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Hop Alley – Main Street

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

Ok, let’s tally the score.  Over the last two years in Alpharetta and nearby areas we’ve seen eight growler stores, two growler gas stations and two breweries open.  Craft beer is the name of the game.  Now we can add one more.

A brew pub called Hop Alley recently opened to great anticipation on Main Street next door to Smokejack.  Owner/brewer Brandon Hintz graduated Georgia Southern in 2008 with a degree in construction management with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps.  The housing market crash lead Brandon and his wife to pursue work in Iowa for the Army Corps of Engineers.  While in Iowa he got into home brewing, eventually joining a home brew club and landing an internship at a local brewery.

At the insistence of his wife, they moved back to Atlanta and Brandon found employment as a brewer at Sweetwater.  Brandon noticed that all the brew pubs  in Iowa seemed to bring the community together. He wanted to bring that sense of community to the Alpharetta area.  After exploring several sites, Brandon chose the space on Main Street.  Coming from a construction background, they did the build out themselves and saved money and time.  From the back deck to the materials inside to the shiny tanks behind the bar, the whole space invites you to come in, have a beer and a good time.

Brandon sees Hop Alley as a chance to expose people to new craft beers; getting people out of the familiar to find something new.  I’ve tried several kinds of beers that I’ve never had before like a saison and a red rye PA.  The vast majority of the beers that are offered are Brandon’s own recipes.  He really has a passion for brewing and is always tinkering with new combinations.  Look for new beers rotating through the schedule in the following months.  The selection is always changing with the seasons, so expect to try something new.

It’s not all about the beer, though.  Hop Alley has a full bar featuring tons of varieties of infused liquors like a bacon bourbon.  There is also a series of fruit and candy infused vodkas that people are snapping up by the bottle.

Enough about the booze; let’s talk food.  Don’t come to Hop Alley expecting typical bar food such as chicken wings and the like.  Brandon hired a chef formally of Going Coastal in Canton to help create a menu of unique and locally sourced cuisine worthy of a high end restaurant.  My wife and I have dined on burgers, salads, steak and sausage sandwiches, and we have never left unsatisfied.

The burgers are some of the best I’ve ever had; juicy and flavorful. The bacon could dent a car it’s so big.  The steak was tender and the Portuguese chorizo sausage on my sandwich was spicy and left me longing for more.  I wish I had ordered the platter and not just the sandwich.  The meat is from Heywoods Butcher in Marietta and the produce comes from North Georgia farmers.

The two best sellers at Hop Alley are the chicken avocado salad and the 50/50 burger (half meat, half bacon).  While the most popular items will stay the same, the rest of the menu will rotate seasonally.  Since Hop Alley has been open the menu has already changed four times.  They use their own beer for the beer batter for the few items that are fried.  Fresh, not frozen, in house prepared and local are the buzz words for the food.

For all the good points, Hop Alley is not without some criticism.  The service has ranged from very good to passable, something that I think will improve over time as they hone their staff.  I tried the bacon infused bourbon, and did not like it.  I really couldn’t taste the bacon and it was a whopping $9 for just a shot.  Pretty scary.

Hop Alley Brew Pub on Urbanspoon

It’s cool to see all the brewing equipment right behind the bar.  Spend some time inside and you’ll likely be able to watch the process.  Brandon is always open for folks to ask questions about beer and brewing but be respectful when he’s in intense periods of work.

Hop Alley is in a great location and it is a very welcome addition to Alpharetta’s craft beer scene.  Will Alpharetta become a OTP beer mecca?  Only time will tell.  Judging by the crowds darkening their doorway, Alpharetta has embraced Hop Alley, as have I.  Cheers!

BurgerFi – Windward

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

The name BurgerFi reminds me of the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, which means always faithful.  BurgerFi must mean “burger faithful” because the place has been packed since it opened just a short time ago. BurgerFi opened to much fanfare and hoards of folks crowded the doors clamoring for the latest, greatest in burger offerings.

