Growing up, I made weekly trips with my family to eat at the train depot in historic downtown Norcross, a place my dad frequented with colleagues. At that time, the quaint little town by the tracks was just that — quaint. In the years since, that sleepy stretch has experienced a rebirth, with a concerted effort by the city to beautify the area and attract businesses and customers. Norcross now boasts a growing list of shops and restaurants, including a cafe and a market — the Bleu House Cafe and Bleu House Market.
Over the past seven years, Norcross has molded Bleu House Cafe into its own neighborhood lunch-only spot. This quirky bright blue house with a wall-size jester mural spanning the length of the 30-seat dining room serves home-style salads, sandwiches, soups and wraps.
“We started small,” owner Maureen Adams said. “Out front, we talked to people to find out their favorites.” The menu of this homey restaurant is a compilation of customer requests and favorites accumulated over time.
You might not get much help from the servers at the counter when you order, but eager locals will steer you in the right direction. One enthusiastically urged me to try the funky chicken melt ($6.75), his “absolute favorite,” as we waited in the line snaking out the door and down the stairs at lunchtime. Don’t let the heft of this fat wedge of house-made focaccia with sun-dried tomato and Parmesan pesto deter you. Yes, you’ll need a napkin or four, but you’ll savor the smart combination of juicy grilled chicken, melted cheddar, sharp red onion slices and pale sweet honey-mustard sauce.
Let me join the throngs of devoted customers in recommending the smokehouse wrap ($7.50), my absolute fave. The garlic-herb wrap itself has little flavor, but just wait until it’s piled with thick slices of grilled chicken with a sweet and tangy homemade barbecue sauce with — yep, still more — milky coleslaw, jalapeños, bacon and melted cheddar. Danger lurks in the layering of so many ingredients, but somehow these harmonious flavors avoid becoming muddled.
If you keep an eye on the speckled blue and white tin plates as they leave the kitchen, you’ll spy a mound of cranberry salad on many of them. Served as a side to sandwiches or as an entree with grilled chicken ($6.95), it’s the type of dish that customers could (and likely do) make on their own for company. Dried cranberries and clusters of crunchy ramen noodles star in this romaine salad with the occasional walnut and a sweet balsamic-cranberry dressing.
And though few regulars left the counter without a cellophane-wrapped dessert bar ($1.95 each), I found them too sweet and too dense, much like those found at a neighborhood cookie swap. The same desserts can be found at the Bleu House Cafe’s sister restaurant, Bleu House Market, sitting just catty-corner on the cross street.
The Bleu House Market sprang to life just over a year ago, after the city of Norcross approached Adams about moving the cafe there to attract people to the nearby park. Instead of moving the cafe, they decided to open a market there.
The Bleu House Market sources local foods such as honey, pork and eggs. It partners with a farm in Lawrenceville, which will grow the produce. You’ll also find bulk salts and peppercorns, as well as a collection of home goods and cookbooks, but the main attraction lies in the prepared food offerings. Pop in and pick up a meal to go or have it heated to eat on the front porch, at the indoor communal dining table or in the rug-lined sofa corner.
Dig into one of many pre-made meals ($7.25 with two sides, $7.95 three) such as a rich beefy pot roast, a sweet black-and-white-sesame-seeded teriyaki salmon (add $1) or a luscious portobello stack with spinach and sun-dried tomatoes. A new slew of sandwiches rounds out the menu, but you’ll still find that good old cranberry salad from the cafe.
Before you make your final choice, ask Adams’ daughter Nicole, who runs the market, what she’s got cooling on the stove. There’s always a secret stash, so don’t hesitate to inquire. I scored a piece of velvety triple chocolate pound cake ($2) on one visit.
Every town needs a cafe. Every town needs a market. Not-so-sleepy-anymore downtown Norcross has both.BLEU HOUSE CAFE AND BLEU HOUSE MARKET Cafe: 108 Cemetery St., Norcross. 770-209-0016; market: 62 College St., Norcross. 678-527-6278 Food: Cafe: sandwiches, salads, soups and wraps; market: prepared meals, sandwiches and salads Service: Cafe: Servers a little chilly at first encounter; market: quite the contrast, warm and friendly Best dishes: Cafe: smokehouse wrap, cranberry salad, funky chicken melt; market: pot roast, portobello stack Vegetarian selections: assorted sandwiches, wraps and salads Credit cards: American Express, Discover, MasterCard, Visa Hours: Cafe: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; market: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-3 p.m. Saturdays Children: yes Parking: lot at each location Reservations: no Wheelchair access: yes Smoking: no Noise level: low Patio: Both spots have outdoor seating, which are used even in colder weather because the indoor seating fills so quickly. Takeout: yes