Maria’s Cantina, Greensboro, Georgia, April 26, 2017

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.

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Bennie’s Red Barn, St. Simons Island, Georgia, March 11, 2017

March 11, 2017 marked one year since ConnieLou’s surgery and one year for her being cancer free so we wanted to do something to celebrate.  It happened to work out that Ashley’s and Jenna’s spring break weeks overlapped the weekend of March 11-12 which gave ConnieLou and I both an excuse to get away from home for a long weekend and the opportunity to celebrate with both of the girls at the same time, a bit of a rare feat during the school year these days.

I put out a request for restaurant recommendations a couple of weeks before and one place on the island kept coming up…Bennie’s Red Barn.  I checked out the menu and one phrase in the menu caught my eye “the steaks are still cut fresh and cooked over an old-fashioned wood fire”.  Now that’s something you don’t hear much these days.  I sent a link on to ConnieLou and we agreed that it would likely be our celebration destination.

I also invited a few friends to join us.  Unfortunately most couldn’t make it but our friends Mike and Michelle made the trek down from Savannah (OK, Mike and Michelle actually live in Rincon, Georgia but since more people know where Savannah is, we’re gonna use Savannah here).  They arrived early and the folks at the restaurant went ahead and seated them before we arrived.  Was quite nice arriving at a popular restaurant at 7:00 on Saturday night and not having to wait for a table.

Our server brought us a tray of rolls and took our drink orders while we checked out the menu.  Without going into a lot of detail about who ordered what, I’ll say that our orders consisted mostly of steaks and baked potatoes along with a surf & turf (steak and shrimp kebobs) and an order of grilled salmon and all entrees came with a house salad.

With our orders placed we had a little time to relax and catch up before our food arrived.  However our table got quiet once our plates arrived.  All in all everyone seemed to be mostly pleased with their meal.  A notable lack of flavor in the steaks was mentioned by some but everyone’s potato seemed to be quite good.  There were also a couple of grumbles about sour cream not arriving with the potatoes (it should have) and then it not being brought until we were nearly through with our meal.

So how did Bennie’s rank on the Thumb’s Scale?  They got a 10 ½ out of a possible 14 with most individual scores being a thumb and a half.  All in all, not perfect but could have been a lot worse.  Would I visit Bennie’s Red Barn again?  Definitely.

Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon, Brunswick, Georgia, March 13, 2017

We Relish Your Buns!

OK, that’s their slogan anyway…

It’s good to have friends who live or have lived near your vacation destination. Not only do you get a chance to visit and catch up but more often than not you have a reliable source for restaurant recommendations. Fellow YHC alum Jeff Doke and his family live in Brunswick, Georgia, just a long rock-throw from St. Simons Island and Austin, Ashley’s boyfriend, and his family used to live on St. Simons. When I asked both Jeff and Austin for restaurant suggestions, there were a couple both recommended, one of which was Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon in Brunswick.

According to the menu Willie’s has been around since 1975. Although it’s in a free-standing building you can’t help but think of it as ‘one of those little hole-in-the-wall joints’ that you hear about. Saying its unassuming is a major understatement. In fact, if it weren’t for the building being painted bright yellow and red, one might miss it altogether when driving by. You place your order at a window on the side of the building and you can eat either inside in a small dining area or at one of half a dozen big red picnic tables outside the building. Since we had Jenna’s pup Lyla with us, we opted to eat outside…even though it was breezy and freakin’ chilly!

We had to clear out of the cottage we’d rented for the weekend by 11:00 and Willie’s was more or less on our route home so we decided to stop in on our way out of town.

As one might guess, the menu consists mostly of hot dogs, in many wonderful variations, a Polish sausage, burgers, a fish sandwich and a highly touted fried pork chop sandwich. Jeff recommended the Polish sausage and I have a hard time passing up a chili dog…so I tried both. ConnieLou went with a chili dog and Jenna tried the fish sandwich. We all split a couple of orders of fries.

ConnieLou picked up our order at the window, brought it to our table and we all dug in. Were the recommendations on the mark? Oh yeah. The polish sausage and chili dogs were quite good and Jenna was pretty happy with her fish sandwich. Even Lyla enjoyed a fry or two when no one was looking. My only complaint…yep, you guessed it. The fries…frozen, not fresh cut. If that’s the only flaw we can find they’re not doing too bad.