BurgerFi is a chain out of Florida with 47 locations. Alpharetta is the fourth location in Georgia.  They focus on all natural, grass fed beef with no additives or chemicals.  In addition to burgers, BurgerFi offers five different styles of hot dogs including a 100% Wagyu Kobe beef dog.

What goes better with a burger than a cold beer?  BurgerFi has several craft brews on tap as well as wine by the glass or bottle for your imbibing pleasure.  I was pleased to see Red Hare represented.

For your sweet tooth, BurgerFi offers frozen custards, frozen concretes and cupcakes.

Let’s start with the space itself.  BurgerFi took over a store front at the end of the small strip occupied by Fed Ex.  The first thing they did was blow out all the windows and walls to create a nice patio outside.  No fences and a hard, heavy roof lends a sense of both openness and coziness.  Large fans outside keep things cool. A variety of seating including picnic tables gives off a vibe of a neighborhood gathering place.

A large sliding door leads you inside. That’s where things go downhill.  It’s very busy inside with no real flow to get to order your food.  You have to squeeze past all the tables to get to the counter.  Seating is tight due to the large outdoor space.  If there is a line, which there has been every time I’ve been there, it extends into the dining area making seating that much more awkward.

You place your order and receive one of those pager buzzy square things. Have a seat, if you can find one. On our first visit, my wife and I had to stand around then leap on a vacated table, claiming it like an explorer in the new world.

Lighting is supplied by really cool chrome ice tongs with bare bulbs hanging beneath them.  The decor of stainless steel and light colored wood really works.  It’s industrial, yet warm. Unfortunately the chairs are a little small for the normal burger consumer.

On our first visit I opted for the basic cheeseburger along with fries and onion rings.  The burgers come with the BurgerFi logo branded into the bun.  It’s cute but it doesn’t really add anything.  The burgers are on the small side but big on flavor.  The bun had a soft, yeasty quality that was welcome on my palate.

The fries were crispy, salty and very good.  You can order your fries with numerous toppings including salt and vinegar, cheese, herbs or chili.  The rings were also good with a light coating over thick cut onions and good onion flavor.  They were greasy to the touch however.

Next time I ordered the cardiologist’s best friend, the B.A.D. (Breakfast All Day) burger. It’s a gut-busting combination of bacon, maple syrup, hash browns, a fried egg, onions and ketchup.  It tasted like any other burger, if not worse.  I couldn’t taste any syrup. The hash browns formed a thick potato mass at the bottom of the burger that made chewing difficult.  It was an interesting concept but poorly executed.

My wife opted for the Kobe beef hot dog.  Looking more like a kielbasa sausage, split and grilled, it was actually very good.  Then again, it didn’t taste much different than what you can make at home.

The milkshakes are extraordinary.  Making shakes with custard instead of ice cream leads to a creamier, smoother shake.

Leave your diet at home when visiting BurgerFi. The calorie count, listed on the menu, is enough to make your belt explode. But hey, who said burgers were healthy?

BurgerFi on Urbanspoon

Cost is the other negative.  Get happy with your choices and two people could rack up a $30 tab.  A burger, fries and a drink can run you around $12.  Add in a $4 shake or a $6 concrete, and your arteries won’t be the only thing taking a pounding.  It’s just a little pricey for a fast casual burger that doesn’t really stand out among all the other choices in the area.

BurgerFi is firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of the burgers.  The throngs of people roosting in the dining room seem to speak to Alpharetta’s desire for something new on the burger horizon.  Too bad there’s nothing really new or memorable at BurgerFi.

Campania Pizzeria – Alpharetta

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

Several years ago a pizzeria opened in a cramped space near Georgia Tech. Tiny little Antico was quickly lauded by food bloggers and critics alike. The buzz was intense, vaulting their Neapolitan-style pizzas to the top of every best-of list in Atlanta.

Meanwhile, back in suburbia, we ate our New York-style pies, blissfully unaware of the changing hipster ITP pizza scene. To many in Alpharetta, “Neapolitan-style” meant getting chocolate and strawberry ice cream in one carton.

