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Burgers in the Northern Burbs

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

I had a marketing professor in college who asked our class the following question… “How many of you can make a better hamburger than McDonalds?” Nearly everyone in the class raised their hand. “Then why don’t you start a restaurant and put them out of business?” Okay, so the question was rhetorical. The answer was that McDonalds was all about marketing and locations. You’d never be able to compete against them, right?

Fast forward to today. I think of that goofy professor every time I see one of these high end burger joints. Actually, I think of him every time I drive by the Five Guys on Windward. They opened shop literally in the shadow of a McDonalds, and they have been killin’ it for several years now. So what gives?

The answer is that burgers are a fad now. High end burger joints have been opening in Atlanta for a few years now. I think the fad inside the perimeter is starting to wane a bit. But out here in the northern burbs, the burger craze is at its greasy peak. Just in the last week another burger joint opened in Johns Creek.

Here is my review of the higher end stuff. If dropping a ten spot on a grease sandwich isn’t your bag, don’t fret. I’ll wrap this post up with some cheaper burger options that are delicious and relatively unknown.

Flippin’ Out – Johns Creek

Probably my favorite of the newer joints to open. This aspiring chain restaurant cranks out some seriously delicious charcoal burgers. I don’t know of anywhere else in the northern burbs cooking over hardwood charcoal right now. The meat is juicy, smokey and wonderful. The fries are fresh cut and the onion rings are to die for. Drawbacks are price and service.

Kozmo Gastro Pub – Johns Creek

I’m too sexy for your suburb. This is an uber-trendy bar/restaurant that somehow got lost in Johns Creek. They probably belong in Midtown somewhere. And while burgers are not really their thing, the burger here is amazing. They hand-form patties out of sirloin and brisket. The coarse cracked peppercorn coating makes the thing taste like steak au poivre on a bun.

The Counter – Roswell

Roswell has the only Georgia location of this California-based chain. Their deal is the build-your-own custom burger. The topping choices are way over-the-top. Gruyere cheese, grilled pineapple, fried egg, cranberries, apricot sauce… on a burger? Yeah, they got all that and a lot more.You can go overboard on toppings here, so be careful. They will also under-cook a burger, if that is your thing.

I enjoyed my burger here. The fires and onion straws left a lot to be desired. This place is also insanely expensive. I could take my family to Longhorn for what I spent here.

Red Robin – Cumming

Another chain from out west. I used to eat at Red Robin when I traveled to Seattle. Was excited to see them open a store near me at the Avenue Forsyth. Now that they’ve been open a few years novelty has worn off. This place lacks the sophistication of the places above. They are more of a family atmosphere chain joint with huge burgers. I dig the unlimited steak fries although they are usually undercooked. And even though Red Robin is cheaper than the high end joints, I still feel like they overcharge relative to the burger product they’re putting out.

Cheeseburger Bobby’s – Johns Creek

I’ll admit that I haven’t been here yet. They just opened a location in Johns Creek near Kohls. From what I’ve read, they sound like a cross between Five Guys and Fuddruckers. The burgers are supposed to be similar to Five Guys in quality and price, but the toppings are added like you’d do at Fuddruckers. It will be interesting to watch this place, considering that a Five Guys location is just a tad north on 141. There are also other burger joints along 141 in Johns Creek and south Forsyth that I haven’t reviewed (BB’s Best Burgers, Hangry’s, Ted’s, etc). Johns Creek is saturated with hamburgers. I don’t think all these places will survive.

…on the low end

So have you had enough of the hoity toity burger? Fear not. If you hunt around you’ll find some decent joints serving up traditional burgers on the cheap. I’ll bet you’ve not heard of half of these places.

Hamburger Hut – Alpharetta

A burger like you’d make it at home. Just simple, hand made patties served with buttered and grilled sandwich bread. Simple, easy and quite delicious. This place is real similar to a now-closed joint called Burger House (Windward and Hwy 9 near Taco Mac). There is no decor to speak of, nothing fancy and no over-the-top ingredients. Just a simple burger on delicious bread at a cheap price.

Mulligan’s Grill – Midway/South Forsyth

Here you’ll find a local/blue collar crowd that is far removed from what you’d see at Kozmo’s. I liked my Mulligan burger and I liked the tater tots. And the food service chicken fingers are surprisingly good. Cheap!

Garden Spot Cafe – Windward/Alpharetta

The ultimate hidden restaurant. This one-man operation is located in an office park across the street from Lexis-Nexis/Choicepoint and a block off Windward. It is small, a tad on the dirty side, greasy, fast and very cheap. The prices are less than fast food for a decent burger and fries. I swing by from time to time if I’m in a hurry and want something to bring back to the cubicle. For the money, it is hard to beat.

Get Local

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

I’m sure I’ve lost all credibility as a food writer after last week’s article on chain restaurants. So let’s talk about a few delicious local spots. For the most part these joints are NOT hidden gems. It is good to know that even in the midst of a recession, some local restaurants are doing quite well.

