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Cover Story: Highway to heaven

A primer to the city's principal treasure trove of ethnic eats

It begins quietly enough. Its unassuming origin point on Lenox Road gives little away. A taqueria here, an adult entertainment spot there. Then, as you drive north, the outdoor malls start to crop up. An Ethiopian eatery shares a parking lot with a Peruvian counterpart. Farther up the road, you can browse through Marshall's after gorging on dim sum.

Somewhere between Clairmont and Shallowford roads, humanity explodes. Auto shops, pawn shops, accountants, acupuncturists, check cashing stores, flea markets, international groceries, cheap gas, cars constantly pulling into the middle lane, signs blaring at you in eight languages, restaurants serving foods you might never otherwise encounter in this lifetime. Strip mall after strip mall after blessed strip mall.

You have arrived at the heart of Buford Highway.

It's always changing, this frantic stretch whose Southern cliche of a name makes newcomers wince at first hearing. That little Dominican restaurant where you dared to try and came to adore mashed green plantains and swarthy goat stew? Gone. But don't fret too long. You may be savoring Oaxacan tlyuda or Tibetan momos in the same space before you know it.

These are some of our favorites along Buford Highway. Consider them a starting point for exploration. They may be a culinary adventure for you, but a taste of the mother country to those at the table next to you. There are numerous worthwhile restaurants just off intersecting streets, but we've been purists and stuck to the actual highway for this roundup.

Bien Thuy

Bien Thuy is the Tina Turner of Atlanta's Vietnamese restaurants: a salt-of-the-earth survivor with legs. It's where many Atlantans had their first taste of Vietnam. They still return for the trim, crunchy summer rolls and the roasted bites of meat with vermicelli noodles called bun. Motherly servers nudge you to wrap Imperial spring rolls and an eggless crepe in lettuce leaves with potent basil leaves and a squeeze of lime. Eaten this way, in true Vietnamese fashion, the glory of the cuisine's poise between fresh and just-this-side-of-greasy is revealed. Lunchtime regulars wisely know to fortify themselves for the rest of the workday with a jolt of Vietnamese iced coffee.

-- Bill Addison
5095 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-454-9046.

Canton House

Take it from a member of the tribe: Sunday dim sum might be the best thing about being Chinese, next to those little red envelopes stuffed with cash dispensed by elders on holidays. There's nowhere better to explore this meal-cum-social event than at Canton House. Pick anything off the circling carts laden with tender dumplings, flaky egg custard tarts and shrimp wrapped in fried tofu sheets. You won't be disappointed. The long, varied menu is full of delights, but dim sum is where the restaurant shines. Wash your car, put on your Jimmy Choos and grab your Ferragamo bag; eating's only half of the dim sum game. It's also where the Asian community meets to size up its other members.

-- Cynthia Wong
4825 Buford Highway, Chamblee, 770-936-9030.

Cho Dang Tofu

Although 88 Tofu is hailed by many as the spot for soon dubu, I say Cho Dang Tofu's version of this Korean tofu stew served in a heated stone bowl is consistently better, and its atmosphere much calmer. Communication with the staff can get a bit wooly at times, but do not fear — the menu is simple as can be. Eleven of the 13 menu items are tofu stew. They vary only by their add-ins — such as a velvety combination of oysters, shrimp and clams — and by the level of spiciness you desire, ranging from chili-free "white" to thermonuclear. Treat yourself to a free cappuccino or soft-serve ice cream from one of the machines stationed by the front door.

-- CW?
5907 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-220-0667.

El Taco Veloz

If you're looking for baby-mild tacos or chichi surroundings, turn the car around and head right back to Midtown. El Taco Veloz serves up the real deal, albeit in dingy surroundings. A better beef tongue taco would be nearly impossible to find, as would be tracking down a creamier, more satisfying bean burrito. The barbacoa is extraordinary, whether rolled into a soft, steamed corn tortilla or packed into a flour one. Tacos are irresistible snacks whose $1.69 price tag makes sampling the whole lot easy. Eating one of the massive burritos feels a bit like making out with food, with habanero salsa providing a crowning, thrilling burn.