But last week’s opening of Campania Pizzeria may prove to be a paradigm shift for suburban pizza. Owners Stewart Muller and Jennifer Simmons, who also own this stripmall, have brought Alpharetta its very first true Neapolitan-style pizzeria.

Campania’s pizza toes the line on this tradition. The ingredients are few, remarkably simple and carefully sourced from Italy. From the delicately-soft double zero flour to San Marzano tomatoes to buffalo mozzarella, everything is by-the-book authentic.

The star at Campania is their oven. Imported from Italy it sits proudly on display in the dining room, emboldened with the restaurant’s name spelled in black tile. It’s fueled with a mix of oak and cherry logs. Temperatures inside reach a scorching 1000 degrees. Pizzas sit on a slab of volcanic rock cut from Mount Vesuvius.

It takes only about 90 seconds for the pizza to cook. Next the pie is slowly lifted inside the oven. Flames from the burning oak roll across the top of the oven, kissing the top of the pizza and charring the crust. A mere two seconds later the pizza is rescued from the inferno, cut and delivered to your table for immediate consumption.

Tartufo with Margherita DOC

Which pizza should you order? The Margherita DOC is traditional, with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, basil and olive oil. The San Marzanos are a little sweet, the crust pillow-soft yet charred and the cheese slightly smokey. I prefer the Margherita without the buffalo mozzarella which can soften the bottom of the pizza due to higher water content. Purists may scoff, but it’ll also save you a few bucks.

Campania’s marinara pizza is amazingly simple yet surprisingly powerful with flavor. Without cheese the flavor of the tomato really shines. The pizza is topped with pungent sliced garlic and oregano.

By far the best pizza on Campania’s menu is the Tartufo. This white pizza has mozzarella and fontina cheeses, mushrooms, pancetta, sliced garlic and is topped with truffle oil and rosemary. There’s so much going on with this pizza – from pungent flavors, the aroma of the truffle oil, texture of the bread to the delightfully-salty pancetta. Amazing.

Pizzaiolo Stefano Rea is the talent at the oven. He spends as much time in the dining room glad-handing patrons as he does in the kitchen. Rea’s passion for his craft is genuine and he’ll chew your ear off talking Neapolitan pizzas. He’s past gigs include Sandy Spring’s Cibo e Beve and a brief stint at Erwood’s in Crabapple.

What’s Rea got up his sleeve next? How about black pizza dough infused with squid ink? It’s basically a black pizza topped with seafood galore. It’s, if anything, perhaps the most bizarre and intriguing menu item in Alpharetta.

Only two questions remain about Campania. First – is it as good as Atlanta’s Antico? Local foodies have been quietly beating a path to Campania’s door to get that question answered. Their pizzas are a tad smaller than Antico’s but very close to their taste and quality. The ambiance at Campania is far more comfortable and the staff much more friendly.

Campania Pizzeria Napoletana on Urbanspoon

And second – will suburbanites embrace an authentic Neapolitan pizza? Remember, it isn’t burned, it’s charred. You can’t buy it by the slice. This isn’t Mellow Mushroom and it isn’t exactly kid-friendly. Once we get past these notions I believe Campania can be a game changer. Hopefully we’re seeing the start of a budding new restaurant scene along Alpharetta’s Main Street!

Photo Credit: Mike Murphy

Alfresco – Main Street

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

The sign advertised “Pizza, Pasta and Vino”. It was up for a long time before the doors actually opened. I stared at it every time I drove by, wondering how Alfresco was going to separate themselves from the dozens of pizza and pasta places dotting the landscape.

I’ve eaten at Alfresco several times since. Each time I’ve come away with mixed feelings.  Let’s start with what’s very right with Alfresco – the location.  They have excellent visibility right on Main Street.  Easy in and out of the more than adequate parking lot thanks to a new exit onto Old Milton.

Once I entered the restaurant my mixed feelings began.  Every time I’ve visited Alfresco there wasn’t anyone to greet us.  There was a short awkward exchange with one of the employees where we were told to just sit anywhere.  There is plenty of room in the large space to find a table, although on a Saturday night there were not a lot of tables to be had.  The seating’s not very private, but even while crowded, the space is not too noisy to carry on a conversation without shouting.  The decor is warm, with numerous photos crowding the yellow walls.  Kind of Buca di Beppo light.

