A downtown wish list

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

After grabbing lunch and a beer at Hop Alley recently, I took a stroll across the street to the new Alpharetta City Center. It was my first time to get an up close and personal look at what downtown will look like. It was great. I loved the large grassy area, the tree lined streets, the grand city hall, the abundance of sidewalks, and the massive in ground fountain.

downtown overlayI visited a similar development in Virginia last year. They also had a large fountain where kids could get in and get wet. It was a huge it! I don’t expect anything less down here when the temps hit 90.

As I stood in the middle of it all, my attention was drawn to the real estate on either side of the main lawn/gathering place. While we are still a ways off from spending our money here, I can’t help but envision what I would like to see there.

Retail? Meh, don’t care. Some boutique or art store or whatever. I’m talking about what downtown would NEED. Like a good sandwich shop/deli. Like a New York-style corned beef on rye handmade meatballs thousand types of sandwiches kind of place.

If the beer laws change (if) I’d love to see Jekyll Brewing have a presence downtown. I know they’ve talked about it.

I would love to see a cool little ice cream shop with old fashioned deserts and sodas. Like Scoops but better.

Most of the places could have patio dining with live music and gas lamps. Can you imagine how great it could be? I can.

The city has a chance to do something really great downtown, a chance to set Alpharetta apart from every other town in the northern arc. I hope that they think about the citizens and not about who will give them the most money or who is partnered with who. I know some of the city council members read this blog. Comment and tell them what you want to see downtown and how you envision Alpharetta’s future.

Cheap eats in Alpharetta

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Meet James, a co-worker of mine who eats out for lunch everyday. Sounds familiar. We ought to have a lot in common yet seldom do our restaurant paths cross. But James, along with his cadre of old timers who eat together everyday, are rather set in their ways. They’re also very frugal.

One day I challenged James to break out of his routine of Subway and Speedy with beans. He returned my challenge with one of his own. Find restaurants that are close to our Windward office, offer something delicious and will cost $8 or less including drink and tip.

So James, without further adieu, here’s your list.

Pizza by the slice – Alpharetta is completely covered up in New York-style pizza. Your cheapest way to enjoy is ordering by the slice at lunch. Most joints will do two slices with toppings and a drink for around seven bucks. Top picks in this category include Verra-Zanno Pizzeria in Johns Creek along with their sister restaurant Joe’s New York Pizzeria on Mansell Road. Mama’s Pizza on North Point and Brooklyn Joe’s off Windward are also fine choices and a little closer to most cubicle dwellers.

El Trompo signAuthentic Mexican – Give Speedy Gonzalez the adios. He’s certainly cheap but you can do far better for the same pesos. Mr. Taco and our beloved El Trompo Mexican Taqueria are where you need to be. Mix and match some a la carte tacos and wash it down with a Mexican coke.  It easily fits within our $8 budget.

Mediterranean – Two words: gyro wraps. They are delicious, very filling and well within our budget in most instances. I like Grecian Gyro in Johns Creek Walk, Cafe Efendi on Main Street and Seven Seas Cafe Devore Road. And if you’re willing to approach the $10 mark, nothing beats the chicken shawarma wrap at Jerusalem Bakery on Old Milton.

Chinese – It’s certainly cheap at lunch, but it takes a lot to impress me in this category. Head down to Johns Creek for the good stuff. Liu Fu will serve the Chinese food your accustomed to for $8 at lunch. Or better yet, establish yourself as a Chinese food epicure and order the Szechwan-style hot boiled fish. It breaks our budget at $10 but is well worth it. You’ll need extra napkins to dab the sweat off your brow.

For quality Thai food at very reasonable prices hit Satay House on Alpharetta’s South Main Street. Some lunch options are priced as low as $6.25. How do they do it?