-- CW?
5084 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-936-9094.

Hae Woon Dae

For most of the 18 hours a day that Hae Woon Dae is open, it's packed. And with good reason: This bustling joint serves up outstanding Korean barbecue. A glorious spread of pickles, salads, soup and rice cleanse your palate between bites of bulgogi (wafer-thin rib eye) and kalbi (short ribs), which are the best choices for tossing on the table's built-in barbie. The meats are succulent to an extreme, honeyed with just a hit of spice and sesame, and tabletop grilling allows guests to control the amount of toasty char desired. Those of a less carnivorous nature will enjoy the blazingly spicy squid.

-- CW?
5805 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-458-6999.

Havana Sandwich Shop

I first ate at this cinderblock cafe in a former Christmas tree lot literally a few days after it opened in February 1976. A five-year marriage to a Cuban woman — I should say to a Cuban family — gave me an intense love of that culture's cooking ... and nobody to cook it for me after the divorce. So, I've been ignoring the funky ambiance and eating the delicious home-style cooking here more than 25 years. I still like the classic Cuban sandwich (pork, ham, Swiss cheese and pickles) with a side of mellow black beans best. (And, with the beans, I prefer the white rice over the fancy yellow rice.) Also good are plates of boliche (Cuban pot roast), picadillo and sides of yuca and fried sweet bananas.

-- Cliff Bostock
2905 Buford Highway, 404-636-4094.

La Churreria

Finally given up on all that high-protein hoo-ha? Then take a celebratory trek to La Churreria for some Columbian baked goods. Glossy, yeasty treats beckon from cooling racks and shelves. The real finds here, though, are the caliente items displayed in the case at the counter. Nary a word of English is spoken here, so come armed with a choice list of vocabulary words. Pan de bono is the South American cousin to France's gougere: a hot puff of satiny, cheesy bread. Sublime empanadas, golden and crispy, are stuffed with a cumin-tinged mixture of beef and potato. And don't miss the bakery's namesake: churros rellenos — warm, braided doughnuts slicked with melty glaze. Carbs rule.

-- BA
5730 Buford Highway, Norcross, 678-646-0421.

Las Palmas

"Your brain will not work," says the hand-lettered anti-smoking sign at this cheerful Nicaraguan restaurant. But your taste buds will be humming when you sample fare like the nacatamal, a cornmeal tamal cooked for hours with a filling of pork marinated in achiote, garlic and citric flavors. Another good starter is sauteed, spicy red beans with crema, served with sticky fried bananas. The standout entree may be the churrasco, grilled skirt steak with a chimichurri sauce of parsley, garlic and olive oil. We normally associate the dish with Argentina, but it actually originated in Nicaragua. Weekends, there are esoteric specials like mondongo (tripe soup) and chicken soup with meatballs, potato stew and salpicòn — minced meat with green peppers and onions.

-- CB?
4005 Buford Highway, 404-634-0589.

Little Szechuan

Little Szechuan might be a bit worse for the wear — it's windowless and home to a staff whose conduct varies between brusque and hostile — but there is no better place for Chinese food inside the Perimeter. The menu boasts more than 250 items, ranging from crowd-pleasing white meat chicken with broccoli to the sizzling pork intestines for the adventurous. Buck up and abandon your food phobias here — trying some of the odder-sounding dishes has its gustatory awards. Have a go at the fresh, toothsome jellyfish salad; the outrageously dark, rich and tender beef tendons; or the nutty, pungent, stir-fried string beans.

-- CW?
5091-C Buford Highway, Doraville,770-451-0192.

Mozart Cafe and Bakery

Inveterate explorers of Buford Highway know this Korean bakery as its former name, Boulangerie. Under new owners, the moniker's accent may have switched from French to Austrian, but it's still the same quirky tea-parlor-meets-Twilight-Zone speakeasy filled with rows of Asian sweets. Bonus: The labels on the packages now have English as well. Peruse shiny buns filled with sweet potato, coffee bean cream and red bean paste. Nibble on vanilla sponge cake, walnut-chocolate squares and sweet green bean pastries. What's this? Opium cookies? Don't get your hopes up: It's shortbread covered in poppy seeds. Giggling, hopelessly friendly cashiers ring you up, ensuring you walk out the door with your own lopsided grin.

