Atlanta’s Buford Highway: Global Food Paradise
Atlanta’s Buford Highway, very close to the city's center, is a more than eight mile corridor that encompasses more than 20 international cultures and communities. And with that comes the food of each region, served in restaurants, cafes, bakeries, cafeterias, fast food joints and markets.
Depending on your appetite, it is quite easy to plan a progressive meal with friends from the different venues with pho, dumplings, tacos, sushi, curries, empanadas, tofu, barbecue, banh mi, pupusas and other dishes among the offerings. You can also get an excellent overview of the local culinary scene by taking one of the restaurant trolley tours offered by We Love BuHi where you can sample food and beverages from a variety of vendors. Here is just a sampling of the vast choices that await you.
Let’s start with dumplings, those savory balls of dough that can transform a bowl of soup into a culinary masterpiece or can be enjoyed steamed, boiled or pan fried. Chef Liu is justly famous for xiao long bao (Shanghai dumplings) which are juicy pork and broth filled wonders but other recommended dishes here include the spicy cold noodles topped with sesame seeds and slivered vegetables. The fried pork dumplings at Northern China Eatery are a popular mainstay but some diners prefer the delicate boiled versions available at Yen Jing. Authentic Cantonese-style dishes are the stars of Bo Bo Garden where you can savor their acclaimed salt and pepper squid or the braised fish in black bean sauce. For great dim sum, try Canton House for such specialties as lo mai gai (sausage with rice in lotus leaf), lo bak go (radish cake) and stir-fried Chinese broccoli (pictured above). If it’s hot broth/soup you crave, head over to J’s Mini Hot Pot Deluxe where you can select from seven different broths and a wide array of add-on items (vegetables, meats or seafoods).
You could make a meal of just tacos on BuHi and there are plenty of tasty options with El Rey del Taco and El Taco Veloz leading the pack. El Rey del Taco offers numerous entrees like fajitas, tortas and grilled meats but their tacos are legendary - try the barbacoa (goat) or cabeza (cow’s cheek). I recommend the lengua (tongue) and pollo (chicken) tacos at Taco Velez, served with fresh cilantro, onions and salsa verde. La Pastorcita offers some of the best ceviche in the city as well as outstanding flautas de pollo and chile a la campesina (chorizo, mushrooms and cheese over a poblano chili pepper). For seafood lovers, Mariscos El Veneno is a top pick with delicious shrimp empanadas, oysters on the half shell and maybe the hottest salsa on the planet made with habaneros. For a cantina-style restaurant, El Potro is a local favorite for its margaritas, chunky-style guacamole, nachos, quesadillas, burritos and enchiladas.
There are plenty of good Korean barbecue joints along the busy corridor but one of the best is Han Il Kwan with its charcoal grilled marinated meats including chadolbaegi (thinly sliced beef) and samgyeopsal (pork belly). They also serve a mean chive and scallion pancake called pa jun or pajeon. Woo Nam Jeong Stone Bowl offers a tasting menu for two or you can order a la carte and sample black pig bossam (sliced chilled pork with salted cabbage) or one of their signature dolsots (cast iron pot dishes). Some people make regular pilgrimages to Hae Woon Dae for their grilled pork ribs and sensational bibimbap, a dish of warm white rice mixed with sautéed vegetables, chili pepper and soybean paste, soy sauce and fried egg. And tofu fans should check out the creative offerings at the aptly named So Kong Dong Tofu House which has won raves for its grilled entrees and especially the tofu soup (pictured above), available in eleven different variations such as kimchi, mushroom, oyster and roe.
For a killer pupusa (a thick corn tortilla stuffed with either cheese, pork, refried beans or other ingredients), visit Rincon Latino, a Salvadoran hangout that also serves up curtido (a light, vinegar based cole slaw), jumbo shrimp cocktails and gorditas (flatbread made from corn masa and stuffed with various ingredients). Try some delightfully different variations on the taco at Xela Pan Cafe, a Guatemalan eatery that features chuchitos (tamale-like treats served in corn husks and stuffed with juicy chicken meat). You can also try potato or rice flour versions served inside a banana leaf. Honduran cuisine is alive and well at Las Palmeras Restaurant & Bar which is just a block or two off BuHi. Here you can order tajadas con pollo (fried chicken on a bed of plantain chips), exotic non-alcoholic drinks like the Jamaica (purple hibiscus juice) or a sampler platter which comes with a taco, an enchilada, a baleada (a tortilla with steak, eggs and beans) and a pastelito (similar to an empanada).
For those who can’t get enough pho (rice flour noodles simmered in flavorful broths) and banh mi (a baguette-like sandwich stuffed with cucumber, cilantro, chiles, seasonings and meat or vegetable filling), BuHi is calling your name. Among the many pho specialists are Pho Bac and I Luv Pho. Pho Bac offers an overwhelming array of noodle and rice dishes plus excellent spring rolls and intriguing beverages like salty lemonade. The menu at I Luv Pho is just as extensive with some stand-out gems like the beef brisket pho (pictured above) and strawberry boba tea. Lee’s Bakery has become something of a cult favorite with their barbecued pork banh mi a certified best-seller (they often sell out at lunch so get there early). Some foodies, however, prefer the pho and banh mi selections at Quoc Huong Banh Mi, where you can add a fried egg to your barbecued pork order. If you’re looking for a more traditional restaurant experience, Nam Phuong is top ranked and goes beyond the typical pho or banh mi offerings to include unusual dishes like papaya salad with beef jerky, duck congee (a type of rice porridge) and their famous “Shaking Beef” (sautéed flank steak with veggies).