X-tudoAnd finally, for my off-the-wall budget lunch pick, head over to Old Milton’s  Coisas de Brasil and order the X-tudo. For a measly six bucks your sammich comes with hamburger, a fried egg, mozzarella cheese, ham, lettuce, tomato, corn and peas. It’s the most bizarre lunch item in Alpharetta, but it’s cheap!

Not every good restaurant in Alpharetta has to be fine dining. Guys like my friend James are never going to shell out $18 for a plate of tacos at The El Felix. You don’t have to either. Hopefully this list gives the budget-conscious gastronome a decent place to begin. If you’ve got ideas for delicious cheap eats, I’d love to hear them!

Alpharetta Restaurant News – January 2015

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Ricco's coming soon signThe restaurant server community is abuzz about one of their own hanging out his shingle. Ricco’s Italian & Tapas will open on Highway 9 in Milton in the original Zola Bistro space. The restaurant’s namesake is a popular former server at Zola. Following that restaurant’s sale and relocation down the street, Ricco worked at Campania before quitting recently to work on this gig.

We like Ricco’s chances in this space. Word is that he already has a loyal clientele from his Zola days ready to follow him. They will certainly be familiar with the location and should provide Ricco’s the necessary tailwind to make it in this space.

Simply Pizza on Old Milton has been sold after a short time in business. The latest concept de jour will be called Vito’s Pizza-Rant and will be run by partners who relocated from Florida. The menu will be familiar with pizza and pasta but they’ll also offer gluten-free and vegan options as well. As for the name… the hyphen suggests this is a play on the word “restaurant” but perhaps a rant about pizza could arranged.

Milton’s Kabab & Wraps closed for a short time. They’ve made a small renovation, rebranded the place as Pepper’s Indian Cuisine and have already reopened for business.

Antico Pizza Napoletana finally opened this week at Avalon and the Italian concept Colletta has announced a February 6th opening. This should complete the initial restaurant lineup at the development.

We’re hearing word that a small shopping center and restaurant may be in the works across Old Milton from Avalon. Additional retail in this area should complement Avalon which, while very unique and popular, is currently a retail island unto itself.

200px-Starbucks_Corporation_Logo_2011.svgAnd in other shopping center news… plans are also in the works for a remodel of the former Tilted Kilt restaurant building on Windward Parkway. The plan calls for a conversion of the space into a three-tenant shopping center with better road visibility from Windward. Update: We’ve been able to confirm that Starbucks will move from their location in the adjacent shopping center into this former Tilted Kilt space. Their new digs will feature a drive-thru and patio.

My blogger friend Eli Zandman reported that stir-fry joint Real Chow Baby abruptly closed their Howell Mill Road location in Atlanta in late December. The sign on the door indicated that they are moving to Alpharetta however we’ve seen nothing to suggest that hard plans are in the works. We’ll keep them in our rumor bin until something something more substantial materializes.

Eli also sniffed out the to-be location of Burger 21 in Johns Creek. Last month in this column we suggested that they were closer to announcing something. Turns out they will be in a new shopping center called Johns Creek Promenade on Peachtree Parkway just a little above Johns Creek Walk. Construction on this large shopping center is just starting so the burgers won’t be flipping for some time.

Opening since last month is JD’s Sports Pub & Pizza in south Forsyth. And Nothing Bundt Cakes has opened their latest location at The Collection at Forsyth.

Restaurants Coming Soon

The Farmhouse – Still waiting on this coffee and crepe shop in Johns Creek.
Jay’s Mexican Grill and Taqueria – Little place on McFarland.
Tom and Chee – Grilled cheese and soup joint that should open in February on North Point.
Smallcakes - Another cake joint at 4055 Old Milton Parkway.
Cook-Out – Still no signs of life on Haynes Bridge. This location may take a while to open.
Cafe at Pharr – Another slow buildout for this sandwich chain coming to Windward.
Laguna Mexican Grill – Speedy Gonzalez coming to south Forsyth.

iFLY Indoor Skydiving makes the jump into Alpharetta

Indoor skydiving may descend into Alpharetta.

