Buford Highway and Immigrant-Enriched Southern Cuisine

By D.J. Costantino

By

D.J. Costantino

Ask any chef in Atlanta where they love to eat, and they'll say Buford Highway. The eight-mile, seven lane-stretch of road from Midtown Atlanta to Duluth is flanked by restaurants and markets representing more than 20 countries and cuisines. 

Empire State South Chef Josh Hopkins can easily walk to Buford from his home and frequents Sri Thai and Masterpiece Szechuan. The rest of Atlanta has followed suit. “Five years ago, people from Buckhead weren't heading up to Buford Highway to eat, but that's changed,” says Hopkins. Exhilarated by his dining experiences, Asian influences have made their way onto his menu at Empire State South. 

Hopkins isn't alone in his reverence for the strip. Kevin Gillespie's Gunshow owes its service model to Chinese dim sum tradition. And its chef, Rising Star Chef Joey Ward, looks to Buford for inspiration, combining it with his Georgia heritage. “The international community is influencing [Southern] cuisine, so that Asian influences are becoming intrinsically Southern,” says Ward. 

Chef Matt Floyd of Louisiana-meets-Vietnam seafood joint Bon Ton serves rolls of both the lá lốt and Nashville hot oyster variety. At Ford Fry's Beetlecat, Chef Andrew Isabella's mussels lurk beneath a kimchi cream sauce— inspired by eating the funky, spicy fermented cabbage condiment with a childhood friend. Texas-born Chef Cody Taylor learned to eat Korean food with his wife, Chef Jiyeon Lee, on Buford Highway, and he taught her how to eat barbecue. Now, at Heirloom Market BBQ, the couple marries the cuisines, serving miso-injected brisket alongside mac and cheese and cucumber-radish banchan. And out east in Athens, Ryan and Shae Sims make Chinese-American classics at Donna Chang's.

Buford Highway has always felt like home for Andy and Alex Chen, who moved to Atlanta from Alabama, where their parents owned Chinese buffets. They found themselves traveling up Buford whenever hunger pangs hit, and, inspired by those meals, the brothers opened Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Kitchen in Midtown. “We wanted to bring Buford Highway into the city of Atlanta,” says Andy.

Rising Star Chef Parnass Savang grew up working in his family's Thai restaurant in Gwinnett County, where more than half of the Georgia's Asian population lives. The Savang family shopped for ingredients on Buford Highway every week and filled up on dishes that reminded them of home. “Atlanta is ready for a change of cultures and flavors, and diners are willing to experience them,” says Savang, who launched his Talat Market pop-up in 2017. 

Three nights a week, Savang cooks traditional Thai food made with Georgia ingredients, and he's hopeful that more chefs will tap into Atlanta's broadening palate and open restaurants that honor and interpret immigrant traditions and flavors—but not without proper deference to friends, colleagues, books, travels abroad, and innumerable, inevitable trips to Buford Highway. “You always have to double check your work before you put it out. That's respect,” says Savang.

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