TAIWANESE & OTHER PACIFIC RIM CUISINES
Many BuHi restaurants offer a rich mix of ethnic cuisines such as La Mai Zi, which features both Taiwanese and Sichuan style dishes. The braised beef and scallion rolls are a clear winner but more adventurous eaters will want to try bitter melon with fresh anchovies or the jellyfish and celery salad. Mamak, with its blend of Malaysian, Thai, Indian and Chinese cooking, is another taste-bud adventure serving up roti canai (crispy flatbread with curry sauce), salty egg & mustard green soup and Assam Pomfret (fried whole fish in tamarind chili sauce). Malaysian-Thai fare also dominates the menu at Penang where you can try house specials like sarang burong (a fried taro shell stuffed with shrimp, chicken, corn, snow peas, black mushrooms and cashew nuts) and lady finger belacan (sautéed okra with spicy shrimp paste sauce).
Many of the most popular Indian restaurants are located around Decatur, Georgia, which is home to a large Indian community but there are still some excellent choices along BuHi with Panahar Bangladeshi Cuisine a major contender. Lamb kebobs, pakoras (vegetable stuffed fritters), chicken tikka and charred poratta bread stuffed with potatoes and peas are some of the main attractions here. More recent arrivals on the food scene include Purnima and Al-Amin Halal. The former is recommended for its quail korma, coconut soup and extensive vegetarian options while the latter excels in street food snacks like garlic naan, chicken kabobs and mughlai paratha (soft bread stuffed with egg, onions and spices).
Although it has only been in business a few years, Las Delicias de la Abuela is quickly becoming the number one destination for outstanding Columbian food. Arepas (soft cornmeal cakes stuffed with different fillings), to-die-for empanadas, thick stews and exotic hot dogs (The Hawaiian comes with fresh pineapple) are the headliners here but don’t miss the fresh juice drinks such as passion fruit, blackberry and soursop. Just across the street is La Casona, another popular Columbian restaurant where their bandeja paisa platter is a great introduction for the uninitiated – chicharrones (fried pork belly), carne asada (marinated grilled skirt steak, maduros (plantains) and sides of avocado and fried egg. Representing Venezuela is Natarica Grill which is the place to go for cachapas (sweet corn pancakes stuffed with meat or cheese), patacon (chicken/plantain sandwich) and arepas, especially their reina pepiada which is stuffed with chicken salad.
Most of Atlanta’s best Japanese restaurants are spread out around the city but there are a few jewels along BuHi. At the top of the list is Sushi House Hayakawa which offers Tokyo-style sushi dining with fresh selections of aji (jack mackerel), kampachi (young yellowtail), madai (snapper) and yari ika (spear squid). Non-sushi dishes include superb lobster tempura, red bean pancakes and takoyaki (ball shaped snacks filled with minced octopus, pickled ginger and green onion). Kang Nam is another sushi foodie fave where the nigiri (raw fish over rice) and sashimi (raw fish or meat, no rice) selections can be overwhelming but other options include Japanese and Korean fare such as grilled fish, stews, teriyaki dishes and specialities like hobak jook (pumpkin soup).
BAKERIES & SWEETS
There is no shortage of bakeries and sweet shops along the BuHi corridor but here are a few standouts. The Sweet Hut has a long menu of both savory and sweet Asian pastries as well as fruit slushies, teas, puddings, cakes and sandwiches. A curry chicken bun, taro and seaweed roll, coconut butterfly pastry and strawberry cream roll (pictured above) are some of the unexpected offerings. White Windmill, a Korean Bakery, draws a regular clientele for its bubble teas, macaroons, cookies and desserts like fruit and red bean shaved ice. Another favorite is Mozart Bakery where the caramel iced coffee, custard tarts and sweet potato buns receive rave reviews. And the Mexican styled Squisito Bakery & Cafe is known for their outstanding flans (try the chocolate), cakes and sandwiches.
FARMERS MARKETS & GROCERY STORES
Ever since Anthony Boudain visited the Buford Highway Farmers Market on an episode of the Travel Channel’s "The Layover," the operation has become the go-to market for serious foodies, chefs and restaurant suppliers. The range of produce, for example is amazing with everything from Thai and Turkish eggplant to sesame leaves to spiky rambutan fruit (pictured below). Not only does the family owned business offer cooking classes and prepared foods to go, it also has a food court with a hot dish bar and food stands serving up such treats as fresh poffertjes (mini-Dutch pancakes with sweet toppings). You should also check out the smaller grocery stores and markets tucked away in BuHi strip malls such as the Chicago Supermarket in Pinetree Shopping Center and New Manila Mart, a combination convenience store/cafe/community center for transplanted Filipinos. Within Chicago Supermarket is Las Paletas Locos (a counter serving uniquely flavored popsicles and ice cream sundaes) and in the back corner is a taqueria selling delicious, inexpensive tacos which were singled out in Atlanta Magazine’s Best of 2015. Over at the Manila Mart you can sample authentic treats from the Philippines like Halo Halo (pictured above), a frozen dessert composed of ube (purple yam) ice cream, monk fruit, shaved ice, red beans, coconut jells and corn flakes!