When we decided to embark on an eating tour of the revered, beloved, venerable Buford Highway, we had a plan. Chef Will of Bookhouse would lead us from hole-in-the-wall to hole-in-the-wall, guiding us through a handful of cultures while we sampled bites here and there over the course of, oh, a couple hours. We'd learn, we'd laugh, and we'd be on our merry way by mid-afternoon, skipping off to our respective Saturday night plans with nary a care in the world.
That is not how it went down.
We did, of course, soak up plenty of culture. Chef Will did, indeed, guide us. There were, naturally, holes-in-the-wall. But this pilgrimage up Route 13 was far from the in-and-out "small bites" visions we had upon embarking. The outset looked promising: we met at Bookhouse on a Saturday morning, and Chef Will greeted us with a slip of paper listing his five favorite BuHi eateries. (The night before, he told me he'd narrowed his choices down to seventeen.) We hopped in our cars and made our way up the highway, hearts full of hope and bellies full of anticipation.
Our first stop was Pho 96, known among the cult of BuHi as one of the best Vietnamese joints around. The owner of Pho 96 is a sweet, tiny lady to whom Will refers as his "pho granny." She seemed genuinely pleased to see our rather large party amble in at 11 a.m., and never broke her smile (despite the many dishes and the complicated issue of check-splitting). Either she's truly that sweet, or she's a master of deception. Either way, we were smitten, and looked to Will to call the shots on our order.
The pho, of course, was a requisite, and we slurped our way through the bowls with a rather hedonistic pleasure, grinning at the thought of tripe before noon. We then conquered a bowl of egg roll vermicelli, a deliciously simple heap of rice noodles with chopped egg rolls and a few other accoutrements. It was crunchy, and slippery, and wolfed down with ardor. And then, out came the fish balls. The bowl of soup contained what looked like tiny, tender golf balls floating at the top. They turned out to be what translates to "fish balls," which probably isn't the most precise translation, but pretty much captures the essence of these little translucent spheres. Mixed reactions ensued. I, for one, enjoyed them—they were soft, but not mushy! Others were taken aback by what I guess fancy people call "mouthfeel"—upon slurping one from his spoon and contemplating the fish ball in his mouth, Luke simply opined: "That's..................... a texture." We settled up with Pho Granny and moved on.
Thinking nothing of the hint of fullness starting to nag in our innards, we headed northward, transitioning swiftly from Vietnam to Mexico in pursuit of some tacos. At Taqueria El Rey Del Taco, we found them. Will's favorite taqueria stays open well into the wee hours, makes their tortillas each and every day in-house, and whips up a mean michelada. After much discussion debating the merits of goat, tongue, and cheek, we caved and ordered a smattering of pretty much every taco on the menu. We happily sipped our micheladas and snacked on tortilla chips dipped in an array of unidentifiable, delicious sauces, blissfully ignorant of the meat smackdown that was to come.
And oh, what a smackdown it was. A dish approximately the size of a tire, bearing layers and layers of tacos, was plopped on the middle of our table... and the challenge was on. Will tried to narrate our way through the feeding frenzy of tacos, IDing which parts from which animals were in which tortilla, but I think we had been stricken blind with a passionate hunger that only a taco could quell.
In true Mexican style, these tacos weren't stuffed with lettuce and cheese and all that balderdash. Beautifully simple: a pile of meat cradled in a warm tortilla, surrounded by fixins like caramelized onions and cilantro that you were free to sprinkle upon your own taco at will. There might have been twenty of them... and that was only half of it. Will had also ordered a specialty dish, the al pastor, which is unfortunately a mere blur in my memory, thanks to my being overwhelmed by its delicious meat, cheese, and meatcheese piled in to a cast iron skillet. I think there might have been bacon in there.
The hunger had evacuated our bellies. Slowly, we were beginning to feel the effects of gorging on two meals in two hours. Senselessly, we carried on. Our third stop was Gu's Bistro, a windowless little Szechuan Chinese that has nothing, nothing, nothing in common with the "Chinese" restaurants that slip their menus under your door. The dishes of Szechuan cuisine are worlds apart from sesame chicken & co, implementing bold flavors, spiciness, and a sensation unlike any your mouth has experienced before, thanks to the numbing Szechuan peppercorn.
