Just to the left of the main entrance of the Mall of Georgia, a Real Chow Baby has opened. This is a welcome addition to the Mall of Georgia dining scene. It isn’t the first Mongolian stir-fry to open in this area, but as the other one suffers from serious crowding (45 minutes from the order before you can get to the food, sometimes), having another alternative eases the crunch.

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I think real Chow Baby calls their style of eating “new American stir fry”, but in my generation it was called a Mongolian barbecue, often seen in USAF officer’s clubs, but usually as a rare special, perhaps once or twice a year. In the Air Force renditions, it was also accompanied by hula girls, a local singer, and a real attempt to embarrass whatever ranking officer was attending.

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There are no hula girls at this location, just a lot of good veggies, decent meat selections, good staff. The look is a bit more open than the stir frys we have visited. Perhaps the mall itself – adding plenty of glass along the front – gives the restaurant less of a club-like atmosphere.

Talking to staff, this restaurant has been open about two and a half months.

Real Chow Baby
3333 Buford Dr, Suite 2022
Buford, GA 30519
(678) 730-2880

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The Sarku Japan booth in the Mall of Georgia is very minimal, and in that, ironically, it is perhaps more Japanese than the oversized metroplex izakaya that so many foodies love. The classic walkway eatery has no place in America, except in our food halls, and even if the Sarku product is modest, it gives us a small taste of the “walk by and grab it” scene.

As a minimal restaurant, perhaps more authentic than our more common metroplex izakaya.

Are there things to complain about? Sure. I’d have much preferred a small grill oriented izakaya, where I could grab something to drink and a toasty octopus tendril at the same time, but this is food court cuisine, where teryaki chicken morphs into “bourbon” chicken, and everything exists to feed a crowd of thousands as fast as possible. Seldom is the food high end, but it is very often original, as the competition for mouths in a food hall is ruthless.

I’m also on record as saying the obsession with sushi in the States is peculiarly American. Americans do things with sushi that its creators never dreamed of, and obsess over it endlessly, as if it’s the beginning and end of Japanese cuisine. It’s akin to judging all Mexican cuisine by the quality of the “Speedy with beans” that they serve. That said, let’s get down to the business of looking closer at Sarku.

tuna and salmon sashimi, as delivered.

Food, when you get it, is ice cold. That long display case in which they show their goods is actually a refrigerator, and given how cold my seaweed salad was, in full working order. One guy mans the cash register, 2-3 others man the case, and build foods for their audience. There aren’t many nigiri or sashimi choices, perhaps 5 or 6, and they are pretty straightforward choices at that (tilapia, tuna, salmon, etc).

Since I’m a diabetic, I got sashimi rather than sushi. Sarku serves their fish with slices of pickled ginger and a bit of sliced vegetable. I enjoyed the fish, delivered ice cold, and felt it was better than what I could get at, say, Publix, and perhaps not to the quality of what I could get at Waraku or Haru Ichiban. The fish wasn’t as firm, I thought, perhaps not as good a cut.

In summary: It’s clean, neat, accessible, geared to fast delivery in a food court environment. Better than grocer’s sushi, but doesn’t reach the quality of a full service Japanese restaurant, much less a high end sushi specialty shop. Recommended for what it is.

Sarku Japan Sushi Bar
3333 Buford Drive #K106
Buford, GA 30519
(770) 831-2069

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Saigon Flavors is something of a local favorite, offering a good bowl of pho as well as Thai and Chinese dishes to their customers. Service is attentive and good.

larb beef.

Saigon Flavors serves a good bowl of pho.

Besides pho, we had their larb beef, some bubble tea and a rice (Com Dia) dish. We didn’t have enough of their Thai or Chinese offerings to judge those, but based largely on their Vietnamese cuisine, I’d say this could easily become a routine stop on the way to the mall.

