If you want to know a place, go eat there. Right? Well, when you’re talking about Gwinnett, you’ll want to fill up the tank first. Don’t let the size of one of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S.— a whopping 437 square miles and 16 municipalities — discourage you. Instead, think of it as having the flavors of every flag within your grasp.
Here are highlights of just a few of the bites that await you.
Rico’s World Kitchen
Out of the kitchen of this casual restaurant, housed in a converted gas station in Buford, come a hodge-podge of global offerings. Tops among them is the lumpia, Filipino egg rolls. A whiff of these oily deep-fried beauties brought me back to my relatives’ kitchens in Chicago. The flavors of the tightly rolled, pork- and chicken-filled cigarillos are terrific, and its dipping sauce keeps a balanced teeter between sweet and sour.
Also noteworthy were Rico’s chicharrones. The porky snacks are fried to a light crisp that begets a highly satisfying crackle. Deftly seasoned and served with white vinegar scented with oregano, they are highly addictive.
The restaurant smokes its own meats, so that Mojo pork sandwich you’re eyeing on the menu — good choice. But pay attention to daily specials. On my visit, that meant brisket with sauteed portobellos, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato all stuffed in a pita as well as a smoked chicken quesadilla. There were no leftovers.
306 W. Main St., Buford. 678-765-7518, ricosworldkitchen.com/.
Praise the Lard BBQ
Located in a small strip mall a few storefronts down from, ahem, Journey Church, Praise the Lard holds the air of a diner and the smells of barbecue. For a taste of practically everything, order the Big One Platter. You’ll get roughly one-quarter pound each of pork, chicken, turkey, burnt ends and brisket. The brisket is what stood out most here. Order it sliced instead of chopped, and wet instead of lean. A self-service counter is cluttered with six different house-made sauces from a deliciously sweet-tart-mustardy Carolina to one called the Lexington dip, whose spicy vinegar character livens up a side of collards.
The platter is enough to satisfy two hungry souls in search of barbecue. If this is your first visit, say so when you order this plate: You’ll get four sides instead of two. Praise the Lard’s signature side, carrot soufflé, is a curiosity worth tasting. It has the texture of spoonbread with the mild taste of carrots but is sweet enough to consider dessert. Speaking of which, they make all their desserts in house and, like its barbecue, when the peach cobbler is gone, it’s gone.
1350 Buford Highway N., Buford. 770-362-4420, PTLbbq.com.
Mojitos Cuban-American Bistro
The doors are now wide open to travelers to Cuba, but you can get a taste locally at Mojitos. It calls itself a bistro, but in many ways, the family-run operation feels more like a cantina. And the classic lime mojito — fresh, minty, clean — is just one reason to grab a seat at this spot in historic downtown Norcross.
A crash course in Cuban cuisine can come by way of the Mojitos sampler: ham croquettes, beef empanadas, yucca fries and stuffed plantains. A side of ropa vieja is requisite, while yuca con mojo — boiled yucca coated in a light garlic sauce — is just as filling, flavorful and culinarily educational.
Two thumbs go to the Cuban sandwich and the Elena Ruth with its combination of roast turkey, cream cheese and strawberry preserves pressed between the bread. However, if you’re looking to put a fork into something, order the oxtail. The meat is marvelously tender, the braising liquid layered with flavor. Use the side of rice to sop up all the goodness.
35 S. Peachtree St., Norcross. 770-441-2599, mojitosbistro.com.
For lunchtime fun, get the bento box. Choices are many for filling up that compartmentalized tray with Japanese gems: a roll (California, shrimp tempura, tuna or spicy tuna), grilled mackerel, salmon or chicken teriyaki and assorted vegetable tempura, among others. Impressively delicious was the fried agedashi tofu. There will be a few wedges of fresh fruit, a couple of pieces of shumai … not to mention a parade of standards: miso soup, side salad and rice. This is some spread.
For bright colors and fresh flavors, think sushi bowl. The chirashi don is a rainbow of raw fish — salmon, mackerel, tuna, swordfish — plus cooling cucumber, shredded daikon, radish tips, slivers of seaweed and orange masago all piled atop sushi rice. On a hot, humid day, gimme the chirashi don and some chopsticks.
3131 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, Suwanee. 678-889-4188, warakuga.com.
Located in the same shopping plaza as Waraku is BonBon, which opened its doors this past spring. At first glance, counter-style ordering posits BonBon along the lines of just another fast-casual restaurant. But here, a menu of familiar foods — fried chicken, wings, pizza — is given some Korean love. What lured me was not the whole fried chicken or rice-battered fried wings but BonBon’s donkkaseu. A breaded, deep-fried pork loin, it’s the Korean iteration of Japanese tonkatsu. The cutlet was cooked to a golden crisp, the accompanying tonkatsu barbecue sauce thick and with the pronounced tang of Worcestershire. Enjoy it between bites of steamed rice, nibbles of sweet cabbage slaw, pickled jalapeno and radishes and slurps of miso soup.
For those who clamor for all things kimchee, BonBon puts it on a pizza. The fermented veggies are sautéed prior to getting scattered atop the pie with smoked bacon, garlic, corn, onions and a mound of mozzarella, so don’t expect mouth-puckering sour. Wash it down with South Korean brews Hite or Kloud, both in the mix of bottled offerings.
3131 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, Suwanee. 678-482-7555.
Happiness equals ramen at Umaido. There’s the noodle-making action you can watch from the front window, the door handle fashioned as a pair of chopsticks that gets you giddy for what’s to come, and the low stools at the bar that put you face to face with the ramen-making masters in the kitchen.
If you’re new to ramen, a helpful flow chart on the menu and a non-judge-y staff will help you get through broth-noodle confusion. So pick your soup. Pick your noodle. Pick your toppings. Wavering? Follow the suggested toppings printed in the menu. If you opt for the tonkotsu ramen, I’d buck up the extra dollar and get the rich soup, and that spicy miso is a sure match for kakuni (braised pork belly).
Did you slurp up all your noodles? Order kae dama and, for $1.50 more, you get a noodle refill.
2790 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, Suwanee. 678-318-8568, Facebook: Umaido.
Read about dozens of other restaurants and bars in Gwinnett County in our new Gwinnett Mini Dining Guide. To learn about standout dishes and drinks, newly opened restaurants and tips on dining in Gwinnett, visit myajc.com/dining.]]>