In 1974, the Shinn family opened what may have been the first Asian grocery store in Atlanta. It was a small place, not even 1,000 square feet, on Piedmont Road in Buckhead. The family store gradually expanded and moved over the years, before settling into a 48,000-square-foot building on Buford Highway in the early ’90s. Buford Highway Farmers Market (5600 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-455-0770, bufordhighwayfarmersmarket.com) since has doubled in size and become an essential part of metro Atlanta’s foodways.
On a street with so many restaurants, I suppose it might be easy to overlook the grocery stores of Buford Highway. I don’t believe one could exist without the other. I can’t remember ever walking through the aisles of these stores without noticing a restaurateur picking up something like a 50-pound bag of rice or a case of avocados. But, more than just stocking ingredients for restaurants, many of these grocery stores have become excellent places to eat at in their own right.
Buford Highway Farmers Market succeeded because it embraced the diversity of the neighborhood. Today, the aisles are as varied as a world atlas. Foods from Jamaica are one aisle, foods from Poland on another.
Walking into that giant, global store on an empty stomach is a recipe for disaster. I like to stop at the cafeteria at the front of store, grab a tray of kimchi dumplings and a bottle of cold green tea, and sit down to organize my shopping list. The dumplings are always stuffed large, bursting with funky kimchi and minced tofu, and served with a little cup of pickled yellow, sweet and sour radishes. There are excellent tacos, and a hot bar that includes Eastern European specialties, but it is the dumplings I always return to.
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Actually, there are a few grocery stores along this strip that I don’t ever go to buy groceries, but simply eat at, like a restaurant. For example, there is Supermercado Chicago (5623 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-452-1361, supermercadochicago.negocio.site). Every time I walk into this brightly lit store, with the upbeat música norteña playing over the loudspeakers, I consider buying a jar of pickled eggs or grabbing a handful of limes. In the kitchen aisle, there is even some clay pottery. I’ve never bought any of that, because I’m always in a hurry to order some tacos at the meat counter, which might be some of the best in Atlanta. The cabeza de res is juicy, stringy, tender and rich. The al pastor is dark, oily and spicy, the little chunks of pork fried almost to a crisp. Behind the meat counter, you might notice the ropes of house-made chorizo hanging on a rack. Split open on a taco, that red sausage is as bright and vividly seasoned as any I’ve ever tasted. It doesn’t hurt that the tortillas and salsa bar are as excellent as any on this stretch of Buford Highway.
At Brito Supermarket (3020 Buford Highway, Brookhaven. 404-633-5005, Facebook: Brito Supermarket), I’ve never even browsed the aisles. I stop there for one reason: the giant smokers pumping out whole chickens and ribs in the parking lot. I would put the pollo asado there up against any barbecue chicken in this city. The meat is spicy and juicy and deeply flavored with thick smoke. Sometimes, I can wait until I get home to eat it, but it’s better to sit at one of the picnic tables behind the store and tear right into the delicious meat.
One of the best grocery stores I’ve been to recently is the tiny Manila Mart (5938 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-389-8595, sites.google.com/site/manilamart88/home). The small coolers are stocked with Filipino ingredients: jute leaves, lupia wrappers, longanisa pork. To-go containers hold homestyle dishes — chicken adobo, humba, dinuguan — that Martin Gustilo, a friendly presence at the register, will offer to warm up, so that you can eat in the store. If you don’t have time for a meal, though, he’ll gladly step in the back to whip up a quick cup of halo-halo, a sweet concoction of shaved ice, evaporated milk, purple yam ice cream, beans, corn flakes, and several other ingredients.
The store that the Shinn family opened up 45 years ago probably wasn’t so different from Manila Mart. The ingredients on the shelves might not have been exactly the same, but customers come in the doors for the same reasons: a taste of home, a taste of somewhere far away, or just a taste of something right there in the store.