Last week I went on my annual blurp-o-rama tour of Buford Highway with a group of people who bid for it in our school auction. Each year we meet in the morning and proceed to eat in as many restaurants as we can until someone cries uncle or suffers a Mr. Creosote moment, whichever comes first.
Not only did the most recent tour give me fodder for this week’s Restaurant Stories column, but it gave me an opportunity to check out some new places and look into old favorites.
Here’s how our day went:
First stop: Bakery Cafe Maum — This Korean cafe and pastry shop has expanded in the past year, and now has a comfortable dining room with table seating along with a lounge filled with overstuffed armchairs, sofas and low coffee tables. The young server couldn’t have been nicer, heating some of our pastries and cutting others into bite-size pieces so that everyone got a taste. Major hits: flaky buns stuffed with sweet pumpkin mash, cream-filled doughnuts and a kind of deliciously nasty pizza bread topped with ham cubes, corn kernels and artistic squirts of mayonnaise. You want this heated up.
Second stop: Nak Dong Gang — Located in the same upscale shopping center as Maum, this attractive Korean restaurant specializes in all things duck. Plan on getting sold on an order (or half order) of smoked duck that is served as cold, boneless, fat-striated slices. You cook these duck rashers to a sizzly, fatty crisp on a tabletop brazier and eat them with a mild mustard dip and marinated onions. The duck rice porridge (made with such a concentrated dark stock it feels sticky on your lips) is also worth trying. Even though it is only 11:30 in the morning, we wash it down with shots of soju (a clear grain liquor) with crushed cucumber steeping in it.
Third Stop: Buford Highway Farmers Market — In order to give our duck-filled stomachs a rest, we take a walking tour of the highway’s best food store. If you haven’t been lately, go. The remodel is complete and it looks great inside: clean, brightly lit, clear signage. The market even smells better. More shelf space is given to international cuisines that got short shrift before, such as Eastern European countries and Indonesia. In the parking lot, we wolf down a package of kim bap — those wonderful, sesame-scented Korean sushi rolls filled with beef and pickled vegetables.
Fourth Stop: Delicious Kabob Chinese Restaurant — As I noted in the Restaurant Stories column, the sight of the chef in the front demonstration window turning kabobs on the grill with a cigarette dangling from his lips was a surprise. But the food was great at this modest new restaurant. Blissful Glutton had already turned me onto the Sichuan beef — Steak-umm-thin sliver fried to a lip-tinging crisp and tossed with gobs of cilantro and red pepper pods. So we ordered that, along with some new dishes. I really loved the shredded smoked tofu cake tossed with slivers of celery and pork. The leek-and-pork dumplings had such a fresh, clean flavor that one woman in our party got two orders to go for her dinner.
Fifth Stop: Quoc Huong — No one in this group had ever had a banh mi sandwich, so I set about to remedy that situation. This modest Asian Square spot specializes in banh mi, which are ridiculously cheap ($2-$2.50 per) and appear within seconds of ordering. Everything is done right here: the bread spongy-fresh but shattery-crisp crusted, the pickled carrots and daikon piquant, the smear of mayonnaise luxuriant. We tried versions made with shredded chicken, barbecued pork, and a combination of sliced Vietnamese cold cuts and mellow pork liver pate. Even the liver squeamish got over it. A woman sitting at the next table watched us approvingly and made sure we understood that these were the best banh mi in Atlanta. No argument here.
Sixth (and final) Stop: Rincon Latino — I had hoped to wedge a goat taco or Ecuadorean soup into the menu earlier in the day, but everyone at the table shared my passion for Asian foods. So we ended up at this busily efficient Salvadorean spot with a plate of crisp, fragrant pupusas, hot off the griddle. We sampled some stuffed with gooey farmer’s cheese and pickled loroco buds, and others filled with cheese, bean puree and pork chicharrones. It was so delicious, even as we all dropped our forks mid-pupusa and called “uncle.”
“We’ve got company coming over tonight,” one woman in the party moaned. Where’s that cucumber soju when you need it?
Until next year.