Austin, Texas-based iFLY Indoor Skydiving has filed plans with the city to build a new entertainment facility near Mansell Road and GA-400. If approved the facility would replace the empty restaurant building that was previously home to Champps Americana.

iFLYiFLY designs, manufactures, sells and operates wind tunnel systems for indoor skydiving. The company operates 34 facilities around the world and has rapid expansion plans this year.

iFLY offers guests the chance to experience the thrill of freefall without the risk of jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Following a brief training session, fliers are outfitted in a jumpsuit, helmet and goggles before entering the wind tunnel with their certified instructor. First-time flyers float on the column of air and learn basic flying skills like moving forward and back and turning. With additional training, flyers can progress to group flying and advanced aerial gymnastic maneuvers to further enjoy the sport of indoor skydiving.

The facility will target multiple demographics including corporate team building events and families seeking unique entertainment options. Children as young as three years old can participate. Other iFLY locations offer STEM educational programs, something that could certainly grow wings in technology-centric Alpharetta.

iFLY’s proposed location would complement a soaring array of unique entertainment options along Alpharetta’s Mansell Road corridor. TopGolf targets a similar corporate clientele. The Alpharetta Family Skate Center/The Cooler is next door as is Main Event with bowling and laser tag.

The project continues another trend of demolishing and re-purposing restaurants along nearby North Point Parkway. Champps Americana closed about three years and the space mothballed. But at over 10,000 square feet, the building is almost unmarketable as a restaurant thanks to today’s smaller style of eatery. It will meet the same wrecking ball fate that befell TGI Friday’s a few months ago. Bahama Breeze’s former digs are not far behind and will be replaced with a furniture store.

But iFLY can’t take off right away. They will have to go through the paces of a rezoning in order to change a master plan. But from a 30,000 foot view it doesn’t seem likely they will face much headwind. Alpharetta shouldn’t pop the chute on the opportunity to host one of Georgia’s first indoor skydiving facilities. However the city may want to push back on building ascetics as some iFLY locations tend to resemble NASA buildings.

Do you think iFLY will make a big landing in Alpharetta? Are there any other skydiving metaphors we missed in this article? Leave a comment!

What changes to Georgia’s beer laws might mean to Alpharetta

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Imagine for a minute that you and I went into business together. We had perfected a recipe for lemonade. So good was our product that we were convinced we could make millions.

We’d build a modest lemonade factory in Alpharetta and judiciously source our ingredients. We cooked up batches and sold them by the bottle to restaurants and shops. Hard work was put into distribution plans and marketing. Pretty soon business was taking off! And before long our loyal customers wanted to see the terrific operation we’d put together.

Jekyll TastingSo we started offering tours of our lemonade factory. At the end of the tour we would sell customers cases of our fabulous drink to bring home.

You know where this is going. The story is all well and good until you substitute beer for lemonade. It’s still a beverage and still crafted in small batches right here in Alpharetta. The only difference is that you can’t sell a single bottle of beer at your point of manufacture thanks to Georgia’s stupid, prohibition-era beer distribution laws.

Places like Jekyll Brewing get around the rule by offering small samples for free with the purchase a tour or perhaps a glass mug. But they can’t sell you the very product the make. And they can’t sell you a pint of the beer to drink on the premises either.

That is the crux of the problem Georgia’s craft beer industry is trying to tackle. Last year a bill was introduced in the Georgia General Assembly to make a modest change. It didn’t go far, stymied by a powerful beer distributor lobby in Atlanta.

This year the craft beer industry has regrouped and redoubled their effort. More money is being thrown into a PR, lobbying and social media effort. Branded as a way to increase jobs in Georgia, the proposed change would allow the sale of beer by the package at breweries and brew pubs. And you’d also be able to buy pints at the brewery as well.