Looking over the menu, all the usual Italian suspects were represented from pizzas to sandwiches to chicken parmingana.  We ordered the fried mozzarella carossa from the appetizer section and were told immediately that it wasn’t mozzarella sticks but actual bread stuffed with cheese and fried.  I was excited to try something new.  Two large cake sized fried pieces of bread arrived in a lake of marinana sauce.  It was very good, if not a little on the bland side.  The sauce helped to add flavor.  Possibly a different cheese would have helped too.  Mozzarella isn’t super flavorful.  That’s the one complaint I had about everything I’ve eaten here.  It all needs to be kicked up a notch.

The meatball sandwich I devoured was on ciabatti bread, which was a great twist. But the meatballs were just larger versions of ones I’ve had in a can of Chef Boyardee.  My wife had the steak sandwich and the classic Italian combo, both of which left her very satisfied.  All sandwiches came with homemade potato chips.  The chips are just thicker than normal chips, and without grease.  They were delicious.

On the next visit, I dove headlong into the NY style pizza.  Alfresco has a lunch special of two slices and a drink for $5.95, which is a great deal considering the slices were bigger than my head.  They were also drowning in grease.  It must have been all the missing grease absent from the chips.  I soaked a napkin drying it all up.  The pizza itself pretty good.  I’d get it again.

The prices are very reasonable while the service was hit and miss.  On a busy night I noted several people getting either the wrong order or not getting parts of their order at all.  I’ve been there when it wasn’t nearly as busy and the service was much better.

There’s one aspect of Alfresco that is beyond reproach.  The bathrooms.  They were tucked away in the rear of the space, and they were hotel quality.  I wish I could have eaten my pizza in there.  I loved them that much.

In addition to the dining room, there is a very nice outdoor dining space with shade and a water feature.  I can imagine sitting out there on a late summer evening relaxing and watching the city go by.

Alfresco on Urbanspoon

Alfresco has a mild social media presence on Facebook and runs a special through LivingSocial.  There are several online printable coupons that would come in quite handy.  Overall, the jury’s still out on Alfresco.  The food is decent, the prices are reasonable and the location is excellent.  Does it do enough to stand out from established pizza spots or Italian restaurants like La Casa?  Time will tell.

Alfresco is located at 131 South Main Street at the intersection of Old Milton Parkway.

WOW Food Truck

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

I love grits. I love barbecue. If there were ever two things a southerner should like, this is it. But barbecue with grits? No. It’s not a marriage that’s meant to be. Sorry, that’s just how I was raised.

But big kudos are due to the WOW Food Truck. These guys take risks trying to crossbreed culinary traditions. It’s what makes food trucks so appealing to me.

WOW makes arepas or small little corn griddle cakes which are popular in Venezuelan cuisine. There are unleavened little grit cakes about the size of small biscuits. Sliced open they hold a number of savory fillings, most of which come from southern cuisine. Served food truck style, they are like slider sandwiches made with grit cakes.

The most popular is the smoked pork arepa. By itself, WOW’s smoked pork is delicious. It’s got a solid core of hickory smoke in every bite. I’d love to have an entire plate of it. There’s no barbecue sauce but rather some “kicky sauce.” This is a creamy sauce of pureed cilantro and jalapeno. It complements the barbecue well. There’s enough smoke and flavor in the ‘cue to stand up to a what otherwise would be an overpowering topping.

But the arepa isn’t the best vessel for delivering barbecue bites to your mouth. I’m accustomed to thick slices of fluffy Texas toast or yeasty rolls. Arepas are more dense. It has the effect of squishing the insides out when you bite.

So I ditched the arepa and tried “The WOW Factor”. This is a like a barbecue bowl. They start with a base of cheese grits then add the same smoked pork. Next comes an over-generous helping of barbecue sauce and a small drizzle of chipotle cream. The sauce was way too much, completely drowning my delicious smoked pork in its tangy mess. I lobbed entire spoonfuls into a nearby garbage can until I could recognize the pork and begin to see the grits underneath.

