More than 20 years ago, I had my first taste of pho on Buford Highway.
I remember my friend schooling me on the rituals of this classic Vietnamese noodle soup. First, you squirt circles of hoisin and Sriracha around the bowl. Then, you pluck whatever you like from a tray of mung bean sprouts, basil, jalapeno slices and lime wedges.
All this came rushing back to me on a recent visit to Pho Bac, where seemingly nothing has changed since that long-ago visit — down to the menus with the vintage typeface and that slender stalk of culantro buried under the mound of herbs.
Buford Highway has many such old-school restaurants. Most of them are classic diners or luncheonettes. All of them are good for stoking memories. Here are a few of the best:
Havana Sandwich Shop (2905 Buford Highway, Brookhaven. 404-636-4094, havanaatlanta.com). Founded by the Benedit family in 1976, this plaintain-colored building just south of North Druid Hills Road was devastated by a fire in 2008, but returned in 2015, looking the same as ever. (A second location, in Chamblee, closed last year.) It remains my favorite place to eat Cuban in the ATL. While the classic pressed sandwich is quite good, I suggest you try a combo plate. I love the fried and shredded pork chunks, with a side of soupy black beans and yellow rice. After 5 p.m., the combos get bigger — with shredded iceberg, tomato and cucumber (more like garnish than a side salad), and a buttered bun. Another decadent favorite is the picadillo — ground beef stewed with tomatoes, spices and olives, which temper the fat and add a distinctive green tang.
El Rey Del Taco (5288 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-986-0032, elreydeltacoatl.com). The King of the Taco, indeed. This lively joint, which owner Martin Macias opened in 2002, features bright pink and purple interiors, and is open until 4:30 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays (2 a.m. on other days). I recently stopped by at a respectable 1 p.m. on a Sunday for a killer shrimp cocktail, some solid tacos and a couple of ice-cold Modelo Especials. A gorgeous thing to behold, the coctel was topped with fresh avocado, and the shrimp peeked out of the side of the glass. The sauce tasted of sweet ketchup (classic), and there were plenty of saltines on the side. Just like I’ve had by the beach in Puerto Vallarta. Of the tacos I tried, I liked the carnitas and the lengua more than the chorizo and the beef cheek.
<<Where to eat on Buford Highway:
Costa Verde (6200 Buford Highway, Norcross. 770-449-3221, costaverdeatlanta.com). A dead ringer for the little Peruvian spots I love in Miami, this 19-year-old gem serves wonderful, chopped-to-order ceviches (try the fish), with sweet and plain boiled potato on the side, and classic papa a la huancaina (sliced boiled potatoes slathered with rich, eggy mayo gently kissed with garlic and chili). A complimentary dish of fried corn nuts goes great with a Cusquena lager from Peru.
Pho Bac (4897 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 770-986-4273, phobacatl.com). The noodle mecca where I discovered pho offers 20 versions of Vietnamese noodle soup (beef, shrimp, chicken and tofu). I love the No. 6 (rare steak, flank, tendon). The steak is properly pink on arrival (just spoon it over with broth if you want it well done), the flank wonderfully tender, and the tendon adds just a touch of gelatinous texture. Be sure to start with some crispy cha gio, or the original goi cuon (fresh spring rolls wrapped with sticky rice paper). When I’m more in the mood for bun (vermicelli noodles) than pho, I go with No. 31A: grilled pork and shrimp, meatballs, shrimp cake, shredded pork skin, a sliced crispy egg roll.
Also noteworthy: I’d pretty much written off Canton House(4825 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 770-936-9030, cantonhouserestaurant.com), the showy, chandeliered dim-sum palace that’s been drawing crowds for more than 20 years. But, the steamed dumplings and crispy, bacon-wrapped fried shrimp cake I had recently almost made me forgive the poor, sometimes snippy service. Expect a full parking lot on weekends. … Rincon Latino (5055 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-936-8181, Facebook: Rincon Latino) is a delicious, blue-collar Salvadoran spot where the food is muy rico (very rich). I really dig the crispy-bony Salvadoran fried chicken, and the house-made corn tortillas. And, you gotta have a pupusa! (I suggest the one stuffed with cheese and chicharron.)
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