There’s a sign entering the small town of Clarkston that reads “Little Town … Big Heart.” Some form of that sign has been standing off the East Ponce de Leon corridor for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Clarkston; my father was born in 1925 in a small house that still stands behind the Methodist church. He and my mother still live there, and it’s their home I’ve always returned to no matter which way the many roads of life have led me.
As kids, my siblings and I used to walk on hot summer afternoons to the center of town, where Market Street and East Ponce de Leon meet, to get ice cream from Lord’s Pharmacy. We would walk the train track that splits the town in two, with Church Street and East Ponce parallel to each other almost all the way to Stone Mountain. My oldest brother would time our walks so that a penny placed on the track before ice cream would always mean a highly treasured flattened penny on the way home.
We grew up; we moved away. But each visit back, I noticed on trips to the local Thriftown that the aisles were filled with fascinating things I didn’t always recognize. And there certainly was a lack of Jif and Sunbeam bread. As a chef and food writer, I was thrilled to explore 50-pound bags of Thai rice, mangoes and jackfruit, and cuts of meat that were as foreign to my Southern upbringing as Yankee cornbread.
The population of my small hometown was dramatically changing. In fact, between 1980 and 1990, the city lost half its white population. By the 1990s, Clarkston had been designated by asylum programs as a perfect place for refugee resettlement. On each visit home, I barely recognized it anymore. Only the buildings remained the same. Lord’s moved, then sold the pharmacy; the bank became a church. My great-grandmother’s house, where my father was born, was sold to the Methodist church.
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“The combination of multi-unit housing, two bus lines, and groceries and other goods within walking distance have created in Clarkston a kind of ‘perfect storm’ for refugees to settle here,” said Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. “We have more than 13,000 people living in a 1.4-square-mile area, from dozens of countries.”
I talked to Terry outside Refuge Coffee, the starting place for anyone — like this native — who might want to take a food tour of this tiny town. Clarkston has Thai, Vietnamese, Burmese, Eritrean, Nepalese, Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine all within walking distance of one another. All are owned or operated by resettled immigrants, some by refugees. The streets that once were home to the many church barbecues we attended as children offer chaat, chai and curry chicken these days.
Refuge is a big red food truck that sells coffee, cappuccino, chai and pastries from Ratio Bakeshop in Decatur. It’s located at the city’s hub on the corner of Market and East Ponce, and it’s become a place of real community for the city.
“We feel we’ve created a multiethnic gathering place in the form of a coffee shop,” said Kitti Murray, Refuge’s founder and CEO. The truck – with adjacent sitting space in an old gas station – was founded in May 2015, and is staffed by refugees or immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Burma, Syria and Morocco.
Moving from Refuge, try some chaat at South Asian Market, a Nepalese grocery where a spicy vegetarian mixture of puffed rice called mudhi is mixed with sauce and chatpati spices and served street style for two bucks. It’s an insider’s tip that Terry turned me on to — made to order in front of you, but only if you ask for it.
A couple of doors down, stroll the aisles of A Dong Market, after ordering some sweetly spicy pad Thai or pho from the tiny cafeteria-style kitchen. The menu is a mélange of mostly Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, but if you don’t see something you want, ask — the gentleman in front of the wok will most likely be willing to make it for you. The small grocery’s aisles are teeming with South Asian treasures: double yolk chicken eggs, duck eggs, heaps of cilantro and bean sprouts, as well as sundries like flip-flops and soap.
The crux of Clarkston’s gastronomic offerings is in Clarkston Village Shopping Center, home to Thriftown, as well as several notable restaurants. Abyssinia Café offers incredible Ethiopian coffee, and a superb vegetarian plate of traditional lentil wat, served with injera and tons of hospitality from Ethiopian immigrant and owner Eskinder “Alex” Tsegaye, who has owned the congenial cafe for 10 years.
PS-Asian Restaurant, a few doors down, recently opened and serves mostly Thai and Burmese dishes. (Read our review of Royal Myanmar Cuisine, another Clarkston restaurant that specializes in Burmese cuisine.) There’s also Kathmandu Kitchen & Grill, offering a menu of Nepalese and Indian dishes, as well as Chinese-inspired noodle dishes and a (mostly) full bar. Veggie thukpa hit the spot on a recent unseasonably cold day — it’s a Tibetan soup of hardy broth spiced with cumin, tumeric, onion, garlic, ginger and chiles and chock full of rice noodles, potatoes, tomatoes and peas, crowned with fragrant cilantro.
From Clarkston Village, move southeast on Market Street, hang a left on East Ponce and look left for Merhaba Shawarma, possibly the best find in Clarkston. Spit-grilled halal meats are served as shawarma plates with traditional salad, pita and rice, or wrapped in pita. The spot is tiny, and the woman behind the counter will most likely be Manna Samuel, an Eritrean who, when asked if she is the owner, will say, “sort of.” Customers call her Superwoman. She is — and her shawarma proves it: juicy spit-grilled chicken or beef, wrapped with salad and garlic sauce, are worth the wait — and there often is one, especially at lunchtime.
If all this culture has you eventually clamoring for a burger and fries, head to Brockett Pub House & Grill, at the intersection of East Ponce and Brockett Road, where the regulars are loud and plentiful. Wings, quesadillas, big salads, burgers and club sandwiches rise above standard pub fare, and the service staff is so friendly you’ll feel like one of the crowd before you’re finished.
If a city is more about people than place, then Clarkston is the same little town with a big heart it’s always been. So I’m not sure I agree with Thomas Wolfe. You can go home again. Just don’t expect it to be the same place it used to be when you get there. It might be even better.