How would this change the beer landscape in Alpharetta? Realistically it wouldn’t add a ton of jobs but certainly a few. Brewpubs like Hop Alley and 5 Seasons North could pour you a growler to take home. Perhaps they would need to make a little more beer or hire an additional person to fill those portly glass bottles.

Jekyll Brewing could do a lot with this. These guys have done amazing work in a short amount of time, expanding their product state-wide. They could get real creative if given the option to sell product in their shop.

And while breweries probably won’t see huge volumes of sales in their shops, they would however be selling at retail price. The margins of this business are through the roof compared to the puny prices they receive from distributors. It may be the financial shot in the arm that many breweries need to take things to the next level. Next comes new capital investment or new breweries entering the market. That indeed creates jobs, and better beer too.

So if my fictional lemonade factory can sell product, why not Jekyll Brewing? If anything these changes just make things fair. It’s hard to find fault with that.

For more information on the attempt to modernize Georgia’s beer laws, visit gabeerjobs.com and sign their petition.

Cumming creates vibrant downtown with jail, municipal buildings

The enthusiasm is palpable in Cumming ahead of the county’s massive new 177,000 square foot jail right in the middle of historic downtown. Together with a new courthouse, the $100 million project promises to revitalize the city center into a vibrant, unique and welcoming space that will be the envy of north Georgia.

Forsyth Jail renderingsThe Cumming-Forsyth Chamber along with city and county officials recently led a media walk-through of the project. From the jail to the 150,000 square foot courthouse and huge parking decks, the project transforms downtown Cumming into a criminal justice and municipal mecca. Nearly every block of the small city is consumed.

“We studied what places like Suwanee, Woodstock and Alpharetta have done with their downtowns,” said Chamber President James McCoy. “Ours promises to be different. We’re justifiably proud of what Cumming has become. And the millennials will love it!”

“Of course the jail is the big draw,” said Forsyth Commission Chairman Pete Amos. “It’s huge! We could have built it outside of town but why? I love it right here for everyone to admire. It’s our masterpiece.”

Amos says the jail will draw people from all over. They’ll come primarily to visit incarcerated relatives. Complementary businesses will pop up. Bail bondsmen and car impound lots are just a few the city hopes to welcome.

“And when they’re out of the clink perhaps they’ll stick around for lunch,” chuckled Amos.

The new buildings complement what’s already downtown, namely the county administration building and Cumming City Hall. Commissioner Brian Tam notes an uptick in the number of disgruntled constituents making the trip to Cumming from south Forsyth.

“Our runaway growth and refusal to deny even a single zoning request creates tremendous demand for visitors to downtown Cumming,” said Tam. “They come to speak out at meetings but it’s all for naught. They usually stick around to drown their sorrows in a beer.”

Rounding out the attractions downtown is a political dinosaur exhibit at Cumming City Hall. Visitors can get a glimpse of ancient specimens still living in their native habitat. Impropriety, impeachment proceedings and even forcible removal of video bloggers are part of the act showcasing good-old-boy politics at its finest.

But Cumming’s crown jewel is still the mammoth jail. Built on a grand scale it’s certain to handle Forsyth’s burgeoning crime problem well into the future. Chamber officials, anticipating heightened interest, plan to start guided jail tours right away.

The term limit discussion that wasn’t

It’s the term limit discussion that wasn’t meant to be.

An interesting bit of political maneuvering happened over the New Years break. On Wednesday the city released the agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting. Included was a change to the city’s charter to alter the term limit rules. By the time Friday rolled around the item was removed and no one wanted to take credit for it being there in the first place.

The change had two parts. First, it would have closed a loophole that allows councilmen to switch posts and skirt term limits. Jim Paine took advantage of this in 2010. But most importantly, the change added to the number of terms someone could serve.

