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.



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