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Eating late at night on Buford Highway

There is no rule that says you must eat the steamed sea bass and ginger scallion lobster at Bo Bo Garden (5181 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-547-1881, bobogardenasian.com) at midnight. This decade-old Cantonese restaurant opens every day at 11 a.m. You have all day long to walk in these doors, peruse your way through the menu’s dozen pages, and order a bowl of pork congee or a whole Peking duck or the entrée described very specifically as “Special Lamb Rack (7 pieces).” I’m sure it is a fine place to eat lunch.

I’d bet any of those dishes are quite good, maybe even great. Not that I would know. I’ve never arrived at Bo Bo Garden any earlier than 10 p.m., and I’ve never ordered much of anything past the first page of the menu.

Is it just because that first page, devoted to Hong Kong-style seafood, is blue, and all of the others are white, a subtle signal of pride from the proprietors? Maybe it is just that the steamed sea bass is so silky and delicate, that the lobster is so rich and decadent, that I can’t believe anything else on the menu could be quite as good.

Why is it that I always arrive so late? Why wouldn’t I? Almost any restaurant in metro Atlanta is open at 8 p.m. I like to eat at Bo Bo Garden at midnight, because I can.

There’s something about eating late at night that feels different, full of possibility and that risky thing we call freedom. I’m sure your doctor and dietitian and personal trainer all would say that, at midnight, you should be at home getting a full night’s sleep. Maybe that’s one of the reasons some of us like to eat late: to be a little foolish and indulgent, to have a little more fun than the people who “know better.” Out on Buford Highway, where liquor licenses are few, and the working day starts early, most restaurants close well before 10 p.m. The select few that remain open late into the night have a rarefied air. They have something that close-early restaurants can’t offer.

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A plate of four tacos from El Rey Del Taco, including goat barbacoa (foreground) and buche, or pig stomach (background). CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS (For the AJC)

A novelist friend of mine is fond, as some writers are, of going to a bar and having one too many. After a certain number, I always expect him to say four magic words: El Rey Del Taco (5288 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-986-0032, elreydeltacoatl.com). It doesn’t matter what part of town he is in. Once he gets the idea in his head, he cannot let go of it. He dials up an Uber and heads off to El Rey Del Taco.

I’ve seen people try to reason with him. They say that an Uber ride will take too long, or that the bar he is sitting in serves food, too. The trouble is, he knows that there is no other food in Atlanta that can satisfy a craving for El Rey Del Taco. No doubt, that’s why the restaurant always is packed at that hour, serving plate upon plate of tacos with their distinctive homemade corn tortillas. At noon, there might be a reasonable argument to be had about what is the best taqueria in Atlanta. But, past midnight, there is no place that serves carnitas, al pastor, lengua and buche the way that El Rey does.

<<What to eat on Buford Highway:

That calculation is almost too true for Pho 24 (4646 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 770-710-0178, pho24chamblee.com). I can say definitively that there are better bowls of pho to be had in the metro area. Yet, there’s something about the atmosphere of this 24-hour restaurant that has kept me coming back over the years. The crowd always seems to be an unusual mix: hospital workers coming off their late shift, teens hanging out past their curfews, a quiet couple enjoying a moment, some guy who just couldn’t sleep. They all come here for a big bowl of warm, aromatic broth, beef and noodles. It’s nothing fancy, but it satisfies.

Hae Woon Dae may be the oldest Korean barbecue restaurant on Buford Highway. AJC FILE (For the AJC)

I would be remiss if I did not mention Hae Woon Dae (5805 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-458-6999, Facebook: Hae Woon Dae Korean BBQ), perhaps the oldest Korean barbecue restaurant on Buford Highway. This style of cooking has become fashionable lately, with dozens of KBBQ restaurants around town offering some gimmick or variation on the cuisine. They pump loud music, or serve up fruity cocktails, or install bizarrely complicated ventilation systems. Yet, Hae Woon Dae seems never to change. The doors stay open until 6 a.m. The tables are always spread with little bowls of banchan. The grills are always loaded up with glowing, hot red charcoal. The beef bulgogi is always sticky with thick salty-sweet sauce. The smoky cooking goes late, late into the night.

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