Pack your bags! In honor of life’s most delicious highways, we give you Hit the Road, Snack, our travel guide of things to eat, see, and do this summer from coast to coast.
Nothing smells quite like a farmers market. Part abundant global produce, part animal bones and sweating fish, part baked goods and pan-seared gyoza—they tend to exude a kind of funky diasporic musk. And somehow, the Buford Highway Farmers Market smells the same today as it did in 1988. At that time, my family lived in Jonesboro, Georgia—a suburb that felt very far away, though I now know it was only a 45-minute drive—and we traveled up to Buford Highway to find the Puerto Rican ingredients we couldn’t find anywhere else: root vegetables such as yucca and yautía for pasteles and sancocho, green and ripe plantains, real chicharrón, Coco Rico (my favorite coconut soda), and fresh-baked bread from panaderías (Latin American bakeries). We could find all of that and more along this magical, 40-mile highway.
I haven’t lived in Atlanta for over a decade, but I visit often and continue to frequent this area. Having lived in places such as Brooklyn, New York and Oakland, California, I can tell you that Buford Highway stands up to some of the most delicious Latino and Asian food neighborhoods on either coast. It’s like a super pared-down, Southern version of a Singaporean hawker center with excellent global cuisines, all side by side and thoughtfully prepared. But first-timers shouldn’t expect the rich architecture you might see in Mexico City or Hong Kong. It’s a sprawling strip mall that represents well over a dozen cultures, all gaudy signs and brick facades, with restaurants that have been in business for over four decades.
Buford Highway has more than 125 restaurants, and among them are treasures upon treasures. As a young Atlantan, I had kimchi for the first time at Hae Woon Dae, tried vegetarian “fish” at Harmony Vegetarian, and ate raw seafood for the first time at a since-closed Peruvian restaurant. To more fully grasp the spread of Buford Highway, I highly recommend this guide from my hometown paper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The corresponding dope illustrated guide by artist Sarah Lawrence goes beyond restaurants and markets to include entertainment, complete with bowling alleys and cultural community centers (I mean, you might as well make a day of it).
Pro tip: Driving is best. You can get there on MARTA (Atlanta public transport), but it’s not super pedestrian-friendly and restaurants are spread out along the 40-mile stretch of busy road.
I haven’t visited all 125 restaurants, but I dream of a time in my life when that might be possible. For now, here are my recommendations for some extremely tasty places that are worth the trip, no matter where in the world you are.
Easily my favorite farmers market in the United States. You’ll find Latin American and Asian ingredients and prepared foods you expect alongside rarer items such as Eastern European comfort foods. The produce ranges from sugar cane to bitter melon, and they make fresh tofu daily. They also offer dozens of coffees and teas from across the globe and a stellar meat department, with gorgeous cuts of ribeye steaks, chicharrón (fried pork skin) prepared three different ways, tender sliced prime beef for shabu-shabu, and even containers of pig’s blood. Not to mention an abundant seafood counter with fresh fish, live crabs, and lobsters. The cherry on top is a brilliant pantry section, with all the cookware and utensils you could ever want (including tools such a matcha whisks). Plan to spend several hours there, and grab some fresh shumai from the prepared food section to keep up your shopping energy.
Growing up, I was one of the only Latinas in my public school. But that’s changed dramatically in recent decades, and Buford Highway is one of the clearest signs of how diverse the local Latino community has become. Among its Latin American restaurants is Pupuseria Mi Tierra, which specializes in this Salvadorean staple. Similar to arepas, pupusas are thick, stuffed corn tortillas that are toasted then topped with a magical spicy cabbage slaw called curtido. For vegetarians, the cheese and refried bean versions are super tasty, but the chicharrón is where it’s at. At Mi Tierra, try the revuelta, which is stuffed with beans, cheese, and chicharrón. And don’t sleep on the tamales de elote: small tamales that blend classic cornmeal masa with fresh, sweet corn.
There are few things I love more than tearing up a whole chicken, and El Auténtico Sinaloense Pollos Asados makes the bird of my dreams. Inspired by roadside charcoal-grilled chicken from Mexico’s western Sinaloa province, this Buford Highway pollo asado palace serves up a well-seasoned, smoky, and succulent bird that begs to be eaten whole and hot. With yellow rice, refried beans, fresh tortillas, and salsas, their chicken is worth dipping off the highway if you’re stuck in rush-hour Atlanta traffic (am I right?). The burritos, quesadillas, and tostadas are also solid.