BB’s Bagels

Does the “BB” stand for “Bitchin’ Bagels?” If so, I’d agree. These things are large, chewy and delicious. I’ve tried the bagels at every other shop in Alpharetta. Einsteins, Bagel Boys, Brooklyn Bagel Bakery… These guys are not in the same league as BB’s.

BB’s is a cross between a takeout bagel counter and a greasy spoon breakfast diner. Their breakfast items are pretty good with generous portions. The corned beef hash is amazing (take some extra Lipitor beforehand).

They seem to be the most busy on weekend mornings. From what I hear, there is a New York expatriate community that frequents this place on Saturday and Sundays. You’ll hear a lot of “How YOU doin’ ” from people who can say it and keep a straight face. They are also lobbying for an appearance on Diners, Driveins and Dives.  I hope they make it.

Bada Bing Wings

“Let’s go eat at Mr. Alex’s place!” That’s usually what my kids say when they are jonesin’ for chicken and Mac-n-cheese. Alex is the proprietor of this easy-to-overlook wings joint on McGinnis Ferry. If you’ve been in once, you won’t be a stranger. Alex is a super nice fella, a prince of a man.

The theme here is The Sopranos. Almost every inch of wall space is devoted to the TV show. Even the names of menu items are from the show.

This is mainly a takeout wings place. I’m probably one of the only guys who actually eats here. That’s alright by me. On the menu you’ll find wings, some chicken fingers, burgers, etc. The wings are flash baked, which makes them a bit more healthy than fried wings. And I’d stick to what he calls “jumbo wings.” His normal size wings are too tiny for me.

The wings and chicken fingers by themselves don’t stand out much. Where Alex really shines is his sauces and pairings. He makes all his own wing sauce, some of which are very inventive. The signature sauce is the Bada Bing, an Italian style wing sauce paired up with marinara for dipping. Delicious. Other creative touches are things like a fresh pineapple slice to complement a jerk seasoned wing. This sets him apart from every other wing joint in my opinion.

The side items here are to die for. Cajun corn on the cob, potato wedges, garlic bread. They are all terrific. In the winter he offers soups which are pretty good, especially with the garlic bread.

Look out for anything he labels as “homemade”. This is usually a secret code to indicate that the item was made by his wife. The homemade peanut butter pie is out of this world.

Again, most of his business is takeout wings for folks living in the immediate area. But I enjoy eating here several times a month. My kids adore Mr. Alex, so I hope my blog readers will too.

Wildflour

Remember Portabella’s, the old sandwich joint in downtown Alpharetta? After a four year hiatus it has been born again as Wildflour on Windward. They feature the same delicious and inventive sandwiches. My favorite is the pork loin sandwich with potato salad.

Wildflour is only open for lunch and is uber popular right now. Come early or be prepared to wait. Their space is a little tight and can get noisy at times. But otherwise this place is a winner.

Chain Restaurants in Alpharetta

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

“Alpharetta only has chain restaurants”

Ever heard this one? I call it a “suburban legend” perpetuated by unknowing city folks who almost never venture OTP. And when they do get out this way, all they know of this area is Northpoint Parkway.

Yes, there are a lot of chain and franchise restaurants out here. Yes, most are wastelands of culinary muck; but not all. Obviously some people like these places because they stay in business.

So let’s run with this myth for a bit and explore the chain and franchise idea in the burbs. If I’m going to generalize then I’m going to break things into groups. There are exceptions to my rules of course, which I’ll note. Yet I think these generalizations are mostly true.

Corporate Owned Chains

These are the big national chains, many of which are publicly traded companies. You’ve got Darden which owns Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Longhorn and a few others. Brinker has Chili’s, Macaroni Grill and Maggiano’s. Rounding out my list is DineEquity which owns Applebees and IHOP. Of these groups, I tend to like the Brinker restaurants the best. I abhor Applebees, IHOP and Olive Garden.

The root problem these guys face, in my opinion, is that the employees just don’t give a crap. It is a transitional job and turnover is high. You’ll get a consistent experience for the most part… consistently mediocre.

Franchise with Large Franchisees

These are the big chains with other big companies owning hundreds of franchised restaurants. Usually this is fast food where one large company will own every store in a vast geographic area. Think McDonalds. And for the most part, I think you get the same experience as the national chains (or perhaps worse).

There are exceptions of course. I really like the Hardee’s location in downtown Alpharetta. They are owned by a large franchisee based in Colorado.

Franchise with Independent Ownership

This is the owner/operator model of a franchise. Chick-Fil-A is the perfect example, where an owner typically has one or a small number of stores. They are very hands-on with day-to-day operations. I believe you should not discount these types of restaurants by lumping them into the above categories. Typically the owner has a large piece of their net worth tied up in the restaurant. At that point, it is like a small family-run restaurant only with the menu dictated by others.

