September 2012

Casa Milagro is a highly regarded Richardson restaurant, and checking out reviews by Regular Joe and Bill Hensley, I decided it was promising. It was close enough to the hotel to make it worth a trip, and this eatery ended up being my #1 target while in Texas. There was no guarantee I’d have family, as my daughter and wife were attending a Supernatural convention at the time.

With some luck, my family was available for a late lunch, so we headed up US 75 to this eatery. It’s in a L shaped strip mall, and the restaurant itself is back from the road. Inside, it’s neat, unassuming, clean, and efficient.

Salsa and chips are free with the meal. The salsa here has plenty of cilantro, the red having a bite you don’t get in Atlanta. The chips were dry.

Eight different kinds of “honest to God” chile rellenos.

One of the things I was looking forward to from a Texas Tex Mex eatery was a chance to get a real chile relleno. You don’t see very many good ones in Atlanta. And very often, ordering a chile relleno in Atlanta gets you a ring of bell pepper with 3-4 tablespoons of ground meat in the middle (if Atlanta Tex Mex serves a real chile relleno, they will call it a chile poblano). So, to my great pleasure, Casa Milagro served 8 different kinds of chile rellenos.

I ended up ordering the brisket and honchos relleno. My wife had a pair chicken enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce, and my daughter had enchiladas de guiso, cheese enchiladas on which pork guiso, a Mexican pork stew, was poured.

A real chile relleno, stuffed with brisket and mushrooms.

Inside of the relleno.

Enchiladas de guiso, the hit of the meal.

Chicken enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce. Brown rice was the side.

The favorite dish of the meal was the enchiladas de guiso. We all thought it had more flavor than anything else we ate. My relleno was pretty popular as well. The tomatillo sauce on my wife’s enchiladas ran a little more sour than what she was used to, but they ended up being finished as well. All in all, Casa Milagro served a really fine meal. We left happy we had been to Casa Milagro.

The Impalas. Supernatural fans will know what this means ;).

Casa Milagro
1403 East Campbell Road
Richardson, TX 75081
(972) 234-6999

Casa Milagro on Urbanspoon

PS – for those unfamiliar with pork guiso, the Busy Gourmand has a nice article on this Mexican stew.

Accessible. Pretty. Good food. A place to take a date. These are a few of my thoughts after having been to Luciano’s. It’s a highly regarded Italian restaurant near the Gwinnett Convention Center, just west off the exit of Sugarloaf Parkway and I-85. I’m not usually much for a fancy lunch, but you can’t do this food blogging gig and stick entirely to routine. The change of pace was probably due.

A good bread starts the meal.

Graceful is the first word that came to mind when I entered. White tablecloths, black napkins, spare, clean, quiet. Service was excellent, of the kind that melts into the background, as opposed to the “over the top” style at say, a churrascaria. Lunch can be as pricey or as affordable as you like. There are plenty of choices in the 6 to 8 dollar range. Paninis ran from 10 to 12 and lunch sized entrées averaged perhaps 15. Ingredients reflect the character of the eatery. Prosciutto, for example, was the core meat in my daughter’s panini.

Italian panini.

Salmon portion for lunch.

I had a salmon entrée, replacing the potatoes for broccoli. The salmon was excellent, tender and a little sweet, a large portion for the price. The asparagus quite good, the broccoli the only disappointment, plain and tasting mostly of the steam used to cook the vegetable.

A quick lunch can’t begin to define a restaurant, and what I had at best is an impression. But the impression was very good, and I can recommend Luciano’s based on what I saw.

Luciano’s Ristorante Italiano
6555 Sugarloaf Pky NW
Duluth, GA 30097
(770) 255-1727

Luciano's Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

I’ve not had strombolis many times in my life, but I know a good crust when I see one. I’d had mixed luck with the pizza at Cioffi’s in the past, but this stromboli is a sharp double, if not a home run, in my book.

OMG! Look at the crust!

The stuffing was pretty darned good as well.

Cioffi’s Pizza
1218 Rockbridge Rd
Stone Mountain, GA 30087
(770) 935-8822

Cioffi's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon

Greater Good barbecue occupies a large rambling bit of property on Hugh Howell, about a block and a half from where highway 29 veers off the road, and roughly opposite the Moes (what used to be a Tanner’s not all that long ago) and the Publix on the other side of the street. If you’re familiar with Sangria’s, it’s a bit further east than Sangria’s. I’ll note that both Atlanta etc and Marie Let’s Eat reviewed this place, pushing it into Urbanspoon’s top 10 Talk of the Town, and I can’t help but wonder if Grant’s puzzlement over that consequence wasn’t a contributing factor in the ongoing Urbanspoon war over the Talk of the Town statistic.