Mexican restaurants in the South are, well, pretty special. Since leaving Atlanta, I’ve become more accustomed to small counter joints, where tacos cost $1 and you eat off styrofoam plates on an outdoor bench. But the Mexican restaurants I grew up with are typically sit-down, Tex-Mex spots with very strong, sugary margaritas, free chips and salsa (as soon as you sit down), “queso” dip, and enchilada platters. El Rey del Taco has the feel of an Atlanta Mexican restaurant, but with decidedly homemade, traditional fare. It’s family-owned and has been specializing in tacos (with handmade corn tortillas, still a rarity in Atlanta) for more than 15 years. Notably, they serve all of my favorite funky face meats (cabeza or cheek, and lengua or tongue). You can also get more standard tacos al pastor, quesadillas, fajitas, and other favorites—but if it’s the good good you’re after, they've got it.
This restaurant is just one of well over a dozen hot pot spots on Buford Highway, and it’s been around for more than 20 years. They offer solid, classic Cantonese dishes with no-frills ambiance and quick, cordial service. And while they make a bangin’ beef lo mein and great wonton soup, don’t miss the Japanese tofu hot pot with minced pork and XO sauce. It’ll arrive at the table sputtering away, and is so delicious you’ll burn your mouth, twice, waiting for it to cool. When in season, snow pea leaves with garlic are a must.
Discovering Vietnamese food completely transformed the way I eat. From back pain to heartache, I’ve come to believe there’s nothing a bowl of phở can’t cure. Phở Bac is a solid, popular choice on Buford Highway, and—much to my delight—they serve their phở with culantro (an herb we use extensively in Puerto Rican cooking), alongside the traditional basil, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and lime wedges. Their bún thịt nướng (cold vermicelli salad) with grilled pork is also on point. But definitely try the chanh muối, a beverage made of salted, preserved lemons. I know it sounds intense, but it’s refreshing, effervescent, and just the thing for washing down a giant bowl of phở.
Living in New York, I’ve become familiar with dim sum restaurants: large round tables with lazy susans surrounded by high-backed chairs, large silk flower arrangements, elaborate decorative carpets and opulent chandeliers, with servers rolling metal carts down the aisles hawking their wares. But this isn’t common in Atlanta, and Canton House feels like it was dropped straight down from Flushing, Queens. Expect stellar dim sum, with long lines at the usual times—late morning until just after lunchtime. Try the lo mai gai, glutinous rice filled with Chinese sausage, shrimp and other goodies, and the lion's head meatballs. And the braised beef tendon, and the shrimp shumai, and the sweet sesame balls with red bean paste … But don’t bother going late. The food won’t be great, and they’ll look at you funny for even being there.
Tucked away behind a Chevron gas station, this restaurant is a treasure. Don’t be deceived by its sign sitting slightly akimbo; it’s more upscale than nearby Pho Bac, with inventive fusion dishes and the same laidback elegance and charm. Standout dishes include the bún thịt nướng with lamb—their take on the classic cold vermicelli dish (crisp lettuce, cucumber, herbs, and delicate, citrusy fish sauce dressing) with an unconventional grilled meat. Their gói trái cây, similar to a traditional papaya salad but with added fuji apple and mango, is to die for. But don’t overlook their mashed taro, which set my Puerto Rican heart aflutter. On the island, we often use taro (which we call yautía) for fritters or stews, but we also use it as a variation on mashed potatoes. The taro at Co’m, though, blends coconut milk and red curry paste to make a side dish so flavorful and rich you can’t believe it’s vegan. (A very special gracias to Mario Schambon for turning me on to this spot, and being my dining companion.)
This awesome Cuban cafe and diner has been a Buford Highway institution for more than 43 years. Their family story is truly touching, and the vibe transported me straight back to my travels there as a college student. As the name suggests, you’ll find solid Cuban sandwiches (though try the medianoche, which is on sweeter, softer bread). You should also try the other Cuban standards, such as fried sweet plantains, rice and beans, guava pastries, and a selection of soft drinks that made me think I was on the island. My home away from home.
There are so many excellent bakeries on Buford Highway—Sweet Hut is one of my other favorites—but my mom loves this place, so I’m biased. Café Mozart, which has several locations in the Atlanta area (as well as in Dallas, Texas), offers a rotating selection of fresh Asian pastries. I can personally cosign on their crispy coconut wafers, white bean and soft chestnut cookies, mini elephant ears, and sweet pumpkin cake rolls.