerk chicken plate.

I tried their jerk chicken plate, which was steaming hot when it arrived. It’s a wet jerk, and with a very nice level of spicing. Hard to notice when you start, the jerk builds to a decent level of heat as you eat. Jovalto’s uses chicken breasts, and you can see them being grilled when you enter, as their grill is visible to the eye.

The plate leaves you with a salad, a bit of dessert, and the jerk plate, which had the chicken, some fried plantains, and peas and rice. It was a good deal, I thought, given the amount of food on your plate. And it’s a cleaner place than many, with decent service.

Verdict: Nice little Caribbean restaurant, nice wet jerk chicken. Highly recommended.

Jovalto’s Cafe
1911 Grayson Highway
Grayson, GA 30017
(770) 559-1405

Jovaltos Cafe on Urbanspoon

As Filipinos came to the island of Guam, they brought along some of their foods. Lumpia are common on Guam now, and when I was there, pancit could be found in almost any village-wide fiesta, and most of the combination gas station-store-restaurants that pepper the island. There are many different kinds of pancit. To give you a feel for the various recipes, we’ll list six (here, here, here, here, here, and here). Of these, the version by Chaos in the Kitchen more closely seems to resemble what my family can cook locally.

The noodle I’m more used to is a larger yellow noodle, but my sister-in-law has been getting good results with rice stick noodles, which we found at Assi Supermercado (as my wife says, “look for the shrimp”).

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This results in a much lighter product, as below.

home made pancit

Home made pancit.

If there is anything I’d love to see in a Filipino restaurant in Atlanta, it would be a good pancit. I miss it far more than lumpia.

Lee’s Pho is one of the shops in the Food Court of Assi Supermercado in Duluth, and one easily overlooked in the wash of Chinese noodle shops and bulgogi on a bun. But I had a reader note that banh mi could be found in Assi, and that was enough to make me want to try the sandwich at this shop.

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The sandwich I chose goes by the letter-number designation of “S3”, though that seemed to confuse the staff. “Pork sandwich” worked much better. On the take out menu it’s called a charbroiled pork sandwich and is decently sized when it arrived. They’re reasonably cheap, $3 each, and the sixth one is free if you order 5. To feed a family of six two sandwiches each would cost just $30.00.

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I got my sandwich late enough I wasn’t expecting excellence. The bread seemed a little sweet and was good, but wasn’t the perfection you get when the bread comes right out of the oven. The pork was cold but tasty. There was a bit of a yellow condiment (probably mustard), pork, a white vegetable and plenty of jalapeño slices. Yes, not the perfection of a banh mi straight out of the oven on Buford Highway, but a lot of balance and plenty good. And it’s close to where I live, less than 15 minutes away by car. And if I want to bring lunch to work, this is an easy stop along the way.

Lee’s Pho
1630 Pleasant Hill Road, #A1
Duluth, GA 30096
(770) 931-8868

Lee's Pho on Urbanspoon

Donut King is a Mom and Pop donut shop near the corner of 78 and Scenic Highway (124), just north of 78, with enough of a following to drift into Snellville’s top 10 at times. It has early bird hours, opening at 5:30 am and closing at 1 pm. This is why we hadn’t visited until recently, as my wife is an afternoon donut buyer, eating them the next day for breakfast.

The look outside is spartan.

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The look inside is spartan as well, with a couple tables, some stand up refrigerators with drinks, a display cabinet for the donuts, and the Donut King and Queen. This day, the Queen seemed more in charge than his Highness, who was largely in the back cooking food. I ordered two cream filled donuts, two lemon and two strawberry filled donuts.

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They also had pigs in a blanket, or PIBs.

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The PIBs were bits of sausage in a very soft bread, and they didn’t last. The cream filled turned out to have a white cream, as opposed to a yellow “custard” filling. So the offerings are pretty spartan as well. But it’s open before the sun comes up, and the crowds lined up to get a couple donuts with coffee, or perhaps orange juice, don’t seem to be going away.

Verdict: Mom n’ Pop donut shop. Decent product. Recommended.

Donut King
2250 Scenic Highway
Snellville, GA 30078-6152
(770) 978-8069

Donut King on Urbanspoon

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