-- BA?
5301 Buford Highway, Doraville,770-936-8726.??
New Paradise

First things first: The moment you sit down at this under-appreciated Cantonese spot wedged between two auto centers, ask for the Chinese menu, the portal leading beyond the standard Kung Pao and moo shu dishes. (Don't worry — the Chinese menu is translated in English as well.) At a recent meal, our kindly server with an obvious passion for food directed us to greens in a gentle oyster sauce; Singapore rice noodles sparked with curry; and steaming, carefully crafted siu mai and har gow dumplings. If Dungeness crab is listed as a special, do not hesitate to order one. Your hard work with a nutcracker and tiny fork will be rewarded with gorgeous lumps of sweet, silky meat.

-- BA
4795 Buford Highway, Chamblee,770-936-0306.

Panahar

Atlanta's sole Bangladeshi restaurant is also one of its finest ethnic eats. Owner Mizra Chowdhury is justifiably proud of his cozy, comfortable restaurant and its exceptional dishes. Similar to Indian cuisine in its spices and ingredients, Bangladeshi meals are characterized by their lighter flavors and greater use of vegetables. The poori chicken tikka is a must-have combination of cushy, crusty, deep-fried bread and chicken curry, redolent with spices. Vegetarians have nearly 20 items to choose from, including the decadently rich saag paneer of creamed spinach and fresh cheese. Save room for the 10 breads made in-house; the paratha, in particular, is the stuff food addictions are all about.

-- CW
3375 Buford Highway, 404-633-6655.

Penang

Everyone disses the kitschy tropical ambiance here when they first walk through the door. All that bamboo! Those faux palm trees! That weird mural! It's all so Rogers and Hammerstein — so South Pacific, so King and I. Just shut up and eat. This is the best Malaysian cuisine in our city. All the delicious cliches are here, like roti canai, chewy crepes you dip in a chicken curry sauce, and rendang — beef stewed in coconut milk with cinnamon, chilies and cloves. But there are more interesting dishes, like cold Hainanese chicken with ginger-spiced rice, eggplant cooked with shrimp paste, a crispy whole fish with chili sauce and a big circle of crunchy, chewy taro surrounded by vegetables. For dessert, try the peanut pancake.

-- CB
4897 Buford Highway, #113, Chamblee, 770-220-0308.

Pho 79

About a dozen cafes on Buford Highway specialize in pho, the Vietnamese soup of beef broth and rice noodles garnished with meats and herbs. But this 8-year-old charmer is my favorite. First, there's the ambiance. Where else can you watch videos of gorgeous Vietnamese women in native costume lip-synching ABBA? Second, there's the owner, kind of a Vietnamese Majestic waitress. "Honey, you like it real spicy, don't you?" she asks, completely rhetorically, as she loads chili oil into your bowl. Third, while the pho is terrific, the combination soups are most unique. My fave is the mi quang, yellow noodles in a spicy red broth with pork, shrimp, herbs and ground peanuts. Warning: Skip the "lemonade," which is purple and tastes like Hawaiian Punch.

-- CB
4166 Buford Highway, #1053, Chamblee, 404-728-9129.

Rincon Latino

I make it my M.O. to consistently explore the menus of the restaurants I frequent on Buford Highway. At Rincon Latino, the rule goes out the window. I crave two dishes time and again at this Salvadorian/ Guatemalan joint: papusas revueltas — griddled corn cakes stuffed with white cheese and pork — and shrimp cocktail. The papusas, barely charred around the edges and deliriously gooey inside, are served with a pickled cabbage salad called curtido. College kids take note: They cost a buck-50 apiece. And that shrimp cocktail? A "small order" brings a plus-size margarita glass filled to the brim with large, juicy shrimp doused in cocktail sauce with ripe chunks of avocado. Little wonder why nearly everyone in the restaurant orders the same thing.

-- BA?
5055 Buford Highway, Chamblee, 770-936-8181.



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