The restaurant has some talented owners, as the folks who run Fellini’s Pizza are in the mix. I suspect that’s pushed foodie hopes up high. And what I can say, in all honesty, only echoes the current consensus, which is that Greater Good is real barbecue, real smoked meat, but not really all that.

Ribs and Chicken. Ribs were pretty ordinary as real smoked meats go, the chicken was decent ‘cue.

Side of a rib, showing any smoke ring.

Decent sides, but a forgettable brisket.

My daughter enjoyed her pulled pork.

We had ribs, chicken, brisket, and pulled pork. My daughter likes her pulled pork soft, and Greater Good delivered in that regard. Whether it was smoked to any real degree, I’ll defer to the expertise of Marie Let’s Eat. The ribs had a smoke ring and a clear smoked smell. They left the smoky scents on my fingers, but otherwise, it was perhaps the faintest smoke and flavor I’ve run into in ages. If Heirloom BBQ ribs are an “A’. and Spiced Right (with the new owners and “on their horse”) ribs are a “B+”, these rank somewhere between a “B-” and a “C”.

The chicken was a better meat. Smoky, tasty, crusty, nicely flavored, perhaps the best thing I ate at Greater Good. I had the brisket and it was largely forgettable. Yes, smoked, you could tell that, but with good brisket available in plenty of spots (examples are here and here and and here), and this place perhaps having a fair chicken and pulled pork, don’t bother with this brisket.

I’d class this place as suitable for some pulled pork, chicken, decent beer, a place to stretch – the building is very large – perhaps maybe watch a game, have some fun. And as it’s new, there is room for improvement. The new owners of Spiced Right got better, after all. But right now in so many ways, they are not even competition for Spiced Right. That’s a problem, as I worked in Tucker back when the original owner of Spiced Right was there, and that Lilburn eatery had a formidable local reputation in the day.

Greater Good Barbecue
4431 Hugh Howell Road
Tucker, GA 30084
(770) 908-8164

The Greater Good Barbecue on Urbanspoon

The Arena Tavern is a bar that does plenty of business with sports talk radio. Advertisements and promotions with the local radio stations are a major parts of this small chain’s identity. And when I saw the 790 the Zone truck in front of the bar, I changed plans (even after lunch) and stuck my nose inside.

Yes, I’ll go inside if a local radio station is talking with bar customers.

This bar and Marlow’s Tavern are close by, and “the book” on these two is that the Arena is a better place to watch a game and Marlow’s has the better menu and food. My experience here suggests that might not be as clear cut a choice as in the past.

Catfish Bites. These things were fantastic. If I was blinded and told these came from a high end traditional all you can eat catfish spot, I’d have believed you. Tender, moist, perfect crust and flavorful.

Some of the best crust on cheese sticks I’ve seen in a long, long time.

I only ordered appetizers because I had already eaten, and besides, the rep for Arena was that it was the lesser of the two large taverns for food. And what I received were two of the best appetizers I’ve had in a long long time.

Crusts on the catfish bites were really good. Crust on the cheese sticks was about as good as any I’ve ever had. The cheese sticks alone are better than anything I’ve ever had at a classic wings n sports chain, and reason enough to drop the wings n sports chains and come here. That doesn’t count the catfish bites, which were as good a bit of catfish I’ve had in ages.

The beer selection is large, not huge, but there is plenty of most things for most tastes. There were good craft beers, good Georgia craft beers, good English, Irish and German brew, and plenty of American light lagers. Dozens of beers were on tap, and dozens more in bottles.

Having said all that, the Arena a roomy bar with plenty of wide screen TVs, with large roomy tables on which to watch those televisions. Yes, it’s a spot to watch games, and listen to sports talk. Further, Arena has rather surprising appetizers. Consequently, the culinary competition between this restaurant and Marlow’s is closer than the generic consensus suggests.

Arena Tavern
2000 Satellite Boulevard
Duluth, GA 30097
(770) 623-4585

Arena Tavern on Urbanspoon

Update: fixed typos.