So how did Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon rate on the Thumbs Scale? We gave them a solid 5 ½ thumbs out of a possible six with the half thumb deduct being my standard deduction for frozen fries instead of fresh cut. Otherwise Willie’s would have had an easy 6 out of 6. Willie’s will definitely be on our return list when we’re back in the Brunswick/St. Simons Island area…

St. Simons Sweets, St. Simons Island, Georgia, March 12, 2017

Sunday morning…ice cream was on the agenda.
Not grocery store ice cream…good ice cream.
Fresh made ice cream.
And maybe something a little different.

Ashley and Austin wanted to go to St. Simons Sweets for ice cream one more time before leaving St. Simons. Who were we to argue? We all piled into the car and headed into town.

St. Simons Sweets is a small sweet shop located in the St. Simons Pier that specializes in fresh made sweets and…fresh made ice cream. Good ice cream…not grocery store ice cream. Even better than Baskin Robbins.

Our selections included red velvet, tirmisu, samoa (like the Girl Scout cookie) and bourbon butter pecan.

How did St. Simons Sweets rank on the Thumbs Scale? How about a perfect 10 out of 10…with several toes thrown in as well. Yeah, it was that good. Give ‘em a try but leave some for us.

Meat ‘N Greet, Newnan, Georgia, March 5, 2017

ConnieLou and I needed to get out and run a few errands and decided to grab lunch while we were out. Of course we had the usual debate over where to go to eat but somehow we managed to narrow it down to two choices fairly quickly. Once all was said and done we decided to go to Meat ‘N Greet on Jefferson Street, off the square in Newnan.

Meat ‘N Greet is described as a ‘craft burger’ restaurant and is our local alternative to Red Robin and similar ‘gourmet’ burger chains. Their menu consists mainly of burgers dressed in a dozen or so different ways, sandwiches, hot dogs, salads, sides and desserts. For those that like a craft beer to accompany their craft burger, there is usually a good selection of local brews on tap and in bottles. OK, you can get big brewery swill too…but why bother?

Being it was nearly 2:30 when we walked in the door we had missed most of the after-church rush and were seated right away. Our server came by to take our drink orders and gave us a few minutes to check out the menu. ConnieLou ordered the Slider Platter, choosing the pulled pork slider with mojo slaw and barbeque sauce, the pimento cheese slider topped with bacon and the smoked chicken salad slider with lettuce and tomato…and a side of fries. Me? I ordered the Not So PC burger, a burger topped with pimento cheese, bacon jam, lettuce, tomato and onion…and a side of fries.

Our orders came out fairly quickly and the first thing I noticed was the fries…fresh cut, not frozen and seasoned with some sort of seasoned salt that was noticeable but not overpowering. Yes, things were going well!

My burger was cooked to a perfect light pink inside medium and was quite tasty after I ditched the lettuce, tomato and onion…not that there was anything wrong with the lettuce, tomato or onion…I just don’t like ‘em on a hamburger. ConnieLou enjoyed her sliders and said of the three, she liked the pulled pork and pimento cheese the best. She gave me a bite of the pulled pork and it was quite tasty and the slaw added a nice crunch to the mix. Maybe I need to take a better look at North Carolina-style barbeque sammiches.

So how did Meat ‘N Greet rank on the Thumbs Scale? We gave it a solid 4 out of a possible 4. We’ll definitely be back.

Harry’s Seafood, Bar & Grille, St. Augustine, Florida, February 4, 2017

Yet more birthday celebrating in St. Augustine. A day or two before we headed down to St. Augustine, ConnieLou found out that our friends, Robbie and Dottie, were going to be in town too so we took advantage of the opportunity to get together for supper. ConnieLou and Dottie were close friends in middle school and high school. Robbie and Dottie live about thirty minutes away from us. We try to get together every now and then but we haven’t been very good about it lately so we all thought it was sort of funny when we made plans to get together somewhere six hours from home.

A couple of weeks ago Jenna told us about a new restaurant that had opened on St. George Street called Prohibition Kitchen. She’s been there once and said she enjoyed it. We looked over the menu and decided that it would be worth checking out so we planned to meet Robbie and Dottie there around 7:00 for supper…on Saturday night. OK, you probably know where this is going…new restaurant, prime time, Saturday night…yep, we were gonna have a wait. What we didn’t expect was that it was going to be a three hour wait. Needless to say we decided to shift and adjust.