Though it's not easy to find in Atlanta, Gu's has their Szechuan game tight. We ordered lotus root, dan dan noodles (mixed up with finesse by Will), and some sort of fried fish concoction that quite literally melted in one's mouth. (Turns out, that was the spicy fried snapper.) It was about mid-meal that the aftereffects from a pho-and-taco binge set in. Screwing our eyes shut tight and taking deep, Lamaze-esque breaths, we powered through, knowing that it would be foolhardy to pass up a bowl of spicy, slippery dan dan noodles.
When we emerged into the blindingly sunny, humid parking lot, agony set in. There were whispers of a premature surrender. Mike suggested the digestive powers of a shot of Fernet, but none of us were quite sure where to procure such a spirit in the near-deserted Value City shopping center. Mychal announced that he had the meat sweats. I told everyone that I needed to be lanced. Abdomens were clutched in pain. But it was too late to raise the white flag. After all, we'd eaten a solid three meals in a matter of a few hours—it was too late to turn back. We figured at the very least, we should probably take a beer break.
Idiotically, we sprinted across the six or so lanes of traffic to the other side of the highway, where Hai Woon Dae sat nestled behind a strip club called Shooter Alley. It's really a shame that we were, at this point, physically unable to shove more food down our gullets, because Hai Woon Dae is a known destination for Korean barbeque. Settling in to a table and ordering a round of Sapporos and Hite beers (and maybe some sake?), it was pretty painful to watch the staggering volumes of delicious-looking meat being prepared. We knew it was out of the question. Conversation mostly consisted of incoherent moans and long, deflating sighs. But lo! Was it working? Were we really feeling ever so slightly reinvigorated by sitting in a dark, air conditioned restaurant with a cold drink in hand? We closed out our tab — eight Sapporos, nothing more — and emerged into the sun, feeling just a tiny bit better.
Heading back to the Gu's parking lot to retrieve our cars, things started getting weird. The sheer amount of food consumption was somehow starting to affect not only our innards, but our brains, too. Drunk on tacos and pho and whatever that mystery fried fish was, we danced around and leapt on moving automobiles in an attempt to get the blood flowing. And wouldn't you know, all that shaking around seemed to work. We were wary of one last go, but so close to the finish line that we couldn't turn back. We headed to our last meal of the day, a Colombian restaurant called La Casona.
La Casona Taqueria Y Billares is literally a stone's throw from 285, making it about 50 feet inside the perimeter. We trudged into the front door and, after being momentarily distracted by a cardboard cut-out of a Colombian pop star who looked suspiciously like Mike, we took our seats. And this, sadly, is where my memory stops.
I do remember a few things. I remember eating perfectly crisp empanadas, fried plantains, and some kind of sausage. (Mike and Will now inform me that we tackled the bandeja paisa platter, stacked with rice, black beans, chicarrones, steak, fried egg, plantains, avocado, and house-made chorizo.) I remember taking a shot of aguadiente, some devilish form of firewater that someone had tried somewhere during their fancy study abroad years. I remember some kind of shredded chicken. But that's about it. The rest is a blur, an amoebous haze of meat, avocado, and gastric fatigue. We soldiered through our meal, returned to our cars, and woozily made our way back to Atlanta in the early evening. I think I speak for everyone when I say that upon entering my apartment, I knew that absolutely nothing could be done before taking a nap. I woke up three hours later, had a glass of water, watched Bad Boys II, and went back to sleep, with dreams of a kale detox dancing in my head.
Among the many restaurants in Atlanta, from Zagat-rated "New American" to hyped-up "contemporary Southern" eateries, few of their dishes can hold a candle to some of the things we ate that day on Buford Highway. Route 13 is a passageway to dozens of countries' cuisines, and exploring those hole-in-the-stripmall joints should be required reading for any Atlantan. After all, it's pretty amazing that, in walking distance, one can try Vietnamese pho, Mexican tongue tacos, Szechuan dan dan noodles, and Colombian fried plantains. (Just take it from me: don't try to do that all in one afternoon.)