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.
Great Barbecue and Strong Community Spirit Bring Families to Moe’s Original BBQ
Born and raised in Peachtree Corners, Harris Carlock probably didn’t give much thought to Alabama-style barbecue. But he did while attending the University of Alabama.
There he became good friends with classmates who eventually founded Moe’s Original BBQ — Ben Gilbert and Jeff Kennedy.
According to Moe’s company history, another founder, Mike Fernandez learned to fire roast meats back in 1988 from Tuscaloosa legend Moses Day, whose distinct style makes up Moe’s original flavor of barbecue.
Eventually the founding partners all relocated to Vail, Colo., where each refined their cooking skills, according to the Moe’s website. Together, they created something special by using fruit wood to smoke their meats and complementing them with two sauces — a classic red and an Alabama white.
The first Moe’s that’s part of the franchise is actually located in Vail, said Carlock.
With a day job selling commercial real estate, Carlock said he always wanted to open a Moe’s in his hometown — in the spot where it is now.
“I had been watching that particular location for years hoping that it would become available,” he said. “My hope is that it would be a really a big part of the community. I see it as a place for families to come after t-ball and soccer games.”
In 2021 his wish came true. He partnered with his cousin, Scott Carlock, who has an extensive restaurant background, as well as another Moe’s Original BBQ owner, Kyle McCarter.
“I live a mile from Moe’s and that’s really why we started it — to add to the local community,” said Harris Carlock. “I know the brand, because of my friends, but also, I know it’s a great product. Knowing that there are not a lot of other barbecue places in Peachtree Corners, I thought it would be a good fit.”
Family, food and fun
Harkening back to his youth, Harris Carlock reminisced about playing football on Norcross High’s offensive line. “On Thursdays, the coach would take us to Sonny’s BBQ and we would eat all we could eat. …That’s pretty neat,” he said. “I love that we’ve set up the same program with Norcross today. The Norcross offensive line comes every Thursday.”
Not to be outdone, Johns Creek has started the tradition this year.
“To me, that’s really what we’re about. That’s exactly what I want to do. You know, it’s not about making money. We do that at our cost, and it really makes us happy to see those kids out there. They love it; they come in and eat lots of wings and pork,” Harris Carlock said.
Moe’s isn’t just a one-sport spot, however.
“We also have a partnership with the Peachtree Corners Football Club, which is the soccer program that plays out of Jones Bridge Park,” he added. “We’re all about families coming in. We have ‘Kids eat free’ on Wednesday night.”
Keeping it fresh
Harris Carlock wants everyone to give Moe’s a try.
“Ribs are really what we’re famous for, but in addition to that, our smoked wings are probably our best seller. The other thing, I think, that sets us apart is we make our sides fresh daily from scratch,” he said.
In addition to the side dish staples that are on the menu every day, there are specialty dishes — mainly vegetables — that rotate. On occasion, a customer may get perturbed because their favorite has run out and there’s not a vat of it in the back to scoop out.
“Our philosophy is that all our meats are smoked fresh every day — same with the vegetables. So when we’re out of them, we’re out,” he said. “We purposely don’t cook more than we think we’ll sell because we don’t want to reheat it the next day.”
That’s kind of a pet peeve, he said.
“There are a lot of places where you can get good ‘cue, but then they’ve got potato salad that they just got from the deli or whatever, and they didn’t put that same kind of care into the sides,” he said.
It’s in the smoking and the sauces
The big thing that stands out is the Alabama-style of smoking the meat. Traditional barbecue in Alabama centers around pork cooked in open pits over hickory wood. Other hardwoods, such as oak and pecan, are also used.
Sauces vary by the proximity to other states — the closer to North Carolina, the more vinegar based; the closer to South Carolina, the more mustard based; the closer to Memphis the sweeter and more tomato-y.
But the white sauce — a mayonnaise-based concoction with vinegar, lemon juice, horseradish and cayenne pepper — is an Alabama tradition by itself.
McCarter, who’s actually a metro Atlanta native from Roswell, was trained under the original franchise owners in Vail and runs the day-to-day operations.
“Kyle smokes all the meat. He runs the restaurant. He’s the one responsible for the delicious food,” said Harris Carlock.
Moe’s invites families and friends to trivia on Thursday nights and ‘Kids eat free’ on Wednesday nights. Everyone is welcome to watch the Braves or the Falcons or the Hawks on one of the eight TVs.
Of course, there’s always the option to dine while sitting on the patio and enjoying being part of a great community.
Moe’s Original BBQ
5005 Peachtree Pkwy., Ste. 810, Peachtree Corners
Photos by George Hunter
H&W Steakhouse Opening in Peachtree Corners
Norsan Restaurants has announced the upcoming opening of its new restaurant concept, H&W Steakhouse. H&W is the third fine-dining steakhouse concept from Norsan Restaurants.
The company also operates Pampas Steakhouse in Johns Creek and Frankie’s The Steakhouse in Duluth. H&W aims to bring modern fine dining to Peachtree Corners with USDA Prime Steaks and a variety of seafood options.
The restaurant was designed by architect Filipao Nunes out of Monterrey, Mexico.
“It fills us with great pride to be part of such an important project, which was designed to create an experience on par with the menu,” says Nunes. Our goal was to allow for elegance to shine in every single detail, staying faithful to the essence of the brand.”
Chef Thomas Minchella leads the culinary team at H&W and has served as Norsan Restaurant’s Executive Corporate Chef since 2020.
Chef Minchella, formerly the Executive Chef of McKendrick’s Steakhouse, looks forward to the opening and sharing his menu and creations with guests. He states, “Creating delicious food is my passion, creating a culinary staff is my ambition, and creating guests is my love!”
Norsan CEO Norberto Sanchez shares, “We are very excited to open our new concept H&W Steakhouse. Taking center stage at H&W will be handpicked premium steaks and a fantastic array of seafood offerings. Our hospitable and professional service team has one goal: to make our guests feel at home.”
H&W will soft-open late September with a limited number of reservations available.
Source: H&W Steakhouse
Photography by Bruce Johnson
Shah’s Halal Food Celebrates Opening in Peachtree Corners
Mayor Mike Mason, Peachtree Corners Business Association (PCBA), business professionals and community well-wishers joined the Hameed family, owners of Shah Halal Food, and staff to celebrate the opening of its new Peachtree Corners restaurant with a ribbon-cutting celebration and lunch event.
Khurran (Kay) Hameed shared, “At Shah’s Halal, we take pride in offering the highest quality, most authentic and delectable halal cuisine at a fair price. We are excited to bring our exceptional dining experience to Peachtree Corners.”
In addition to dining services, Shah’s Halal also offers to-go orders and catering for special events.
Mayor Mason, along with PCBA Board Members Lisa Proctor, Allison Reinert, Suzanna Martinez and local business supporters were on hand.
“The city council and I are delighted that you have chosen Peachtree Corners for your business location,” said Mason. “We are pleased to have this new restaurant available as part of our business-friendly city.”
Shah’s Halal Food is located at 5450 Peachtree Parkway, Suite 8B, in Peachtree Corners. Check them out at shahshalalfood.com/peachtree-corners/ or call 678-292-6426 to find out more.
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