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More than a Taco – The Tortugas Cuban Grill

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Photos by George Hunter.
Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month by seeking out cuisine from a diverse mix of Latin countries – you won’t be disappointed.
Photos by George Hunter.

Many Americans aren’t aware of the complexities of many cultures across the globe. For example, not all Latin food is spicy or comes in a tortilla. As Hispanic Heritage Month approaches, please don’t think of Taco Bell as the place to sample the cuisine of more than 60 million people on the planet.

With Spanish being the second most spoken language in the world, the Pew Center estimates that there are more than 500 million Hispanophones across the globe. That is, people who speak Spanish — whether natives or those for whom it is their second language.

To honor the diversity within the Latinx culture, Peachtree Corners Magazine met up with Victor Melendrez at his restaurant Tortugas Cuban Grill in Peachtree Corners. He was working on a big catering order for a client who was looking for authentic Cuban fare.

“That’s what you get here,” he said, adding that during the holiday season he’s overrun with orders for lechon asado (roast pork), arroz congri (Cuban rice and black beans) and yuca con mojo (cassava with garlic sauce).

Melendrez has been in the food service industry for more than 25 of his 53 years. He and his family emigrated from Guadalajara, Mexico when he was young. The family settled in California, like many Latinos looking for a better future.

Authenticity and commitment keep the business strong.

In 2005, Melendrez visited family in Georgia and realized that the cost of living was a lot lower than in the Golden State. “At one point, the economy was getting really bad, especially real estate,” he said. “When I found out that you can buy a house for $130,000 here, I was ready to move.”

His first Georgia restaurant was in Buford where he had a partner in a different Cuban restaurant. He chose that cuisine because it was in the Caribbean style that he enjoyed. Besides, there are so many Mexican restaurants everywhere, he wanted to stand out.
The business relationship didn’t go well, and he decided to venture out on his own.

“Partnerships are tough,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s something that I’d do again.”

Researching potential areas, Peachtree Corners appeared to have the demographics he was looking for: high disposable income and not overrun with restaurants. But before he could find success, Melendrez had to educate his customers.

An introduction to Cuban cuisine

“I noticed right away that not a lot of people are familiar with Cuban food,” he said. “At the beginning, especially at this location, a lot of our customers said the food was excellent, but ‘we never got our chips and salsa.’”

Melendrez smiled at this. He tried to explain the difference between different Latin American cuisines, but many patrons wrongly assumed that they were all similar to Mexican food.

He explained that it was like expecting chips and salsa at an Italian restaurant. It still didn’t always sink in, but he didn’t let that frustrate him. He decided to let the food do the talking.

If you asked people what they know about Cuban cuisine, they’ll mention the Cubano — a variation of a ham and cheese sandwich that usually includes pickles and roast pork. It more likely originated in cafés catering to Cuban workers in Tampa or Key West than on the island nation itself.

“I like to talk to customers. And with some regulars, I try to get them to order something besides the sandwiches,” he said. “I’ll describe the ingredients and how it’s prepared, and most will try something they’ve never had before. I’ve never had anyone who said they didn’t like the new dish.”

Now, after a few years, he doesn’t have to try so hard with most dishes, but on occasion he brings out samples of something like oxtails or empanadas filled with guava and cream cheese. Those have become such a hit that he sells more than 60 pounds of oxtails a week and the sweet empanadas are outselling the savory ones.

Melendrez is convinced that sticking to authentic ingredients, authentic methods and refusing to cut corners has kept him doing well in spite of the COVID pandemic.

“We had to close for a few months, like everyone else,” he said. “But we are doing well now.”
Food, supplies and staff are costing much more, but Melendrez said he’d rather bring in a lower profit than sacrifice service or quality. It would cost less in food and manpower to purchase pre-made empanadas, or frozen or canned ingredients, but he insists on using fresh.

“I can tell,” he said. “It doesn’t taste like Mama or Grandma made it.”

And he has the same philosophy with people. He’s gone up in pay for his loyal employees rather than turn the restaurant into a revolving door. “I don’t want a customer to say the same dish they had last week tastes different today,” he said.

Melendrez takes his cooking seriously. In addition to hiring a Cuban chef who stressed the training he had already, he has traveled to Cuba and learned from restauranteurs and home cooks alike. “I spent days with people cooking and getting more involved with the culture and the ingredients, and that’s why a lot of the people come here,” he said. “When they compare us to other Cuban restaurants — even though I’m not Cuban — they always go, ‘Oh my god, this reminds me of grandma’s cooking’ or ‘…mama’s cooking.’ It’s because, basically, I’ve been learning from mamas and grandmas from Cuba.”

He added, “I don’t want a native Cuban to come in and say that this doesn’t taste like home.”