Jenna told us that some of her friends at Flagler had mentioned that nearby seafood restaurant called ‘Harry’s’ was pretty good. ConnieLou gave Harry’s a call, got us on the seating list and found out that the wait there was a much more tolerable 45 minutes. About that time Robbie and Dottie walked up, Connielou explained the situation and we started walking over to Harrys which was only a couple of blocks away. Harry’s Seafood, Bar & Grille, as it’s properly named, is part of a local chain with five locations including the St. Augustine location and is described as “A New Orleans Style Restaurant”.

Once we were seated we ordered our drinks and looked over the menu. Yeah, we could have been looking the menu over while we were we were waiting but hey, we were having a good time catching up. As usual, there were way too many dishes that sounded really good but as often happens, one stuck out to me…Shrimp and Grits. I’m a sucker for shrimp and grits. ConnieLou decided on Chicken and Grits and Jenna chose Shrimp and Crawfish Pot Pie. Robbie and Dottie ordered the Blackened Chicken with a side of Grits and the Fresh Market Pasta.

With our orders placed we resumed catching up. Yep, more catching up…I said it’s been a while since we got together, right? Once our plates arrived our table got strangely quiet…like our selections were really good and eating was more important than talking quiet. OK, maybe we weren’t all that quiet but the food was quite good. We all decided that we had room for desert so slices of key lime pie and pecan pie were ordered along with an order of bananas foster bread pudding…none of which lasted very long. After dessert and some more catching up we paid our check and waddled out to go our separate ways.

So how did Harry’s rate on the Thumbs Scale? They got an easy ten out of a possible ten. Harry’s definitely made our St. Augustine repeat list but there are so many places to try in town that it’s hard to say when we’ll make it back…but I’m pretty sure we will. Someday.

The Cuban Cafe & Bakery, St. Augustine, Florida, February 4, 2017

The birthday celebrations continue. ConnieLou’s birthday was week before last and mine is next week. With the two being only 18 days apart we usually end up celebrating with friends and family for at least a month. With Ashley and Jenna in school at different colleges several hours apart, it didn’t work out this year that we were able to get all of us together in the same place at the same time. We spent some time last weekend in Athens with Ashley then headed to St. Augustine to spend some time with Jenna.

This is our first trip to St. Augustine that our schedule hasn’t been, at least in part, dictated by a schedule of events so we got to spend our time just being tourists and doing tourist stuff. We spent the morning checking out the old Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos, and then checked out a few of the shops along St. George Street. Lunchtime rolled around and before we could get our usual ‘where do we want to go for lunch’ non-debate going, ConnieLou said “Hey, how close are we to that place Robby told you about?” The place she was referring to was The Cuban Café & Bakery. My buddy, Robby Richardson, and his wife Kim have been recommending this place and raving about it since I first mentioned that we were heading to St. Augustine to take Jenna for a campus visit at Flagler College a little over a year ago. It’s been on our list of places to try but we just haven’t managed to be in the right place, in the right mood, at the right time…until now.

The Cuban Café & Bakery is a tiny place, as many of the restaurants in St. Augustine’s historic district are. There is a service counter, a small prep/kitchen area and eight, maybe ten tables.

ConnieLou and Jenna placed our orders while I occupied the last open table. I decided on a classic Cuban sandwich, ConnieLou and Jenna opted for the hot ham & cheese sandwich and we split an order of fried plantains.

It took a little time for our order to arrive but after walking around most of the morning we didn’t complain too much about having as few minutes to sit. We also weren’t complaining when our sandwiches and plantains arrived piping hot. My sandwich was as good as any Cuban sandwich I’ve had before and ConnieLou and Jenna didn’t seem to be complaining about their hot ham & cheeses. The plantains were quite tasty too.

So how did The Cuban Café & Bakery rate on the Thumbs Scale? We gave it six out of a possible six despite having to wait a bit on our orders…yeah, it was that good and yeah, we’ll be back.

Many thanks to Robby and Kim for the recommendation!