Barbecue and grits just didn’t work for me. Their ‘cue is finely pulled into short strands. But the texture of the grits isn’t congruent. It has an unusual mouth feel. But perhaps it’s me. I’m still warming up to the idea of eating shrimp in my grits – for dinner.

But again, kudos are due to WOW for taking chances with two very different cuisines. I know of no one else in town doing arepas. Even the now-closed Venezuelan-influenced Boga Taqueria didn’t have them on their menu. But arepas are worth a try if you’ve never had them. And their barbecue could stand on its own any day.

If you’ve tried WOW, let me know what you think. They are among the most popular and critically acclaimed food trucks in metro Atlanta. I must be in a minority because these guys didn’t wow me.

Wow! on Urbanspoon

Wow makes regular visits to Alpharetta. They were at the Christmas tree lighting in December, the British car event and occasionally make mid-week jaunts up to our office parks. Follow them on twitter @wowfoodtruck for a schedule.

Sweet Apple vs Dutch Monkey Doughnuts

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

It was bound to happen eventually. Cumming’s own Dutch Monkey Doughnuts has an enormous following. They’ve even attracted national attention.

Well now they have a competitor. Sweet Apple Donut & Coffee opened a few weeks ago on McGinnis Ferry Road. Are they a worthy adversary? We’ll let the doughnut duo square off face-to-face! This blogger has tried them both multiple times over the last few weeks. After this column I’m taking a fried dough hiatus!

Sweet Apple displays their product much like Dutch Monkey. They’ve got an L-shaped counter with doughnuts perched high on little pedestals. All that separates you from these treats is a sheet of glass to protect them from sneezes or perhaps little fingers.

Their menu differs a bit from Dutch Monkey with the addition of pigs in a blanket. They are small cheese-filled hot dogs wrapped in a baked yeast roll. Chances are you’ll get a freebie sample on your first visit.

Dutch Monkey differentiates itself with over-the-top creations. There is culinary talent here and it’s on display every morning. You’ll see unmatched attention to detail in products like the lemon meringue doughnut. Like everything here, the meringue is made from scratch. It’s very sweet yet with no gritty texture from the sugar. It’s sticky and delicately browned on top.

You’re not likely to find detail like this at Sweet Apple. But that’s not entirely bad. Their doughnut is more of a utility product. It’s got a higher yeast content that leads to a fluffy texture. On one busy Saturday morning I managed to score a plain doughnut shortly after it was plucked from the fryer. It was as close to a “hot now” as you’re gonna get without going to Krispy Kreme in the middle of the night. You’re not likely to experience this at Dutch Monkey.

Unfortunately most of the toppings at Sweet Apple are uninspiring. But their sour cream cake doughnuts have promise.  They are cooked a little longer yielding a crunchy texture on the outside. Their apple fritters can be the same way.

Dueling Strawberry Bars - Sweet Apple on left, Dutch Monkey on right

Strawberry bars are a big hit at Sweet Apple. These are like doughnut sandwiches with fresh strawberry slices and cream inside. Outside there is almost too much powdered sugar and chocolate. It distracts from the fruit.

I tried the same product at Dutch Monkey the next morning. Their strawberry bars feature bigger berries and are held together with more cream. They have a thin drizzle of dark chocolate which is about the right amount. The strawberries also appeared to be macerated which creates just a touch of sweet strawberry sauce. It complements the cream beautifully.

Yet while DMD will win any side-by-side comparison, they’re gonna get killed on price. That delicious strawberry bar will lighten your wallet by a staggering $3.75. That’s nearly two and a half times what Sweet Apple is currently charging. While Dutch Monkey’s basic doughnut only costs $1.25, their more popular doughnuts will set you back around three bucks. Sweet Apple’s current prices are considerably cheaper, ranging from $1.45 to $1.65. But you get what you pay for.

