By Ligaya Figueras, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The goat curry at Nam Phuong . The Cheese ’N Cheese at Food Terminal . Sinaloa-style grilled chicken at El Autentico Sinaloense Pollos Asados. Sambal okra at Mamak. Ceviche from one of the colorful food courts at Plaza Fiesta. Viet-Cajun crustaceans from Crawfish Shack Seafood. The spicy-hot, wowza Yo-yo Duck Pot at Sichuan spot Masterpiece in Duluth .
The list of must-try ethnic dishes on Buford Highway is as long as the 30-plus miles of this roadway that stretches from Buckhead to Buford, the theoretical end of the road, where it changes names and becomes Atlanta Highway. With more than 125 restaurants concentrated within the 8-mile corridor that traverses Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville (find the most up-to-date list at issuu.com/sarahc.lawrence/docs/guide_to_atlantas_buford_highway ), you can eat on Buford Highway every day for a year without traveling far or ordering the same thing twice.
Our Fall Dining Guide celebrates this rich road, which brings a taste of home to emigres from around the globe as much as it provides exotic bites for first-time diners. Folk might argue about the identity of the Atlanta dining scene as a whole, but there’s general agreement: Buford Highway is fundamental to an Atlanta foodway.
This guide includes nearly 50 restaurants that represent cuisines from 17 countries. You’ll find recommendations for everything from standout regional Mexican cooking to late-night noshing. You’ll even learn about the Japanese restaurant on this cheap-eats strip that serves the most expensive meal in Atlanta.
As we explore the Buford Highway of today, we are mindful of the thousands of immigrant entrepreneurs who have set up shop there through the years, particularly in the 1980s, bringing with them their languages, foods and other traditions as they transformed vacant strip malls into bustling multicultural windows to the world.
The story of immigrant Karen Wang, co-owner of Taiwanese restaurant La Mei Zi in the Asian Square strip mall , is similar to that of many Buford Highway business owners. She and her husband left Taiwan in 1979, living first in Houston, before settling in Atlanta in 1983. “We heard Atlanta was a growing city, so we came — no relations, no family,” Wang said.
Her sister, Michelle Liu, with whom she runs La Mei Zi, followed a few years later. Liu arrived in Atlanta in 1993, seeing opportunity with the coming of the 1996 Olympics. And, there was the simple fact that the weather in Atlanta reminded the sisters of home.
By now, even second- and third-generation business operators have built memories here, including Seung Min Lee, owner of year-old Korean fried chicken joint Hello Chicken in Doraville. In the early 1990s, her parents opened Seoul Shin Jung in Pinetree Plaza. Other eateries followed, including Harue, which the family first operated on Buford Highway, but later relocated to Duluth as the Korean population shifted north.
When Lee decided to debut Hello Chicken last year, she knew she wanted it to have a Buford Highway address. “I always wanted to come back to Buford Highway. That is where I grew up,” Lee said. “A lot of American people and the foodies are coming to Buford Highway.” Compared with the early days of Seoul Shin Jung, and its mainly Korean clientele, “there is more diversity of people coming to my restaurant,” she said.
While numerous restaurants on Buford Highway have stood the test of time, with menus practically unchanged since their doors opened decades ago, Buford Highway itself isn’t stuck in a time warp.
Evidence comes in the form of the cafes that have opened in the past couple years, selling trendy rolled ice cream and matcha beverages. It is visible in places like Food Terminal, a 2017 opening by the team behind Sweet Hut , with its mod industrial space and glossy, magazine-thick menu of Southeast Asian — mainly Malaysian — delights. It’s also the Halal Guys, which started as a mere food cart in New York, and chose Buford Highway when it expanded into Georgia last year. And, it is the James Beard Foundation giving a nod earlier this year to Rui Liu, when the chef at Masterpiece was named a semifinalist as top chef in the southeast U.S.
As Buford Highway continues to evolve, and garner more attention from the food world, it also faces certain challenges. Community activist and Buford Highway resident Marian Liou founded We Love BuHi in 2015. What began as an Instagram account has grown into a nonprofit organization that works to support the corridor through events, as well as arts, design, play, livability and sustainability efforts.
“If we aren’t building stronger connections among the residents and business owners on Buford Highway, we’re just a tourist company,” said Liou, who is also a force behind an oral history project to collect the stories of people who live and work on the road.
As sidewalks, streetscaping, liquor laws and affordable housing come under discussion, culinary life on BuHi goes on. There is stock that needs to be made for pho. Produce aisles that need restocking. Barbecue — be it in the style of Mexico or Korea — that needs tending. And, everyone needs a water refill when the spice level on a fiery chile dish clocks in at a 10.
If you never have eaten on Buford Highway, go and be an immigrant diner for a day. After all, we are all immigrants in some way.