Amici, Greensboro-Lake Oconee, Georgia, January 27, 2017

I have to make a trip out to a jobsite near Lake Oconee once a month for work. Most of the time I try to make the trip on a Friday because I get started early so I can finish up early and extend the weekend by a few hours. Last Friday was my day to make the trip and it also happened to be ConnieLou’s birthday. We usually celebrate birthdays by going out to eat with the girls but since Ashley is in school in Athens and Jenna is in St. Augustine and it wasn’t a long weekend for ether of them, getting all of us together at one time just wasn’t going to happen. We’d already planned to take a long weekend and go to St. Augustine next weekend so I suggested to ConnieLou that she take the day off, ride to my jobsite with me, and then we’d swing up to Athens to spend a little time and have dinner with Ashley.

Even though we were running a little behind because of having to make an unplanned side-trip to the office before heading to my jobsite, I was still finished with work by about 12:30 and it was time to find some lunch. We were going through our usual ‘where to eat’ debate when I remembered Amici, an eatery in the little shopping plaza near my jobsite. I’ve been there a few times before and knew it was good so I suggested it to ConnieLou. She thought it sounded pretty good so that’s where we ended up.

Amici is an ‘Italian café’ that wants to be a sports bar or a sports bar that wants to be an Italian café, depending on your perspective and there are seven locations generally situated in east-central Georgia . Their menu includes pizza, calzones, stromboli’s, pasta dishes and salads as well as burgers, sandwiches and wings.

We grabbed a table, checked out the menu and somehow both of us managed to order the Philly Cheese Sub (thinly sliced steak with onions, mushrooms, green peppers and provolone), fries and a Coke. We were there after the lunch crush and our orders were out quickly and piping hot. I don’t know that many would consider the sandwiches true Philly Cheese Steaks but they were darn good nonetheless. And the fries…well, the fries seemed to be fresh cut rather than frozen, which is always a good thing.

So how did Amici fare on the Thumbs Scale? We both gave them two thumbs-up for a total of four out of a possible four…no deductions for frozen fries here! I have to admit, I’ve eaten at this Amici location before. I’ve enjoyed their burgers and buffalo chicken sandwiches so I had a pretty good idea what was in store. Needless to say, we’ll be back.

If the Greensboro-Lake Oconee location isn’t convenient, try one of the other locations in Athens, Conyers, Covington, Madison, Milledgeville and Monroe.

Christy Lee’s Courtyard Grille, Blue Ridge, Georgia, October 1, 2016

Saturday was me and ConnieLou’s 28th anniversary and our first anniversary as empty nesters. Most years we’ve kept things simple and just exchanged gifts and went out somewhere for supper. This year we decided to get out of the house and go do something different. We batted around a few different ideas but finally settled on taking a ride on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway from Blue Ridge, Georgia to McCaysville, Georgia/Copperhill, Tennessee and back. I bought tickets for the afternoon trip so we would have time to have lunch somewhere in Blue Ridge then spend some time piddlin’ around town before it was time to board the train…or so we thought.

During the drive up, ConnieLou did some internet searching for a restaurant for lunch. We finally narrowed it down to a place called Christy Lee’s Courtyard Grille. I dropped ConnieLou off across the street from the restaurant and went to find a place to park…not an easy task on a beautiful fall morning in Blue Ridge.

Once at the restaurant we stepped up to the hostess’ stand. Shortly a girl came out and asked us how many there were in our party. We told her two and without any acknowledgement, she picked up a few menus and a wine list and headed toward the door. When she turned and looked at us I told ConnieLou “I think we’re supposed to follow her.” No ‘please follow me’, no ‘please come this way’, not even a curt ‘follow me’…nothing…just walked to the door and assumed we’d be hot on her tail. It sort of set the tone for the rest of our experience with Christy Lee’s.

Once seated we waited on our server…and we waited, and waited and then waited a little more. Once our server finally visited us we placed our drink orders and also ordered our entrée’s…which I think threw her for a little bit of a loop but hey, we had a train to catch.

ConnieLou ordered the Angus Burger and fries. The burger was described as ‘a half-pound angus burger with spring mix, tomato and onions’. I ordered the Prime Rib Sliders and fries. The prime rib sliders were described as ‘house favorite slow roasted prime rib, mozzarella and au jus’. Our drinks arrived shortly then we waited, and waited and waited a while longer before our orders arrived. Had the restaurant been crowded, I might have been able to understand the wait, but the lunch rush had passed and there were more empty tables than occupied tables.  ConnieLou mentioned that there was a sign on the wall outside that stated “This is NOT a fast food restaurant.” Apparently they meant it and were going to milk it for all it was worth.

