The last time I checked, which was probably about three years ago, downtown Roswell exuded small-town charm, complete with antique shops and women's clothing stores catering to the Junior League set. A couple of restaurants were in business, including the well-loved Swallow at the Hollow and Greenwoods on Green Street. But there was nothing particularly hip about Roswell.
But all that's changed now, in no small part thanks to two restaurants a few doors apart on Canton Street, Roswell's main drag. Salt Factory (originally named Red Salt) opened in September 2008, and Inc. Street Food opened in January of this year. Both are owned by Hicham Azhari and Fikret Kovac, who also owned Little Alley Tapas on Holcomb Bridge Road before it closed in June of last year. Chef Richard Wilt was the chef at Little Alley, and acts as executive chef for Inc. Street Food and Salt Factory.
At Inc. Street Food, the walls are covered in garish, graffiti-style murals scrawled with the misspelled names of Latin American destinations. The kitchen has been outfitted to look like an actual street cart, with waiters picking up orders from what would be the cart's window. It's a mishmash of cultures in more than one way – OutKast blares as a middle-aged dude in tight running shorts and a "Fair Tax" T-shirt meanders toward his table. The vibe is barrio meets hipster L.A., but the crowd is mainly older. There's a lot of Botox in the building.
Inc.'s food is all over the place, with specialties from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Argentina, El Salvador and Peru. Despite the geographic range, Inc. suffers from a kind of sameness of flavor throughout its menu. The most interesting and successful dish I tried at Inc. is also its strangest: calamari rellenos, which is a whole calamari stuffed with oxtail and rice steeped in squid ink. It's a chewy, crispy, squidy, meaty dish that works despite its somewhat disconcerting assemblage. I also enjoyed Chilean-style barbecued octopus, which was tender and flavorful, the barbecue with just enough tang and not too much sweetness.
A menu of tacos is frustratingly organized so you can only order three of a kind, but the standards – steak, pork, etc. – were generously proportioned and tasty, if not particularly distinctive. And that's really where Inc. falls into trouble. The papusa lacked that masa magic, the melding of corn flavor and cheesy goodness that the dish usually promises. Mole con carne with corn-masa dumplings was deep and rich on the first bite, but quickly faded into a kind of one-note experience. The mole simply wasn't complex enough to carry the whole dish.
The vibe of Inc. is undeniably sexy, and the kitchen is tinkering with some very cool concepts. I'd like to see the flavors cleaned up a little bit, pulled apart and focused on their original conceptual origins.
Two doors down at Salt Factory, gastropub is the flavor of the day. There's no doubt Azhari and Kovac know how to build an appealing space; Salt Factory is all British pub wood accents, and there's a convivial feel that pervades the room and spills out onto the sidewalk.
Charcuterie includes the ever-underappreciated liverwurst, served with good grainy mustard, mushroom "ketchup" and caramelized onions. Fried oysters are lightly breaded and don't need the strange smattering of canned corn underneath to make them delicious. A six-onion soup is outrageously creamy and rich, almost too much so, but hard to stop eating once you've begun.
Entrées were a little less successful, save for a whole trout with braised cabbage, mashed potatoes and bacon. The fish was moist and delicious, and the bacon lent just the right touch of smoke. But the double chicken pot pie, a pie and a chicken breast, was both watery and dry, respectively. And the shepherd's pie, while comforting, was kind of like chili con carne with mashed potatoes on top. I would have preferred a richer meat filling, and a crisper top.
The beer list is hardly earth-shaking, but there's a nice mix of standard domestics, craft beers and Belgians available. Service at Salt Factory is patient and knowledgeable. One night, our server, Mike, was a particularly pleasant guy to spend the evening with.
The chef and owners of these restaurants are trying to do a whole lot all at once, and there's no doubt that Roswell appreciates their efforts. Every time I arrived on Canton Street, it was to packed rooms at both establishments. Inc. and Salt Factory have broken the cute Southern small-town mold so thoroughly, it must be hard to imagine what life was like before them. Changing the face and taste of a town in such a celebratory manner deserves a street full of applause.