Two words: Go now. Not because the tofu soup is fantastic. It’s really good, mind you, but they’re giving  the kind of service that will leave you smiling about the whole experience of eating here. Six months from now, it might be more pedestrian, so I’m tapping rapidly on  the ‘go now’ button, for those I can offer a suggestion to.

Tohdam is behind the stairs.

Terrific banchan.

They offer interesting extras, such as this mung bean pancake. It was crunchy, with plenty of green vegetable bits.

They serve a good tofu soup.

On a scale from one to 5, I’d rate the silky  tofu soup, banchan, purple (brown) rice, extras, about a 4 out of 5. Service is a 5+ and that’s what I find exciting about this eatery. It’s in a small ‘C’ shaped mall anchored by an Assi market, and is a little out of the way. I had dropped my daughter off at Japanfest and was looking for a place to eat. I ended up catching the Tohdam sign  out  of the corner of my eye.

To note, this  is the third version of this eatery. There have been 3 chef and owner changes. Staff told me they had been open 8 days when we ate. As Chloe noted on Twitter:

@FoodNSnellville It’s the 3rd incarnation. Chef+owners change each time. Gets better every time.

I never did get to the other versions, but this one should be on the tofu soup short list of everyone from Duluth to Buford.

Tohdam Tofu House
1291 Old Peachtree Road
Suwanee, GA 30024
(770) 622-5668

Toh Dam Tofu House on Urbanspoon

This dish is from  Fung Mei’s Sichuan menu, and if you’re “fried out” of dishes like dry fried eggplant, this mix of vegetables, noodles, and creamy soft meat is a worthwhile addition to your Sichuan choices.

Vegetables, noodles, plenty of spice, and creamy, fatty, delicious meat.

Try it. You won’t be disappointed!

I’ll note that Fung Mei’s E1, Chicken with Dried Red Pepper, is becoming better and better. In other venues, this dish is called “Shan City” chicken. IMO, this version is currently the best in town.

If I were to create a statistic called “Talk of the Town”, and with it try to gauge which restaurants were in the news, I think most folks would have a good instinctive idea what such a statistic would measure. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular forum. It shouldn’t be limited to a particular group. It should have some sense of who is talking about what, and how wide spread that conversation actually extends.

Urbanspoon provides such a statistic, and it’s called Talk of the Town. In general, they weight contributions by mainstream media, alternative media, and to some extent, their own top 10 bloggers in creating this list. I’m in the top 5 bloggers as ranked by Urban Spoon, and I noted one day that if I reviewed a restaurant, and another top 5 blogger reviewed a restaurant within a few days, that restaurant would end up in the bottom half of the top 10 for a week or so. It was something I noted. It didn’t really disturb me. The metric, as it is currently implemented, is however notably imperfect.

There is an ‘elite’ status that Urbanspoon can confer to an active user of the system, and they are called Primes. Some primes are well known bloggers. Marie Let’s Eat, Foodie Buddha, Chow Down Atlanta and your truly all are Primes. Some Primes, and some of the best Primes, have no personal blog and yet wield, in my mind, considerable influence  on the Atlanta food community. Barney (who also has a handle on 285 Foodies) comes to mind.

Over the past months, there has been a push within Urbanspoon, by a certain set of Primes, to decouple US’s Talk of the Town stat from any meaningful connection with any influence outside of Urban Spoon and make it dependent purely on what Primes think. This is one proposal. Another is to make it dependent on what “Top Contributors” think. Understand that US is a web and phone application whose parent company is small, with few employees. They depend heavily on Prime contributions to do dirty work for them and keep their database fresh. If a particularly important subset of Primes push hard enough, and no one speaks up, things will change, and not necessarily for the better.

The subset pushing for decoupling is noted for another couple peculiarities. They are envious of the mainstream media, and they are jealous of bloggers. Every time they open their mouths, bloggers like me are depicted as giving a less than sincere or “genuine” contribution to Urban Spoon. I’ve seen a ton of blogger versus Prime debates, and this group of Primes disappoint me routinely with their myopia. The notion that a major fundamental difference between Yelp and Urbanspoon might be US’s investment in its blogger community does not occur to them. The notion that Yelp might be more read than Urbanspoon – much less TV or print media – never occurs to them either. And it’s exactly this subset leading the charge to remove any “external” influence from the Talk of the Town stat.

