My way is the highway

Dining and driving up Buford Highway

Didja ever notice that the same folks who support a globalized economy also revile immigrants these days? They think it's cool that Koreans eat Spam in Seoul and that the Chinese eat Rice-a-Roni in Peking, but they don't want Asians mucking up their own neighborhoods, especially if they don't speak perfect English.

If you're tempted to join the wave of xenophobia sweeping America (and the rest of the world) these days, I prescribe a drive out Buford Highway. From its intersection with Lenox Road to the Perimeter and beyond, this road has become a monument to the industry of immigrants and the pleasure of the multicultural milieu — precisely those values which were once celebrated as foundational to our country.

My favorite restaurants on Buford Highway are the Vietnamese ones. I've long raved about Bien Thuy, whose name refers to the demilitarized zone that divided the north and south of that country during the war years. But there are at least a dozen more Vietnamese spots on Buford, from coffee houses and soup (pho) cafes to large operations like Vietnam House (4186 Buford Highway, 404-315-9979) in Little Saigon Shopping Center, which I visited last week for the first time.

Owner Khanh Duong shares his story on the menu. As a boy of 12, he was fleeing Vietnam for the Philippines in 1983 with his father and brother. They were boarding a boat in the dark to escape when government troops discovered them. "The boat dashed from the docks," Duong writes, "with me on board and my father and brother still on shore." He spent the next year in a refugee camp in the Philippines, then was placed in a foster home in Atlanta and eventually graduated from Georgia State University. His foster parents, he writes, often took him to Vietnamese restaurants in town but he never found the food sufficiently authentic and vowed eventually to open his own restaurant. In 1999, he opened Vietnam House with his wife, Kitty.

I think Mr. Duong's heart saturates his restaurant. He and his wife spent a year remodeling the space into something more elegant than the usual, using decorations shipped from Vietnam by his parents, with whom he'd re-established contact. But as hospitable as the decor is, it's the staff that makes the place such a pleasant experience from the outset. Our server Jessica, herewith declared Waitron of the Week, told us (in fluent English) that Vietnam House attempts to offer more exotic cooking than other Vietnamese restaurants and immediately began steering us to the more unusual dishes.

Perhaps the grandest meal is the Bo 7 Mon — seven courses of beef, much of which is cooked at the table ($16.95, minimum of two). I've eaten this numerous times at other restaurants here and around the country and recommend it as an introduction to the complexity of one of the world's healthiest and most delicious cuisines.

But there's plenty else to explore on the menu and Jessica, having promoted the exotic, directed me to the day's special — alligator cooked with asparagus ($12.95).

"I didn't know the Vietnamese eat alligator," I said.

"Yes, they raise it for food," she said.

It seems it's my fate every five years or so to order alligator, usually in a Cajun restaurant, in order to remind myself how much I don't like it. Granted, Vietnam House's special featured very tender meat — lots of it — with crunchy asparagus, mushrooms and baby corn, all lightly seasoned with a good fish sauce. But alligator will never rock my world any more than frog meat does.

Every other dish was close to spectacular, however. A salad of lotus roots and carrots was loaded with shrimp and pork ($4.95). We scooped it onto rice crisps and then anointed it with fish sauce, whose mild pungency was rendered nearly sweet by the salad's fresh mint leaves. Two marinated quails, fried and served with a sauce of vinegar and pepper, turned up notes of anise ($4.95).

Wayne's entree was amazing — basically beef tartare marinated in lime juice and tossed with cilantro, onions and ground peanuts ($12.95). You eat it with a very dense fish sauce whose anchovy-based flavor is stronger than in the tamer clarified fish sauce.

You'll also find a good selection of classic hot-pot and noodle dishes and those weird sodas with salted plums or egg yolk and condensed milk.

More on Buford
A couple of doors down from Vietnam House is Nhu Y Deli (4186 Buford Highway, 404-327-6666), open 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. every day except Thursday. Mainly, it's for take-out but there are a couple of tables to eat in.

The owner told us that the deli's name roughly translates to "wanting something and getting it." People on budgets or burned out on Cuban sandwiches will find this extraordinary little deli does exactly that. There are hot dishes in steam trays here, but the specialty, as far as I'm concerned, is the banh mi — the Vietnamese sandwich most typically eaten as a snack with coffee. They're $2.50 each here and if you order two, you get a third one free. That's right, we pigged out on $5.

The three sandwiches available feature chicken, a variety of pork cuts or barbecued beef. The latter, with a spicy coating redolent of fish sauce, citrus and chilies, was our favorite but all three are killer. Made on a good baguette, the banh mi always includes cilantro, cucumbers, daikon (or perhaps lotus), onions and — optionally — sliced jalapeno peppers. It's dressed with a seasoned mayo sauce.

The owner, who refused to accept a tip, insisted we try a dessert. It was a combination of sweetened taro root, lychees and corn. I liked it so much that Wayne had an excuse not to eat his. "Don't you like it?" I said. "It's real good," he said, looking askance, "but you go ahead and eat mine, since you need to review it."

Of course, you'll also find as much Mexican as Vietnamese food on Buford Highway. We recently checked out Las Tortas Locas (493 Chamblee Tucker Road at Buford Highway, 770-457-0099). The name means "Crazy Sandwiches" and this fast-food restaurant is part of a chain with four other locations around the city. Imagine McDonald's gone mariachi.

Unfortunately, we didn't much care for our sandwiches. "I've never had Mexican food I disliked until now," Wayne said. He ordered the "Espanola," a flat bun stuffed with an omelet filled with chorizo and "queso de puerco," which literally means "pork cheese" but the menu translates as "special cheese." Of course, it turned out to be head cheese — that hideous fatty stuff made out of pig heads. Very unpleasant, even at $5.50.

I ordered the sandwich filled with chicken mole ($4.50). "Too bad it doesn't have any flavor," said the embittered and formerly nice Wayne Johnson. Indeed, the shredded chicken was barely sauced in the bland mole, requiring several trips to the very comprehensive salsa bar for some moisture.

Perhaps we should give it another chance or try the tacos or burritos next time. But why go to a Mexican McDonald's when there are so many authentic taquerias on Buford Highway? Many are free-standing but others share space with markets, including the relatively new El Progreso (3061 Buford Highway, 404-325-3210). This facility includes a beauty shop, a jewelry shop, a CD shop and, mainly, a large grocery store.

As you walk in, on the left, there's a grill with a counter where tacos are made to order. The menu is small and I recommend the adobada and the carnitas. A very interesting green sauce, fiery and rather oily because of added avocado, is available. Service is friendly but plan to point if you don't speak Spanish.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voice mail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1504, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.??

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