Both places have friendly staff. Sweet Apple hasn’t yet figured out social media. By contrast Dutch Monkey arguably has the best social media presence of any local business, food industry or otherwise. Their restaurant is also bigger. And the little windows into the kitchen continue to be popular with the kids.

So overall Dutch Monkey is likely to remain king of fried dough in this area. But there’s certainly room for Sweet Apple in this market, especially for your basic, run-of-the-mill doughnut.

Sweet Apple Donut & Coffee on Urbanspoon

Sweet Apple Donut & Coffee is located at 5430 McGinnis Ferry Road in the former Legend’s Deli location. Dutch Monkey Doughnuts is located at 3075 Ronald Reagan Parkway near the Avenue Forsyth.

Stax Burger Bar – Holcomb Bridge, Roswell

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

I love burgers. If I was on a deserted island and I could have only one food, it would be hamburgers. Stax Burger Bar opened just down the street from my office. Several of my coworkers have raved about their food. I had to check it out.

Stax is owned by two brothers, Luis and Carlos Ramirez. Luis has made the rounds as executive chef at several of the Sedgwick restaurants including Vinny’s on Windward, Van Gogh’s, and Aspen’s Signature Steaks as well as co-founding Cinco Mexican Cantina. My expectations were very high.

The dining area feels spacious if only for the fact that there are a handful of tables. There are a large number of outdoor tables that will be filled in the spring and summer. The chairs and tables were comfortable and easily accessible. As an avid Coca Cola collector I was pleasantly surprised to find several Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper items figuring prominently into the decor. The overall feel for me is “second date.” It’s not quite nice enough to impress a first date, but would be perfect for a second, more relaxed date. There is good music pumped in that’s not so loud to prevent conversation.

The menu is full of specialty burgers, salads, sides and tapas. My wife and I tried the Stax classic and the bacon and cheese burgers, which are pretty much what you can get anywhere. They were both hot, juicy and full of flavor. Two slightly thin patties of black angus meat with lettuce, tomato and red onion create a happiness in my mouth.

Try the more adventurous Saltimbocca burger, a veal patty with fresh mozzarella, tomato, prosciutto di parma and sage mayo. It was so juicy and packed with flavor, truly a high end burger. We also tried the buffalo chicken burger. Pretty spicy but also one I would order again.

In the protein department you’ll find turkey, shrimp, salmon and portobello mushrooms, all ready to be made into burgers. It’s a small menu overall, but there really isn’t anything on there that didn’t look great.

One key aspect of all of these burgers is the bun. Locally baked and toasted, they really make the burgers something special. None of the burgers come with sides, which was a disappointment. The burgers range in price from $7.00-8.00, so once you add in the cost of fries ($2.00), or some of the pricier sides, the cost can add up. The fries are hand cut and double fried. The mac and cheese had great flavor but was too runny for my taste.

Look for unusual side items such as fried okra, creamy green pea risotto, fried calamari, sauteed brussel sprouts and onion rings. The risotto, while not looking very appetizing, was excellent. While not what I normally would have with a burger, it was a good change of pace.

Stax is not very kid friendly. They offer a plain burger and fries as the only kid menu item for an eye watering $6.50.

Stax Burger Bar on Urbanspoon

Overall, Stax burger bar is a welcome addition to the blossoming burger scene. It’s a burger place striving to be more than a greasy dive and it succeeds. The atmosphere is comfortable, the service fast and friendly and the food is out of this world. It’s a place I would go to meet friends after work and relax with a great burger and a glass of frozen sangria.

The Counter – Mansell Road Roswell

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

Sticker shock.

If there’s a first impression most folks get at The Counter, this is it. That was certainly the case when they first opened. Many wrote off this California chain, not expecting them to last but a few months.

It’s been five years now and The Counter is still flipping burgers. In the meantime countless fast-casual burger concepts have opened or are planning to open in the Atlanta burbs. Yet these guys are still around, making one of the better burgers in the area and charging a pretty penny for it.