Saigon Flavors
3200 Woodward Crossing Blvd
Buford, GA 30519
(770) 932-7705

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El Molcajete is a small chain, with a version out in the Hamilton Mill area, an exit or two north of the Mall of Georgia exit. Exit 85 onto Hamilton Mill, heading west, and the restaurant will be on your left. It’s in a strip mall, one that has a restaurant named ‘Oriental’ and that bright ‘Oriental’ is much easier to see than the green letters of El Molcajete.

This is a restaurant with a large menu. Parts of it look like the same old Atlanta style Tex Mex. Yes, you can find a “Speedy Gonzales” here. But other parts, especially dinner entrees, are more authentic. My daughter spotted the Super Molcajete and ordered that. I saw a spicy seafood soup and ordered that. We called my wife and she wanted fajitas to go.

You get free chips and salsa with your meal. Chips are crisp, dry, and good. Even the ‘to go’ chips retain that character. El Molcajete has 2 salsas. The chipotle salsa, the dark one, is rich in flavors and much better than the stock red.

Super Molcajete. A dish for two.

Spicy seafood soup. Plates like canned vegetable soup, but much better tasting.

The servings size here is enormous. The molcajete dish (grilled meats and veggies in a stone mortar) is a meal for two. The soup was enough for one. The grilled pepper in the molcahete has some real bite, if you eat it with seeds. But it looked so enticing I asked my daughter for a bite.

In terms of sheer display, the molcajete here is a disappointment compared to Zapatas. No bubbly cheese, the dish arrived barely steaming. The soup, for that matter, arrived with carrots as a significant component of the ‘eye candy’. Yes, it was nice that a half cluster of crab was visible, but plating a beautiful dish isn’t the focus at this eatery. Instead, it’s a clearly suburban joint. The “Speedy Gonzales” shows that. The decent food in enormous quantities shows that.

My soup had a partial crab cluster, plenty of fish, some shrimp, a good broth that got better as the meal went on. My daughter’s dish had things like grilled sausage, grilled chicken, a skewer of shrimp, the lovely pepper, and some grilled cactus. Both dishes were worthwhile.

In summary, the originality of El Molcajete makes it worth the trouble, if you’re up around Buford, to seek out. But the style of food is clearly playing to neighborhood tastes, as opposed to being a routine destination for ITPers.

El Molcajete
2590 Hamilton Mill Road
Buford, GA 30519
(678) 394-5200

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Rico’s World Kitchen comes up on your left as you travel north on South Lee Street, a converted garage (what isn’t these days) much larger than the four table spot Rico used to have near the Mall of Georgia. Parking is a mess. We found a spot between a sign and a van and squeezed in, and were glad for the bit of luck. It was a chilly evening and one where we were glad to be inside.

The staff was, well, surprisingly Caucasian for a place where I expected a bit of an ethnic influence. In fact, you could have dropped it all into Decatur and no one would have known the difference. When we asked about the lumpia – my wife is Chamorro, and lumpia, Filipino eggrolls, have become a big part of the fiesta culture of Guam – we were told that Rico and his mom were gone. So, no lumpia, and not even a chance to ask if they ever have pancit on special.

I wasn’t sure what I could eat from the entrees at Rico’s, so I ordered an appetizer as an entree, their New Orleans shrimp and mussels. My daughter had a habanero chicken sandwich. My wife had the shrimp po boy. We also ordered one large salad.

This was good, but not mind blowing food. The best of the meal was the po boy, well cooked and flavored shrimp on chewy tender bread. The fried green tomatoes were fine sides, and often shared. The habanero chicken had no spice to speak of, my daughter thought. She ate it quickly, so it was still pretty good. Her hash brown casserole was deliciously cheesy to my taste. The shrimp and mussels were decent. The mussels were a smaller variety, and to be honest I thought there was better flavor in my bite of the po boy. It was hard to add bulk to the menu as presented (no grilled vegetables, for example), and my wife eventually had us get her buffalo wings after we dined here. Rico’s is far better suited to a lunch crowd.