And while we’re on the topic of franchises… There are a lot of restaurants in the burbs that are technically franchises yet have a very thin presence here. The Counter in Roswell and Tacone Flavor Grill on Windward are perfect examples. Both are California-based chains. The nearest other locations are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Might as well be a local joint!

The Local Chain

This seems to be a growing category, especially in the Atlanta area. These are places like our ubiquitous Mexican restaurants. Another example might be Figo Pasta, a chain of casual Italian restaurants with only eight locations (all in metro Atlanta). Or how about Tin Drum with only six Atlanta locations. I’d throw the Raving Brands restaurants (Doc Green’s and formally Shane’s Rib Shack) into this mix as well. I find most of these places boring and predictable. They seem more focused on fast growth and franchisee recruitment than providing a quality and unique experience. And unfortunately trendy outdoor shopping centers like Avenue Forsyth and Atlantic Station seem to be prime locations for this category.

Locally Owned

So right out of the blogging starting gate, I’ve probably lost all credibility as a food writer by talking about chain restaurants. I’m glad to get it out of the way though. Eating at locally owned and operated restaurants is always the way to go. You want to do business with the guy who’s personally invested his heart, time, personal fortune and reputation. He’s got skin in the game, something which the manager of the chain restaurant doesn’t have. If, God forbid, his restaurant fails, the local guy is more than likely broke. The chain restaurant manager just finds another job. In the end, this is what it all boils down to.

Yet if you like a chain restaurant, by all means eat there! But do try to support the local guy. And remember the local guy may be operating a small franchise!

Celebrity Chefs of Atlanta

Every Friday, Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series I like to call Foodie Friday.

The ultimate hero worship of the food world. As food reality shows like Top Chef and Iron Chef America get more popular, so do the celebrities they create. Atlanta’s food scene continues to get nods from the producers of these shows. This was especially true in Top Chef season six, which included three Atlanta chefs.

So here is your guide to the celebrity chef scene in Atlanta. After dining at these joints, you’ll have all the snobbery necessary for a suburban foodie. You’ll be able to name drop at your next dinner party. And if you’ve got gall, you could become your own Tom Colicchio, finding the slightest fault with Kevin Gillespie’s Sonoma artisan duck breast.

Richard BlaisBlais by Godofbiscuits on Wikimedia

Blais first appeared in television during season three of Iron Chef America. He spared with Mario Batali in battle chickpea (don’t you just love the ominous names of these battles?) Later he was a contestant on season four of Top Chef, finishing in the runner up spot.

Blais’ cooking included a lot of very modern techniques, which was always fun to watch on the show. He continues to have a close relationship with the show, returning in subsequent seasons.

Currently in Atlanta, he is consulting with the restaurant Flip Burger Boutique. They feature some over-the-top burgers and milk shakes made with liquid nitrogen. Prior to Flip he bounced around between half a dozen restaurants.

Hector Santiago

The first of three Atlantans on season six of Top Chef. The Puerto Rican-born chef got booted from the show way too early in my opinion. Today he runs Pure Vida, a Latin tapas restaurant off Ponce in Atlanta.

Eli Kirshtein

Kirshtein was Richard Blais’ sous chef on Iron Chef. No surprise then that they are friends. He appeared on season six of Top Chef and went pretty far, nearly making the finals. In my opinion, he went four or five episodes farther than he should have. He didn’t come across as competent as the skilled competition in this season. But perhaps it was how the show was edited.

Kirchtein runs Eno Restaurant and Wine Bar in Midtown but has announced he is leaving this month. He will work a temporary gig in New York City and hopes to return to Atlanta afterward.

Kevin Gillespie

By far the fan favorite on season six of Top Chef. Gillespie was a big teddy bear of a chef who showcased his Georgia roots. The man is a master of pork, so much so that he’s tattooed a humongous pig on his arm. He made it to the finals before being eliminated.

Back home he runs Woodfire Grill. His menu changes frequently and features locally grown, organic and sustainable foods. And from what I’ve read, a reservation at this joint is hard to come by these days.

Kevin Rathbun

This guy, along with his brother, defeated Bobby Flay on Iron Chef. And to top it off, they beat him in battle elk, an ingredient I would expect Bobby Flay to knock out of the park.

Rathbun runs three restaurants in Atlanta… Rathbun’s features modern American cusine, Krog Bar for Spanish tapas and Rathbun Steak (which I’m dying to try).

Tom Colicchio

Top Chef host and judge extraordinaire. It is hard to not know who this guy is. Unlike most of the younger reality show contestants mentioned above, Colicchio is a serious and accomplished restaurateur. He recently opened his Atlanta location of Craft in trendy Buckhead.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

I really don’t know this guy, other than being one of several snooty Frenchmen to guest judge on Top Chef. His vast restaurant empire includes the Asian fusion joint Spice Market in the W hotel in Midtown.

Emeril Lagasse

An Atlanta celebrity chef has-been. Atlanta holds the distinction of being the only place Emeril has ever closed a restaurant.

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