Term limits for councilmen would have increased from three to four terms under the proposed change. The mayor’s term limit would extend from two to four terms. At four years per term that’s sixteen years in office or perhaps longer if a councilman first ran for an unexpired term. Run for mayor afterward and a person could conceivably hold office for decades. Combine these incumbent advantages with Alpharetta’s archaic plurality voting rule and newcomers to public service would face a horrendous headwind.

The obvious near-term beneficiary of this change would be DC Aiken. He’s finishing up the last year of his third term and would be ineligible to run for his post 6 seat. Aiken has also been a vocal critic of term limits calling them undemocratic. However Aiken denies asking the city attorney to draft the proposal that briefly made this appearance.

Perhaps this proposal will appear in a work session discussion but for now it’s gone. It’s still very perplexing why any elected official would want to discuss term limit extensions during an election year. Who knows what the gentlemen behind the dais were thinking on this one. Maybe the fear of one’s political mortality is finally setting in.

Looking back, gazing forward

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

Every year at this time I make some predictions on what’s likely to happen in the restaurant scene in the coming year. And usually I’m completely wrong. It’s embarrassing to look on these past columns. Case in point, pizza.

Big Pie sliceLast year I thought we’d had enough pizza. The bar was set very high, especially with New York-style joints. So what happened in 2014? Crust opens and hits it out of the park. The BB’s Bagels founders boldly say the pizza here sucks and open their own joint. And we’re about to have three Neapolitan-style choices available.

So keeping my track record firmly in the back of your mind, let’s look back and consider the near future.

Downtown Alpharetta‘s restaurant scene is nearing the critical mass it needs to sustain itself. Last year at this time we knew South Main Kitchen was coming and had vague knowledge of what would become Made Kitchen. Those combined with Salt Factory, Hop Alley and the aforementioned Crust have created our own little Canton Street. It’s what we desperately needed.

So what’s next in downtown Alpharetta? I’m not aware of another deal at this time. Rumors once suggested that new restaurant space may come to the Kell Building or perhaps the abandoned gas station but neither have proven correct. Certainly new restaurant space will be available in the city center outparcels. We’ll have to see what kind of choices the property manager brings in. And what will thriving new restaurants do to rents downtown? Can the handful of older restaurants here keep up?

The Mediterranean/Greek/Persian/Middle Eastern genre has exploded over the past two years, something I certainly didn’t see coming. Chains like Zoes Kitchen expanded rapidly. Additionally some very good indy joints have opened including Noosh in Johns Creek. They complement some terrific options that we’ve already come to enjoy like Jerusalem Bakery and Baba’s in south Forysth. Expect some closures this year in this space, particularly with smaller mom-and-pop shops and franchise operators.

And finally there’s the growler store fad. Alpharetta, who had the most progressive growler law in the area, is down to only one store in their city limits. The stand-alone, pure play growler store isn’t a sound business model. Combining growlers with stores that already offer alcohol by the package is the best bet. Milton did right by allowing their sales in convenience stores. Growlers would also do well in the big box liquor stores if municipalities would allow it. I predict a few more closures in this space, particularly in Johns Creek.

What new restaurant trends do you see in 2015 and who’s not going to make it? Let me know in the comments.

New Year changes at Roots

Happy New Year.

We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of Roots in Alpharetta. It’s been a fun ride so far. The blog started off on themes of suburbia and those who relocate here. It’s morphed a little over time and that’s alright. Today we talk about a little of everything, from restaurants to politics. Hopefully we’re starting conversations and bringing stories to you that the traditional media isn’t.

rootsThis little blogging endeavor has introduced me to a lot of new friends and for that I’m grateful.  It’s the most rewarding part of the experience for sure. But while we’re talking of introductions, allow me to announce a few small changes to the blog this coming year.

We’ve gone multi-author. You’ll notice a new by-line that appears on each post. Hopefully this should avoid confusion over who is writing the story you’re reading.

Mike Christensen has written here for several years and has over forty articles under his belt. It’s about time he gets the billing he rightly deserves. He’s officially on the blogroll and in the about page. Unfortunately I couldn’t add him to the payroll as budgets are pretty thin. You know how it goes.