Rico’s left us with mixed emotions, ones that might have been less mixed had Rico and his mom been there. It had taken an age to get my family here, and I’m not sure if wanting to roll the dice and find this owner is going to be worth it. As the small owner run shops become successful, the owners turn their attention to different things. Rico’s has an excellent reputation, but if it loses those elements that make it unique, it just becomes a sandwich shop on the way to the Mall of Georgia. A couple other spots, such as Gourmandises, can also fill that role.

Verdict: Light menu, well suited to lunch, perhaps losing its ethnic touch. Recommended.

Rico’s World Kitchen
306 West Main Street
Buford, GA 30518
(678) 765-7518

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Parma Tavern. Drive north on I-85 and exit towards Mall of  Georgia. Keep going past the first couple mall entrances. In a nondescript strip mall on the left lies this eatery. Though a decent sized establishment, it is impossible to see from the road. You’ll need to watch signs carefully to find it.

Inside, pretty and graceful. A functional bar anchors the eatery on the right as you enter. That’s where I sat. The beer selection is smaller but well thought out. Everything from stock American beers to good draft beers to craft brews can be had. Food? Smaller selection, but with an emphasis on quality.

The people who put  this place together also did Hearth Pizza Tavern, so it’s a group that knows how to present food. Of the two, I like this place better. More down to earth, not as large, more intimate and homey. Perhaps it was just the bartender, who was talkative that day. No, some of the appeal has to be written off as intangibles, just things that aren’t quantifiable that I liked. Frosted glass windows, does that count?

Parma Tavern
3350 Buford Drive #200
Buford, GA 30519
(678) 541-0908

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Havana South Restaurant and Bar is just off I-985 and exit 4, to the west maybe one block, just south of Buford Drive. I’d call it a little place but it isn’t small, really. My recollection is a bar, and maybe 10-15 tables and booths. However, this not-so-large restaurant does a lot of things right, including its outsized effect on your taste buds.

Entrance to Havana South.

Entrance to Havana South.

We dropped by for lunch. After a few minutes with the menu, I chose the black bean soup and a Cuban sandwich, and my daughter chose their masitas puerco. Maduros (sweet plantains, fried) came with the Cuban.

I have to say, the more I have black beans, the more I like them. They are earthier in flavor than kidney beans or pinto beans, and Havana South’s bean soup did not disappoint:

Black bean soup.

Black bean soup.

My daughter’s dish contained large chunks of marinated pork, a side of black beans, and yellow rice.

Masitas Puerco

Masitas Puerco

The serving size I’d judge as large. The pork was really good, crispy and chewy on the outside, soft, hinting of the marinade inside. Everything on her plate was the opposite of plain. The beans had flavors that just baking won’t give, hints of onions and other influences I couldn’t entirely tease out, but mixing well with the dark flesh of the beans. I thought her beans were even better than my bean soup. The yellow rice came across the same way, a full body of flavors, more than just something simmered in a pot.

The Cuban I liked as well.

Cuban sandwich and maduros, fried sweet plantains.

Cuban sandwich and maduros, fried sweet plantains.

The sandwich was made with good quality bread, and had a nice balance between the pork and ham. The pickles and cheese only added to the flavor mix and the serving size was large. The maduros were good and sweet, though I know my wife, who likes most things well done, would prefer her maduros a little crunchier.  That said, I’m pretty sure I could take her here.

In short, the meal was great. The only thing I’d do differently if I came back again is get the side of black beans. In my opinion, they’re better than the soup.

Service was very good throughout the meal.

Verdict: Quality food with flavors that surprise on almost every bite. Staples done exceptionally well. Very highly recommended.

Havana South Restaurant and Bar
4060 Buford Drive
Buford GA, 30518
(678) 546-2252

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Chow Down Atlanta has an excellent review of Havana South. You might think she’s praising Havana South too much, but in my judgment, she’s actually on the mark.