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Palomilla's Cuban Grill House

' Open since: January

' Location: The restaurant is located in the Spalding Drive shopping center, just past the intersection of Spalding Drive and Holcomb Bridge Road in Norcross.

' Owner: Elizardo Sanz

' Hours: Palomilla's is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is open for dinner from 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The restaurant is closed on Sunday.

' Atmosphere: Perhaps aided by the rainy weather on a recent visit, Palomilla's proved to be a warm and inviting restaurant. A wood overhang with a clay tile roof and hanging vines covers one wall of the restaurant, making for an indoor/outdoor ambience. Light green booths and colorful artwork, mixed with upbeat ethnic music, create a vibrant and energized atmosphere reminiscent of a beach vacation.

"We'll get families who come in here and sit for two, two and a half hours after their meal. They just sit and relax and talk," Sanz said. "It's nice to know they feel so comfortable."

' The menu: Palomilla's fills a distinct void in the Gwinnett dining scene.

"I think I am the only Cuban restaurant in Gwinnett, and one of only a few in the whole Atlanta area," he said.

Featuring traditional Cuban cuisine, the menu boasts everything from pork tamale appetizers to Cuban sandwiches and fried plantains. Cuban fare is savory, not spicy, and centers on fresh produce, grilled or fried meats and seafoods, and breads.

The selection of ethnic tapas includes fried yuca, plantain chips and chicken chunks - boneless chicken marinated in garlic and tropical juices, then fried and served with onions. For the indecisive, a tapas sampler plate offers a selection of all the restaurant's starters.

Entrees are primarily divided into four sections: chicken, pork, beef and seafood. Garlic chicken, a dish of boneless chicken sauteed with olive oil, garlic, onions, spices and pepper, is a customer favorite.

The term palomilla refers to a specific way of cutting beef, and the house palomilla steak is a restaurant specialty. Instead of thinly slicing the meat, as is customary, Sanz prefers to leave his slices thick.

The restaurant is most widely known for its Cuban sandwiches. Thinly sliced ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and pickles are stuffed between slices of Cuban bread, topped with mayonnaise and mustard, and toasted to perfection.

Lunch specials are served from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, and take-out is available.

' Beverages: Soft drinks, beer and wine are served. Extra-strong Cuban coffee, served in small, delicate cups, is a signature drink.

' Dessert: Though it's not always on the menu, the mango pie is Sanz's first choice for sweets. The tres leches, or three-milk cake, is his second.

' Thing you might not know: Sanz was born and raised in Cuba, and came to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1994. In order to reach American shores, he spent four days floating in the ocean on a homemade raft.

"I did everything I could to get to this amazing country," he said. "You have no idea how lucky I feel to live here now."

SideBar: On the menu

House sampler platter: A combination of appetizers, including a stuffed potato, ham croquetas, a pork tamale, Cuban pastries and fried yuca sticks ($14.95)

Roast pork: Pork marinated in tropical spices and mojo sauce, roasted and then grilled with sauteed onions, and served with rice, beans and sweet plantains ($8.95)

Shredded beef: Shredded flank steak cooked in tomato sauce with bell peppers, onions, garlic and spices ($8.95)

Cuban sandwich: Cuban bread toasted with ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, pickles, mustard and mayonnaise ($5.95)

Tres Leches: A three-milk cake dessert ($3.95)