Also allow me to introduce Stacy Zwiebel our new intern. Like the rest of us Ms. Zwiebel is a native of extreme south Forsyth and has true roots here. She’s a recent graduate of South Forsyth High School and is working on a journalism degree. Hopefully she’ll bring a bit of, let’s say, journalistic integrity, credibility and seriousness to Roots. Look for her column during the first week of each month.

2015 promises to be an exciting year. This area continues to grow and new companies are moving in. With that comes opportunity, challenges to overcome and tough decisions to be made. We’ll try to cover them all. We’ll also see municipal elections this year which is always entertaining. And the growing restaurant scene will provide our usual Friday diversion from it all.

Thanks for your continued readership!

El Trompo Mexican Taqueria – Johns Creek

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

At the end of the year I usually take a few weeks off from this column to spend some time with family. Today I replay my review of El Trompo in Johns Creek.

Are they the best new restaurant of 2014? I’ve toiled over that question. The answer is that I just don’t know. But let’s say this… of all the new restaurants this year, I’ve been back to El Trompo the most. If you’ve not been, go have a few al pastor tacos today for lunch. Tell ‘em Lee sent ya.

Down in Roswell you’ll find a handful of authentic Mexican restaurants in rundown digs along highway 9. They offer some cheap yet delicious eats that are often overlooked by gringos accustomed to speedy gonzalez. And I’ll admit that the menu at these places can be somewhat intimidating. Lingua? Tripe? Yikes!

El Trompo signSo I was surprised to see one of these joints open shop in affluent Johns Creek. El Trompo quietly opened back in November, flying below many new restaurant radars (including mine). And like their Roswell brothern, don’t expect fancy digs. You’ll find these guys in a small stripmall space with nary a decoration or cheesy nicknack on the wall. About the only thing to look at is a television usually tuned to soccer, in Spanish.

The menu is simple – several different kinds of meat served either as a street tacos, tortas, quesadilla or burritos. Meats include carne asada steak, chicken, carnitas (fried pork), house-made chorizo and of course the spiced pork al pastor.

Start with the street tacos on your first visit. And be forewarned, these are small. You’ll get a corn tortilla about four inches in diameter topped with the meat of your choice, onions and cilantro. Four bites and it’s history so order several. At only $1.49 each you’re not going to break the bank. Mixing and matching is encouraged.

Don’t you dare set foot in El Trompo without trying al pastor in some form. The restaurant is named for the rotating spit traditionally used to cook the spiced pork. Unfortunately theirs is hidden in the kitchen and not on display for patrons to see. The dish and technique are distantly related to sharwarma, the middle eastern delicacy you’ve hopefully tried at Alpharetta’s Jerusalem Bakery.

El Trompo’s al pastor is fabulous. It’s exploding with flavor and spice that’s somewhat tempered with the sweetness of pineapple. Drizzle a bit of salsa verde atop the taco and you’re good to go.

Or try the al pastor tortas. These are manly, two-handed sandwiches that are a bit messy yet delicious. You’ll find the pork along with lettuce, tomato and avocado strips. The bread is slightly pressed but not to the point of resembling a Cuban. I liked my torta with a wee bit of Trompo’s habanero salsa. I’m talking drops of the stuff lest you cover up every bit of flavor.

The house-made chorizo is pretty good but not as spicy as I’m accustomed to. Carne Asada also isn’t bad but plays a distant second fiddle to the pork.

Avoid the fajitas. Perhaps they’re on the menu to appease less adventurous gringos. They were uninspiring. The refried beans tasted bland, in desperate need of salt. I doused my fajitas in that habanero salsa which turned things around.

All in all, El Trompo is a winner, a hidden gem in the rough waiting to be discovered. Forget what you think about Mexican cuisine and try some of these street tacos and tortas.

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