Mama said, “Whatever you do, don’t get into the restaurant business.”
Rico Cunnington, chef and owner of Rico’s World Kitchen in Buford, didn’t listen to Mama, a 20-year veteran of the professional kitchen. It’s the age-old story of restaurant families: Mama sends child off to college to pursue other options, child works in restaurants while going to school, child circles back to the restaurant industry.
Rico’s World Kitchen, which serves international comfort cuisine, began as a modest four-table restaurant on Mall of Georgia Boulevard. Two years ago, Rico’s moved into its current space in downtown Buford, more than tripling its seating.
The Pure-gas-station-turned-restaurant still retains the garage doors, now raised to reveal screened windows and a charming screened door leading to the side patio. And much like overflow parking for a garage, guests trying to score a table angle cars into every spare inch of space on the corner lot.
And this is right where you’ll find Mama, alongside son Rico, who disregarded her advice. Cunnington says it all started with her. While other kids had chores like cutting the grass, he had to help his mom by rolling 200 lumpia, small Filipino-style egg rolls.
The egg rolls, Nett’s Lumpia ($4), made the menu at Rico’s World Kitchen. Mama Nett still makes the fillings — finely ground sausage-esque mixture of peppery beef and pork or smoky chicken.
Cunnington says, “It’s my mother’s recipe. She makes the meat and it’s still my responsibility to roll them.” He admits the paper-thin wrappers “are a beast to roll.” But, oh, those wrappers … golden brown with a crispy exterior and an interior that’s soft and mushy in just the right way, much like — and this Atlanta-born girl means this as a compliment — the revered onion ring batter at the Varsity.
Other childhood experiences shaped the menu at Rico’s. Growing up in Buford, which Cunnington says has always been ethnically diverse, he delighted in the fare served at friends’ homes from Southern and Hispanic to Lebanese and American Indian. These influences are reflected in the many sandwiches, heartier daily specials and the beer list with low-priced choices from around the globe. Rico has “cherry-picked [his] favorite flavors and put a twist on them.”
In doing so, he has found his niche and a talent for combining ingredients and crafting bold flavors. Take the mojo pork sandwich ($7.50) — you’ll thank me. The pork, like all house meats, is smoked out on the patio, where you can dine in hickory-smoked splendor. The drippingly juicy and smoky pork, which is marinated in a lime-based mojo sauce, pairs well with the sweet and spicy guava barbecue sauce. The potato bun disintegrates from all the liquid love, but never you mind. Just snag a fork and go after it.
Tempted as you may be to order the mojo forevermore, don’t. The chicken Cuban ($7.75) proves that Rico’s isn’t a one-hit wonder. House-smoked chicken, which I dare say rivals that found in many popular Atlanta barbecue joints, and baby Swiss melt into perfectly grilled and pressed bread with a lovely slick and crunchy crust. Trust Cunnington’s palate and slosh it in the thin mojo sauce, so acidic and garlicky.
As you continue to jump around the reasonably priced menu, you’ll notice Cunnington’s signature bold flavors in many of the dishes, like the Royal Rooster sandwich ($7) with moist and spicy habanero fried chicken or the paper cone filled with still-crackling chicharrones ($3.75) liberally dusted with the house blackening seasoning.
While up-front flavors dominate, subtler ones can be found in a simple fried shrimp po-boy ($9) or in the house-made potato chips, which are a little thick and could do with a shake of salt. Swap those for the transparently thin and completely crisp sweet potato chips. Or try the fried green tomatoes ($4). The delicate flavor and texture of the cornmeal batter wins this Southern heart, as it leaves the tart green tomato to make its own statement.
Chef Rico Cunnington has a knack for combining ingredients and extracting maximum flavor. Be glad he didn’t listen to Mama and instead followed in her footsteps. As author Robert Fulghum, who wrote “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” said, “Don’t worry that children never listen to you; worry that they are always watching you.”Rico’s World Kitchen 306 W. Main St., Buford, 678-765-7518 Food: International comfort cuisine with many sandwiches, salads and appetizers Service: Friendly and casual Best dishes: Nett’s Lumpia, mojo pork sandwich, chicken Cuban Vegetarian selections: Salads, fried green tomato and portobello mushroom sandwich Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, Discover Hours: 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays Children: Perfectly fine Parking: Yes Reservations: No Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: Yes Takeout: Yes