Our food (finally) arrived. The ‘spring mix’ on ConnieLou’s burger turned out to be a small mountain of arugula lettuce. My sliders turned out to be two smallish rolls, split down the top with a small amount of overcooked prime rib covered with melted mozzarella in each. Worth the $13.99 they were charging for it? Nope. So how was it? Mine wasn’t great but wasn’t flat out bad. ConnieLou said her burger was pretty good. She gave me a bite and I have to agree. And the fries…frozen, not fresh cut. Somehow I expected that.

So how did Christy Lee’s fare on the Thumbs Scale? They earned a grand total of one thumb out of a possible four. ConnieLou gave them a thumb because her burger was actually pretty good. Between the fries, the wait and being generally unimpressed with my overpriced meal, I really couldn’t find a good reason to give them a thumb or even a partial thumb. Fortunately I didn’t decide things were bad enough to get into thumbs down territory. We haven’t had terribly good luck with the trendy restaurants in Blue Ridge. Maybe we should just stick with the barbeque joints out on the edge of town.

Fresh Air Barbeque, Jackson, Georgia, September 30, 2016

When you’re driving state highways through central Georgia and you come across a barbeque joint whose sign indicates they’ve been in business since 1929 and the building looks like it’s had at least three or four additions, do you:

A. Pass on by and go home and eat leftovers for lunch;
B. Pass on by and hit the McD’s in town; or
C. Slam on the brakes, cut the wheel hard and skid to a stop in the gravel parking lot?

Hopefully you answered C. If not you probably should stop reading now and go on to McD’s…

OK, I didn’t exactly just come across Fresh Air Barbeque. I had some work to do out near Lake Oconee early in the morning and then some work at another location near Jackson around lunchtime. It’s not like I planned it that way or anything. Nope, not at all.

OK, so maybe I did…

Fresh Air Barbeque is a Georgia landmark and is claimed by many to serve some of the best, if not the best barbeque in Georgia.

I really can’t disagree.

When I stepped out of the truck I was greeted by the sweet aroma of hickory smoke and cooking pork. With a little luck that’s what Heaven will smell like. I could have sat out in the parking lot and just inhaled the aroma…but there was chopped pork and Brunswick stew to be eaten and it was calling to me.

Unless you’re ordering a la carte, ordering at Fresh Air is fairly simple as there are three ‘platters to choose from, chopped pork and Brunswick stew, chopped pork, Brunswick stew and cole slaw, and two chopped pork sandwiches. Simple, right? I ordered the chopped pork and stew plate and a Coke and my order was ready in the amount of time it took to fill my drink cup and for the folks at the counter to ladle up a cup of stew.

Once I sat down at my table I noticed right away that the consistency of the stew was a fine grind and exactly to my liking. I’m sorry, I just don’t care for chunky Brunswick stew. I took a taste, added a generous squirt of their vinegar/tomato based sauce and my cup of stew was just about as close to perfect as it can get.

A few words about their sauces… They have two to choose from, their original vinegar/tomato sauce and a spicier version. Normally I like things on the spicy side but the original sauce had a little kick to it and, again, was just about perfect in my book.

About the pork… Many moons ago the subdivision we lived in had a Labor Day barbeque (or maybe it was Fourth of July…doesn’t really matter) and my dad was the pitmaster…not because he made excellent barbeque (which he did) but because he was the only one in the subdivision that knew what the heck to do with a hog, a couple of pieces of rebar, some chicken wire, a bunch of concrete blocks, a stack of split hickory, a shovel, a mop and a bucket of salty brine. My dad would build the pit and start the fire before dark and build up a good bed of coals, once the coals were going good they’d be shoveled into the pit and the pig, suspended by the chicken wire and rebar, would be placed over the coals for a long slow overnight cook. Of course Pop and a few others would stay up all night tending the fire, shoveling coals and mopping the pig down with the brine. By late morning the pig was done and ready to chop and serve for lunch. Once finished the meet was sweet, smoky and just a little bit salty…and dang was it ever good. When I put the first bite of Fresh air’s in my mouth without any sauce I had a major flashback to those subdivision picnics and the que that Pop made.

So how did Fresh Air fare on the Thumbs Scale? I gave it two thumbs up…and threw in the rest of my fingers and toes and…errr, we’ll just stop there. Yeah, it was that good. Don’t believe me? Bypass McD’s and go try it for yourself. You can thank me later.