Picante Grill does Tex-Mex with flair

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ALPHARETTA, Ga. — Picante Grill is a quiet little Tex-Mex cantina up Ga. 9 just a stone’s throw north of McFarland Road, but it is well worth the stop.

The food is authentic, drinks are a generous pour and the hospitality is pure Chicago-style. Yep, I said Chicago. John Bartkowski is a Chicago native (no relation to a former Falcon of that name) who loved it there until the Manufacturing Belt turned into the Rust Belt. That sent him and his family south for greener pastures and better opportunities.

He had family who owned Mexican restaurants in Atlanta and began working for them, learning what he liked best about hospitality and food.

“I always wanted a place of my own – a place where I could do it my way,” Bartkowski said. “So we had this opportunity and we took it. I’ve put my heart and soul into this place.”

Bartkowski, wife Isabel, sons Wes and Jonathan and niece Brenda Rivera are the core of what makes Picante special. They just naturally like people, and people seem to like them.

Urbanspoon Atlanta, the restaurant rating service, gives Picante Grill a 90 percent rating. They note it is family-friendly with outdoor seating as well as gluten-free and vegetarian dishes.

Asked what he likes best, Bartkowski said it is his customers.

“I like keeping them happy. I like talking to them,” he said. “We’re from Chicago, so we’re going to be friendly. I think folks find a lot of personality here to go with the food.

“Our hostess is Veronica, but everybody calls her ‘Beebe.’ She comes off as brassy, but she has a way of winning over folks,” he said. “If she’s not here, people ask, ‘Where’s Beebe?’”

But what folks like best is the food. Their Chunky Guacamole is really special. Carne asada with grilled onions is recommended as are the Baja fish tacos or the camorones al mojo de ajo (garlic shrimp) on a bed of rice, beans and “guac” salad.

“We also do an authentic chile relleno using pablano pepper with Mexican cheese inside and our special sauce on top,” Bartkowski said.

He has a penchant for fresh ingredients, whether it is the tomatoes for his special picante sauce or fresh limes and lemons for his signature margaritas.

“If you want a taste before trying something, all you have to do is ask,” he said “Same with our wines. Taste it and we think you will like it.”

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