Metrics at times don’t entirely encapsulate the influence of certain people on the food scene. Take Mr Jones of Eat Buford Highway as an example. Take Sean, of Take Thou Food, as another example. These folks have, on occasion, turned the whole of the food community’s opinion on the reputation of various eateries, and yet are not to be found on Urbanspoon’s Prime list, nor among their top 10 Atlanta bloggers (Sean, though, is still the top ranked Athens GA blogger). That said, thinking about how to measure their contributions leads to the abstract notion of reputation.

So what is a reputation? How do you measure it? Why are we concerned at all? It’s because if we’re in the shoes of a small web company with limited resources, we really can’t measure a Talk of the Town. We don’t have the resources to, say, interview millions of people continually. We, at best, have to estimate it. And if we can estimate reputation, and find a subset of folks who have plenty of it, then the “Talk Score” for a restaurant becomes, in pseudocode:

Score = Sum(Mention(i)*Reputation(i)/(Age_Of_Mention + 1 ))

So, who should be counted? How do we measure their influence? But simply put, about the worst solution I can think of is to total a few select members of the US community. Questions that come to my mind are: why should Primes or Top Contributors have any more say than a regular US member, and if the answer is no, don’t we already have the results of what they seek in the regular Urbanspoon restaurant ratings? If not in the rating itself, just look at new restaurants with high approval rankings (< 3 months old, circa 20 votes, over 90% positive).

What’s wrong with a US statistic that is what it claims to be? Call it Prime Picks, or Top Contributors Recommend? That’s the appropriate forum for the “elite” users. It’s otherwise a travesty to call such a stat Talk of the Town, because the notion that I’m paying as much attention to my local Top Contributors* as much as mainstream media in town, is asinine.

Now, much of my points of  view come from someone living in a city with a large number of Urbanspoon users, a large blogger community, a large and active collection of media talking about food. In communities served by one or two newspapers with an indifferent attitude towards food (I’m thinking about Shreveport LA, near where my dad lives), an extended definition of “Talk  of the Town” may create a metric that serves the community better than the current implementation. But a *cough* Talk of the Town *cough*  metric that basically counts only what Primes think is in my mind, exclusive, degenerate, too reminiscent of the top 100 list already, and in many way, overly empowers the vote of those Primes.

* One problem is that it’s too easy to become a Top Contributor. I can become one by making 10 reviews, taking 40 photos of every restaurant I review, and uploading each photo into Urban Spoon. This could be done in the span of a week, and suddenly, I’m a “Top Contributor”.


Update: fixed the formula to add an age component. Older mentions should eventually disappear.

Japanfest is this weekend, and is one of the more pleasing events I’ve experienced. It is being held at the Gwinnett Convention Center, just off Sugarloaf Parkway. It is a spectacle of sight and sound, people dressing in silly ways, whole families mingling with the young and old. Some of most precious memories of the festival are my daughter and a friend of hers being dressed in a kimono.

A sample booth from a previous Japan Fest. ‘Sold out’ is more common than you think. get there early, get in line and eat!

More than just food is available.

For the foodie: a list of vendors and the foods they will serve is here. Note it’s a pretty simple menu. Arrive early, on Saturday. Eat as soon as the booths open and don’t expect any popular dishes to be around for much more than an hour or two. Expect long lines at the best booths.

Saturday is the better day of the two. Sunday will be good for a couple hours, then the booths and exhibits begin to go away.

For the newbie: because the foods are simple and easy to eat, if you can stand the bustle and the crowds, this is a very gentle introduction to Japanese cuisine.

Off Topic: Shizuo Tsuji it turns out, has a second cookbook other than the one mentioned here. A review will becoming soon.

Southern’s Best is pretty outside and inside, and manages to be cute at the same time. In many ways, it would be a good place for a casual first date. The menu is simple and straightforward. Meats tend towards chicken or turkey. One of a fistful of vegetables are made without meat, and retain plenty of flavor.

Roughly at the corner of Five Forks and Sugarloaf Parkway, across from Fronteras and Athens Cafe, and completely opposite the Publix at this corner.

I enjoyed my cornbread roll, but the spices in the roll might not work for everybody. Please don’t mistake this simple menu for plain spicing, because the people here do know how to draw flavor out of their food.

Southern’s Best Cafe
3315 Sugarloaf Parkway
Lawrenceville, GA 30045
(770) 864-9495

Southern's Best Cafe on Urbanspoon

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