Take Buford Highway for a tour of Mexican food

You can’t do any better than the snapper zarandeado at Mariscos El Sazon del Kora. CONTRIBUTED BY WYATT WILLIAMS

You can’t do any better than the snapper zarandeado at Mariscos El Sazon del Kora. CONTRIBUTED BY WYATT WILLIAMS

A couple of weeks ago, I got lost in Plaza Fiesta (4166 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 404-982-9138, plazafiesta.net). I'd walked down the concourse, past the clothing stores, past the kiosks offering hundreds of colorful iPhone cases, past the first food court near the indoor playground, past the second food court with the big mural, and got turned around into another food court, where a man was chopping up the biggest pile of juicy, fatty carnitas I've ever seen.

I was looking for tacos arabes, a little regional dish that's something like a hybrid of taco and gyro. I never found what I was looking for. I walked by De Norteno, a counter that serves platters of carne asada and beans just as the rancheros would serve them in Sinaloa. I walked by Mariscos el Malecón, where a dozen people were dipping into seafood cocktails just as they would in Veracruz. I ended up at La Guelaguetza, a newish counter in the food court with the mural, because I noticed they served not tacos arabes, but another distinct regional dish from Puebla. After a few minutes, they served me a cemita poblana, a towering sandwich filled with crisp beef milanesa, hunks of avocado, thick dollops of chipotle chiles in adobo and long strings of queso blanco.

Plaza Fiesta in Chamblee has a wide range of shops and restaurants. AJC FILE

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Every once in a while, I meet someone who tells me they love Mexican food, and, by that, they mean chicken tacos and queso dip. Chicken tacos and queso dip are good, but, if that’s all the Mexican food you ever eat, you’re missing out. It’s like thinking French food is comprised entirely of croissants and steak frites. Mexico is home to a diverse, rich spectrum of cuisine every bit as dense and complicated as the layout of Plaza Fiesta.

If you need a quick survey of the vast pleasures of Mexican food, it is hard to do better than getting lost in Plaza Fiesta. However, a tour of some Mexican restaurants just outside those doors on Buford Highway might be even more enriching.

The pastor parillada at La Pastorcita features al pastor pork chopped up with ham, mushroom, onions and cheese. CONTRIBUTED BY HENRI HOLLIS

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Just south of Plaza Fiesta is a homey little restaurant called La Pastorcita (3304 Buford Highway, Brookhaven. 678-705-8162, Facebook: La Pastorsita). The menu there covers many of the dishes that make Mexican food so special, drawing on cooking styles from across the country. They serve poblano peppers drenched in dark mole, chilaquiles soaking in bright salsas, flautas stuffed with chicken and fried to a crisp, tortas stuffed with tender cow's tongue, and so on. The menu is long. I like going on weekends, when they serve steaming hot, red bowls of menudo, filled with chopped bits of tripe. You have to get there early if you're going to have a bowl, because they sell out. That's what happened to a friend of mine the other night. He ended up with the pastor parillada, a giant platter of al pastor pork chopped up with ham, mushroom, onions and cheese. He'd never had that dish before, but said it was great. "This place seems like it doesn't have too many misses on the menu," he said. He's right. Even the chicken tacos are good.

<<Where to eat on Buford Highway:

A few miles up the road is Tortas Factory Del D.F. (5781 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-452-8470, Facebook: Tortas Factory Del D.F.), where the sandwiches are made in traditional styles from Mexico City. The best of these is probably the pambazo, a long roll dipping in a slurry of red chiles and stuffed with chorizo and potatoes. Another Mexico City specialty is the huarache, a long oval of masa cooked to a crisp and loaded with carne asada, pinto beans and a salad's worth of lettuce and tomato. The name "huarache" comes from the fact that it looks a little like the sole of a sandal.

Just a little further north is Mariscos El Sazon del Kora (7130 Buford Highway, Doraville. 470-395-2086, mariscos-el-sazon-del-kora.business.site). When you walk in and sit down at the bar, they'll bring you a little ceviche tostada to let you know you're in a generous place. The menu here draws from the long cooking traditions in Nayarit, a Mexican state on the Pacific Coast. Towering micheladas are served with raw oysters and massive goblets of mixed seafood cocktail, but you can't do any better than the snapper zarandeado. For the zarandeado preparation, the whole fish is split in half, marinated in chiles, and grilled to a smoky, charred finish, just as fish has been cooked on that coast for centuries. One taste, and you will know that there is more to this food than chicken tacos.