Right where he belongs

The restaurant’s décor is subtly Cuban. Pictures of the streets of Havana, as well as popular beaches and famous nationals, adorn the walls. He even has a photo of a former chef with President Jimmy Carter at the entrance. “When President Carter went to Cuba, he was one of the main chefs who served their meals,” said Melendrez.

On weekends, he brings in live music to help with the island vibe.

These days, Melendrez spends almost all his time at Tortuga Cuban Grill. “It’s good I just live two miles away,” he said. And, he added, it’s a labor of love.

Before the pandemic hit, he may have thought of expansion, but Melendrez said he’s content feeding the people of Peachtree Corners the most authentic Cuban cuisine this side of Havana.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he said.

Arlinda Smith Broady is part of the Boomerang Generation of Blacks that moved back to the South after their ancestors moved North. With approximately three decades of journalism experience (she doesn't look it), she's worked in tiny, minority-based newsrooms to major metropolitans. At every endeavor she brings professionalism, passion, pluck, and the desire to spread the news to the people.

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Food & Drink

New dining experience opens at Hilton Hotel

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Dahlia’s Restaurant & Porch // Photo by Bruce Johnson

Dahlia’s Restaurant & Porch offers southern-style fare and easy entertainment

Just in time for the summer season, Hilton Atlanta Northeast has launched a new dining option, Dahlia’s Restaurant & Porch.

The casual dining experience brings understated luxury to an easy, breezy setting with comfortable patio furniture on a spacious outdoor deck, a full bar with top-shelf spirits and an impressive wine collection. The cuisine is Southern style and utilizes regionally sourced, farm-fresh ingredients.

“You really can’t ask for an easier setting or a more comfortable way to unwind,” said Andrew Stegen, executive vice president of operations for FullG Capital, the hotel operator. “In the old days, hotels had restaurants for the travelers, and the locals came occasionally. Now, it’s the other way around. You have to appeal to the people who live here.”

At a press preview on May 15, Dahlia’s Restaurant & Porch was unveiled for the first time.

Dahlia’s plans to offer weekend buffets, sports viewing on the patio and family-friendly cookouts.

Photo by Bruce Johnson

“Dahlia’s is a great addition for our hotel guests but also for the local community! We are most excited about our new porch, which is the perfect place for happy hour spritz, outdoor dining and future programming,” said Mike Roling, general manager of Hilton Atlanta Northeast. 

The food is led by executive chef Robert Chafflin, who said he likes to bring an approachable yet flavorful take on southern culinary staples. For the preview, guests were wowed with shrimp and grits, braised beef short ribs, mushroom risotto, shrimp po’boys, cheesecake with caramelized peaches and a whole lot more. 

The beverages were just as tantalizing – from the signature Black Dahlia to the unexpected Southern Dandie to an array of seasonal spritzes. 

“We are excited to bring a newly renovated restaurant space, brand new porch, and refreshed menu to our property,” said Roling. “We welcome the public, both locals and hotel guests alike, to come join us for a dining experience elevated by our southern hospitality.”

Dahlia’s Restaurant & Porch also has a private dining area and a lounge area—perfect for relaxing after a busy day, grabbing a sumptuous meal with the family or meeting friends for lunch or dinner and drinks. Dahlia’s also provides catering for hotel events. For more information, visit dahliasrestaurant.com.

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U&ME Coffee Bakery & Wine Celebrates Grand Opening In Peachtree Corners

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Mayor Mike Mason and members of the Peachtree Corners Business Association (PCBA), business professionals, and community well-wishers recently celebrated the opening of U&ME Coffee Bakery Wine, a new establishment in Peachtree Corners.

The event was marked with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by friends, family members of the owners, Paula Gil and Pablo Vicens, who are married, and their dedicated staff.

Left to right:  Paula Gil & Pablo Gil, Owners

U&ME Coffee Bakery Wine, a local family-owned business, focuses on creating a welcoming space where families can gather, students can study, and friends can hang out.

This establishment offers free high-speed Wi-Fi, weekly specials and a cozy environment for all.

Paula Gil emphasized the importance of offering breakfast, lunch, and dinner options that cater to various tastes and needs.

Family and Friends, Staff, Pablo Gil, Paula Gil, Mayor Mike Mason, Lisa Proctor PCBA Board, Suzanna Martinez PCBA Board, Donna Linden PCBA Board, and Audrey Boyce PCBA Outreach.

The goal is to deliver the highest quality specialty items at fair prices.

“We are excited to bring our blend of coffee shop, wine bar, bakery, and diner spot to Peachtree Corners,” stated Paula.

U&ME Coffee prides itself on using 100% Colombian Medellin Coffee and ensuring all baking is done on-premises to guarantee freshness and quality.

Further distinguishing themselves, Paula and Pablo have incorporated homemade empanadas, pizzas, and pastries into their menu, all made from scratch to offer a unique taste experience.