How many pennies? Their basic burger starts at $7.50. This is combo price at some joints. Not here. This price is before cheese, fries, premium toppings and drink. And since they are a full-service restaurant, you’ll need to factor in a tip. Expect to pay upwards of $15 per person for a basic burger meal.

But if you’re serious about trying one of the better hamburgers in north Fulton, fork out the dough. The Counter’s burger should make most best-of lists. They cook an 80/20% fat ratio Angus burger. I like mine cooked medium-well but they’ll do medium without hesitation. Despite the extra cooking time, my burger wasn’t the least bit dry as Angus often is.  I also liked the sear on the patty.

What interested me the most on this return visit was how their menu has changed over the years. Their burger bowls caught my attention. These are part deconstructed burger (sans bun for the gluten challenged) and part hamburger salad.

I settled on the backyard barbeque bowl. What ingredient didn’t this thing have? A bed of lettuce and greens  held some chopped ham, cole slaw and a hamburger patty with horseradish cheddar cheese. On top a generous helping of fried onion strings buried the burger. Ranch dressing and a slightly sweet barbeque sauce were on the side.

The barbecue sauce really didn’t belong in the bowl as much as the ranch. I left it off and thus abandoned the barbeque aspect of the dish. Then again, many from California might consider a burger “barbeque”, but that’s a topic for another article.

In the end this was a delicious hamburger salad. I had hoped for more of a horseradish punch but it wasn’t there. The onion straws brought some nice texture to the party and complemented the creamy ranch dressing.

Would I order the backyard barbeque bowl again? Probably not with the $14.50 price tag.

So what’s completely unique here and totally worth paying for? Wine milkshakes.

There are some things that should never mix with dairy. The thought of marrying pinot noir with ice cream sounds so wrong, but it tastes oh so good. On the menu they call it chocovine. It’s basically a cherry chocolate milkshake with nearly a full serving of a California pinot noir. It’s comes from the bar in a pint glass with chocolate drizzled on the inside and whipped cream. Don’t expect a thick milkshake here as the wine thins it out a good bit.

On the first sip your taste buds experience a gentle warming effect from the wine. It confounds the senses a bit as they try to process the cold shake. The cherry flavor complements the wine and makes this a very drinkable dessert. Priced at $8.50, it costs about the same as a glass of the wine itself. It’s a unique idea that isn’t being tried elsewhere.

The Counter: Custom Built Burgers on Urbanspoon

So what’s the verdict on The Counter? After five years they’ve still got it in terms of burger prep. Is it the best burger in north Fulton? Probably not but they might finish on the medal podium. If you’ve still not been here you owe yourself a visit, but their prices are likely to keep you from becoming a regular.

I received a free meal from this restaurant. You can read my disclosure policy on my about page.

Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint – Windward

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint opened in September and has since gathered quite a following. Everyone I’ve spoken to about Maddio’s has mixed reviews.  I am no different.

Uncle Maddio’s is a chain with six metro-Atlanta locations, and according to the website, 75 more stores in development.  It’s a fast casual, design your own pizza concept.  You choose your type of dough (white, wheat or gluten free), your type of cheese and then you get to go crazy with toppings.  The person then assembles your pie per your instruction and lays it on a conveyor belt oven that’s reminiscent of the Quiznos toaster.  As the pizza slowly travels through the oven to cook you continue down the line and pay. You are given an identification number to place on your table.  The pizza is brought out to your table hot and ready to eat.

Along with pizzas, Uncle Maddio’s has a variety of salads and paninis.  If the pressure of all those ingredients gets to you, they also have many specialty pizzas to choose from.

My first experience was for take out.  I ordered the Big Max specialty pizza which has loads of meat and a basil tomato sauce.  My wife and I were disappointed in the taste and quality.  The pizza was bland, cold and uninspired.  I thought that perhaps the travel time between the restaurant and my home really took it out of the pizza.

The seating is an unusual mix of really high booths and crammed in tables.  It is rather tight.  Several employees were trying to bus tables and deliver food.  There’s not much room to walk.  It didn’t help that the place was packed. There are several outdoor tables that will help with the crowds come summertime.

