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El Sombrero, Little Italy and the rest of The Times’ most popular food stories from 2019
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Tomato sandwiches are the quintessential Southern meal during summer. They are best served, as pictured here, using white bread, salt, pepper and mayonnaise. - photo by Austin Steele

The past year in Hall County has been awash in burritos, barbecue and bread. 

This corner of Northeast Georgia has seen a slew (or slaw) of new restaurants coming to the area. But it’s not just the new faces in town getting attention — a few existing restaurants are growing their businesses and changing up their operations.

We dug up a few of the most popular stories from 2019 about all things fried, smoked, sauteed, sauced, boiled, broiled, baked, grown, aged, roasted and toasted. 

Food news is most often good news, but one bit of bad news topped the charts in 2019: the burning of El Sombrero on Browns Bridge Road.

But after that, readers of The Times opted for the good stuff all the way down — digging into stories about subjects and readers as diverse as a new bakery offering South American flavors in midtown Gainesville to a new, and huge, mushroom farm opening its doors on Athens Highway.

Reporter Layne Saliba contributed to this story.

No. 10: Tomato sandwiches: The official meal of summer in the South

Nothing says summer in the South like a tomato sandwich.

And almost nothing is more contentious in the South than how to do it right.

“Salt and pepper and mayonnaise are a must,” said Drew Alexander, who lives in Clermont.

Alexander remembers growing up in North Georgia with his grandparents, Cleve and Lucy Thomas, who taught him how to raise tomato plants and what a ripe tomato looks like. He learned valuable lessons like patience by planting and harvesting the juicy, red fruit.

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Gainesville's Alpha Gyro Grill's Christos Nicolaou, left, and George Giannoulas stand inside their new addition to their popular Jesse Jewell Parkway Greek restaurant. When completed the expansion will feature more seating and a larger kitchen to meet the restaurant's growing catering business. - photo by Scott Rogers
No. 9: Alpha Gyro Grill gearing up for long-awaited expansion

By the looks of it at lunchtime, and most of the time during dinner, and most other times of day, Alpha Gyro Grill needs to expand. 

It’s been a welcome problem for the hometown Greek restaurant at the corner of Jesse Jewell and EE Butler Parkways almost immediately after opening in 2018.

That expansion is now coming, although won’t add many more seats.

“Most of the business is going to catering and pick-up-and-go,” said Christos Nicolaou, co-owner at the restaurant with his wife Sally Griffin and friend George Giannoulas. “I care about the seating, but catering is more than that.”

No. 8: Popeyes opens a new front in the chicken sandwich wars

The drive-thru line was wrapped around the building, almost into the street, and the line inside was no shorter. There was a 25-plus minute wait for customers all hoping to get their hands on a chicken sandwich.

But it wasn’t at a new Chick-fil-A opening in town, that Georgia staple — it was at Popeyes for its new fried chicken sandwich.

One customer, Shuntay Franklin, got there just before the noon lunch rush and was sitting at a booth inside with her mother, Shontae Barnes.

“I decided to get it because of Facebook,” Franklin said, a bite or two of her sandwich left in front of her. “There were a whole bunch of people talking about it.”

No. 7: ChopBLOCK opening May 1 on the Gainesville square

Mike Mills sat at a booth at ChopBLOCK Food & Spirits, filling out last-minute paperwork and texting schedules to employees of the new restaurant coming to 110 Main St. SW in Gainesville.

ChopBLOCK, which has been under construction for about nine months, is set to open May 1, and Mills said it came together just as he had envisioned.

“This is about what I designed,” said Mills, general manager at the restaurant. “Everything is dark on purpose, so the TVs and things would pop out, the memorabilia would stand out. There's a whole reason for the colors and lighting and things like that. We just wanted a cool place to come to and that was it, really.”

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Diletto Bakery owner James Velez is busy Monday, Oct. 21, 2019, preparing to open the first week of November. At front left are cheese bites, but most of the pastries pictured don't have names. - photo by Scott Rogers
No. 6: Diletto Bakery opening in a few days in midtown Gainesville

The day is drawing near that Gainesville will have another place to indulge in those long-loved carbohydrates. Diletto plans to open its doors in midtown the first week of November and owner James Velez is excited to share some of his breads and pastries for more than just one day at the Gainesville Farmers Market.

“We're going to have the breads you can find in any bakery, but we're also going to have stuff that is different,” Velez said. “We're going to start making it and just explore with it and see what comes up.”

No. 5: These chef friends left their jobs to pursue barbecue dreams

Good friends and seasoned chefs, Andrew Elliott and Jimmy Ellis, decided to follow their dreams and put their years of culinary experience to the test by opening The Inked Pig.

The two plan to officially open their restaurant, which is located at the old Foothills Barbecue on 893 Main St. SW in Gainesville, on Saturday, Feb. 2.

“We’ve been in the cooking industry for some time,” Elliott said. “We had no doubts in our cooking abilities and we wanted to give it a shot. We were tired of working for somebody else. We wanted to do it our style and put our twist on it, using our flavors.”

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Yellow oyster mushrooms. - photo by Nick Bowman
No. 4: Hall County has a new farm on Athens Highway — and it's not what you're expecting

Don’t look for fields at the new farm that’s popped up on Athens Highway in Gainesville.

There are no rows to hoe, no crows to scare and no prayers for rain needed here.

Instead, there’s concrete. The quiet hum of breaker boxes and the small hiss of humidifiers. It’s dark, calm, cool: Just right for growing mushrooms.

No. 3: Golden Corral is finally opening. Here’s why it took so long and what it will offer

The wait is over: The new Golden Corral in Gainesville will hold its soft opening Monday, March 11.

The new restaurant is at 1450 Browns Bridge Road in Gainesville Towne Center.

The first announcement for the new restaurant dates back to May 2016 when it was proposed to take over the old site of the Folks restaurant, which was torn down after 34 years of business.

Since construction started in late August 2018, the opening date of the restaurant was postponed repeatedly.

No. 2: This familiar Gainesville pizza place will soon reopen in Oakwood

About nine months after closing the Little Italy Pizzeria in Gainesville, Ben Cortese is ready for a fresh start in Oakwood.

In August he plans to resurrect the pizza loved by many in Hall County by opening a new Little Italy at 3616 Atlanta Highway.

“I want to bring them the best quality New York-Italian pizza in this part of Georgia,” Cortese said. “I'm going to honor my slogan — King of Pizza. We’re not cutting corners on ingredients.”

No. 1: 'It's heartbreaking': Family loses decades-old El Sombrero restaurant to fire

Maria Guzman was standing outside in the cold in the parking lot as flames destroyed the restaurant her family owns.

El Sombrero Mexican restaurant at 2010 Browns Bridge Road will be a total loss, the Gainesville Fire Department reported after responding to a 5:30 a.m. 911 call.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Guzman said. “It’s very emotional just to sit here and look at it.”

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Gainesville Fire Department firefighters work Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, at the El Sombrero restaurant on Browns Bridge Road. - photo by Scott Rogers
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