I’ve said before that I don’t do reviews of national chain restaurants, but what about international chains? Maria’s Cantina, as it turns out, is an international chain but instead of having multiple locations worldwide, there are only two locations, one near Greensboro, Georgia and one in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

I’ve noticed Maria’s on my way to and from a jobsite near Lake Oconee several times over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to stop and give it a try because I was always finishing up and heading back to Atlanta before they opened for the day. However, recently we pushed the timing of my site visit back an hour or so which meant I’d still be in the area around lunchtime.

Last week I was leaving my jobsite and trying to decide what to do when I noticed the sign for Maria’s once again. It was almost 11:00 so I decided to stop and see if they were open. The OPEN sign wasn’t on when I pulled into the lot so I decided to check the front door to see what their hours are. The sign on the door said they opened at 11:00 and I was a couple of minutes early. As I started to turn and walk back to the car to wait a few minutes the door swung open and the manager said, in a sweet middle Georgia accent, “Come on in, we’re open”. I have to admit that I was stereotyping a little bit when I was caught a bit off guard when it wasn’t a Hispanic accent. I wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or not but I decided to take my chances.

The manager, who also happened to be the hostess, server, bartender and busboy(girl) at the moment (the rest of the wait staff wasn’t in just yet) told me that I could grab any table and promptly came by to take my drink order and to drop off a menu, a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa.

I noticed quickly that the salsa wasn’t the typical red tomato-based salsa that one finds at nearly every Mexican restaurant across the country. This was more of a clearish-brown flecked with bits of what appeared to be roasted peppers and other veggies. How did it taste? Let’s just say the standard red salsa may be good but this was much better. There were flavors beyond the typical tomato, cilantro, garlic, onion and lime. We’re talking deep, rich flavors.

I’m pretty sure that I could have made a meal off of the chips and salsa but I went ahead and ordered one of the lunch specials, MC#5 which consisted of a taco, a burrito, refried beans and rice. After the chips and salsa I had high expectations for my lunch and I wasn’t disappointed. Again, nothing had quite the same flavors that one typically finds at their favorite Mexican or Tex-Mex restaurant; they were better, bolder.

When the manager/hostess/server/bartender/busboy(girl) came back by to check on me, we got to talking and she told me that the biggest difference was that they did everything in-house. They roast their peppers and vegetables and make their own spice mixtures which, she said, are a little different than most.

So how did Maria’s Cantina fare on the Thumb’s Scale? Easily two thumbs up out of a possible two and I’ll throw in a few fingers and toes. Maria’s Cantina has just become one of my regular Greensboro lunch stops when I’m in the area. Now I just need to find an excuse to head to St. Croix to try their other location.