The employees are friendly enough. There is a station with plates, silverware, napkins and condiments.  They also have one of those fancy Freestyle Coke machines with millions of combinations of soda. There were several televisions to watch and pretty loud music piped in.  It was almost distorted and was a tad distracting.

I dined in on my second visit, choosing my own toppings from the massive selection. The pizza arrived and I chowed down.  My theory about the time after cooking was correct.  The pizza was delicious and flavorful.  I ate nearly the entire thing.

There are not many options on the kid’s menu.  Parents, be prepared. There is a small pizza meal and that’s it. The prices are not too bad, even thought you can’t find them on the website.  It was around $20 for a medium pizza and a drink.

Overall, I’ve has ups and downs with Uncle Maddio’s.  It’s worth a shot.  It’s neat picking out your toppings ala Subway and there are several gluten free and organic options. Eat it there for the best taste.  Ciao Maddio!

Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint on Urbanspoon

Lee’s Take - I’m not going to disagree with Mike on this one. You’ve got to have diminished expectations going into this joint based on their common ancestry with Moe’s. Nevertheless there area few decent items to be found here. Stick to the specialty pizzas. The southwest baja, a spicy chicken pizza, is a winner. My wife likes their Greek pizza. For pies with a-la cart toppings, you’re better off elsewhere.

Their kitschy theme grates on me. Employees say “Ciao Maddio” and “hot pie” under compulsion from management. It doesn’t come off well, very contrived. The make up for it with a decent Facebook page with some specials to be found there. And watch those small kids pizzas, lest you share your own pie with Junior!

Mac Meal – South Main Street

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

Mac Meal is one of the newest international restaurants to make an appearance in Alpharetta.  I was driving down Hwy 9 and noticed the large red sign in the Northfall business complex but had no idea what Mac Meal was. A search online revealed very little information other than they served Mediterranean food. It warranted a visit to see what Mac Meal was all about.

Mac Meal opened a little over five months ago. The owners moved to the US about a year ago from Persia. The Alpharetta location is actually the third location. The other two are in Australia and are run by the owners three children.

The place was clean and neat.  It looked like they recycled some of the decor from Quiznos, the former tenant. The smell of the gyro meat was intoxicating. The menu is typical Greek/Middle Eastern, but it is a little small. There are only twelve main items. Items range from gyros to falafel to hamburgers to salads. There was talk of eventually adding a smoker to make kabobs. There is also a breakfast menu posted on the wall with several types of omelets and eggs to choose from. I found the breakfast menu a little odd since they don’t open until 10:00 AM.

The owners were very nice and conversational while my food was being prepared. They seemed very eager to make a good impression. I ordered a gyro with fries for me and a Mediterranean salad for my wife. The salad was prepared from scratch as I ordered it, and it was huge! Lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, onions, carrots and tomatoes all went into my to go container. I opted to add gyro meat for $2.00 more. The container could barely be closed once they were done. My wife loved it. The only complaint was the lack of tzatziki sauce. It would have been $1.50 extra. The gyro meat was sliced off of the vertical rotisserie and then placed on the flat top for a little extra sizzle.

My gyro was also made from scratch while I waited. It was also gigantic, overflowing with meat, lettuce, onions, tomatoes and smothered with tzatziki sauce. It was nearly 9 inches long. Although the fries were frozen, they were well cooked and weren’t bad. My son loved them. The gyro meat was super tasty, juicy and tender. The tzatziki sauce was a little on the bland side for my tastes.

The prices were very reasonable. I got out of there for less than twenty bucks. The gyro was $5.99 and the endless salad was $6.99. We were completely stuffed afterwards.

Mac Meal on Urbanspoon

Mac Meal doesn’t have an internet or social media presence, which will hurt in this day and age. There’s no way to find an online menu or even a phone number. I took a menu as I was leaving and noted that there is a web site listed on the back. I went to it and it doesn’t exist. The place was empty at 5:30 PM but I was told that lunch is a busier time. The food was excellent but relying on word of mouth will take time. I look forward to many more delicious meals.

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