In addition to their dine-in services, U&ME Coffee caters to those on the go with their to-go orders and provides catering services for special events.

Mayor Mason, alongside PCBA Board Members Lisa Proctor, Donna Linden, Allison Reinert, Suzanna Martinez, and numerous local business supporters, expressed their delight in welcoming U&ME Coffee Bakery Wine to the city.

“The city council and I are delighted you chose Peachtree Corners for your business location. We are pleased to have this new specialty restaurant available as part of our business-friendly city,” Mayor Mason remarked.

Contact:  U&ME Coffee Bakery & Wine
Telephone: 470-359-6972
Facebook:  Facebook U&ME Coffee Bakery Wine
Located at 3433 Medlock Bridge Road, Peachtree Corners

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Cheeseburger Bobby’s in Peachtree Corners is Under New Management

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After being closed for a few months, locals are happy to see that Cheeseburger Bobby’s in Peachtree Corners has reopened under new management.
From left, owner Sandra Lowe and her daughter Isabelle // Photos by George Hunter

New owners of Cheeseburger Bobby’s bring neighborliness along with fresh, well-prepared fare.

After being shuttered for several months, locals seem happy to see that Cheeseburger Bobby’s in Peachtree Corners has reopened under new management.

Keith and Sandra Lowe took over the franchise a few months ago and are working hard to win back customers. They are committed to quality food, consistency, cleanliness and good service.

“My background is in retail operations,” said Keith Lowe. “We had restaurants within the retail cafés that we ran.”

Although his wife is more involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurant, she admittedly doesn’t have experience running a fast-casual eatery.

“It’s something that we’ve always wanted to do. We’ve always wanted to open a business for ourselves. So, this opportunity came back in April. And then we bought it and went through the whole remodel,” Sandra Lowe said.

Bringing a Peachtree Corners staple back to life

The Cheeseburger Bobby’s franchise fits well for the Lowes because of the structure and support from the corporate office.

According to its introduction to franchisees, the business aims to work easily and efficiently for restaurant industry veterans or those just entering the profession.

One thing that stood out for the couple was the fresh, made-from-scratch food and a menu that’s not too complicated.

The fact that there are vegetarian and healthy options like salads, black bean burgers, and turkey burgers was also a plus. Additionally, customers have the option of several toppings for their sandwiches as well as seasoning for fries and an extensive fixings bar.

They knew little about the previous owners or what caused them to give up the franchise, but they vowed to become a fixture in the community and build loyalty with the basics.

An inviting place for the entire community
“Cleanliness is tops for us,” said Sandra Lowe. “That’s number one. … We have a great environment, great customer service and consistent food. We talked about how those three things will win back customers.”

On a recent weekday lunch rush, a mix of office workers, holiday shoppers and construction workers came through.

As Sandra Lowe passed out samples of the signature frozen custard, the chilly late fall weather had no effect on orders for milkshakes and other confections.

The custard recipe is reminiscent of the old-fashioned, hand-churned type many grandmas used to make. Some say it has a richer, creamier texture and a smoother consistency than typical ice cream.

A recipe for success

As a homemaker and the queen of her castle, Sandra Lowe didn’t hesitate at the chance to get back into the work world. Her 15-year-old twins are old enough to be more self-sufficient, so she and her husband decided it was time to try something new.

“It works out perfectly,” she said. “I come to work in the mornings, stay until 3 p.m., and then I’m back with my kids in the evening.”

“Because my background was operations in food, sanitation and all those things, this was an easy decision,” said Keith Lowe.

Additionally, they surrounded themselves with knowledgeable, professional staff.

“We hit a home run with Kenneth, our general manager,” he said. “He has over a decade of experience running restaurants. And Archie, our shift manager, has been at this restaurant for the entire 12 years that has been open.”

A mix of experience with new energy

“We think we have a very welcoming environment,” said Sandra Lowe. “Great customer service, consistent, fresh food served with a smile and a clean environment are our focus.”

Another significant factor is the focus on community.

Although the restaurant hasn’t been open for long, the Lowes have joined the Southwest Gwinnett Chamber and have reached out to Norcross High and Wesleyan schools for partnerships.

“Being engaged with the committee is important to us,” they said almost in unison.

Making Cheeseburger Bobby’s a true family business is also essential.

“The [kids] come to work here every weekend,” said Sandra Lowe.

“We’ve seen that the kids are more social. It gets them away from the phone. It gets him interacting,” said Keith Lowe.

“We’ve talked to them about the importance of eye contact and helping the customer have a great experience. We’ve even seen them really grow in such a short time.”

Cheeseburger Bobby’s
Located in the Peachtree Square Shopping Center
6050 Peachtree Pkwy #140
cheeseburgerbobbys.com
770-696-1337

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