A Beginner's Guide to Atlanta's Buford Highway

Immigrants transformed a string of average suburbs into one of the South's most fascinating places. Here's how you can get to know it better.

Buford Highway Farmer's Market
Photo: ©2016, Kevin C. Rose | AtlantaPhotos.com

The first rule of travel in the Southeast, whether by land or by air, appears to be that all roads lead to Atlanta, at least eventually. For many, this means a visit to the city's breathtakingly busy airport or time spent on one of six interstates, or the countless other heavily trafficked roads that came before. For the rest of us, for those looking to make the journey genuinely interesting, there's a particularly memorable way in, the best way, really, even if not nearly as efficient as any of the above, and that is Buford Highway.

Kicking things off as a semi-rural two-lane byway roughly 40 minutes northeast of downtown Atlanta, and requiring just the tiniest detour from I-85, the road is officially designated as U.S. Highway 23. Like so many U.S. Highways, this one was once far more important to intercity travel than it is today. Just because you can go faster now does not mean you go better — from way up north and all the way into town, where the road swells to at least six lanes, lurching toward the final junction only a few minutes from the glittering heart of Buckhead, Buford Highway offers a quick and fascinating introduction to modern, often only lightly understood or appreciated Atlanta, and the region's highly diverse population.

Since the late 1970s, Buford Highway, particularly the stretch in close proximity to Atlanta's always-busy Perimeter (I-285), has attracted immigrants from all over the world, transforming towns like Chamblee and Doraville rather completely. Today, the area is home to one of the most concentrated foreign-born populations in the country, never mind the South, having more in common culturally with the likes of Southern California than the surrounding region.

Driving along the route, even right up at the beginning, you can see — quite literally — the signs: Gangnam Sauna, Islamic Home Financing, Taqueria, Atlanta Tamil Church, Halal Supermarket. Slowly, the momentum builds, announcing your approach to the city proper — pho parlors, panaderias, Cambodian cuisine, Bangladeshi restaurants, strip mall after shopping center packed with so many restaurant choices, you'd need weeks or even months to get a firm grip on what exactly is going on around you.

Slightly overwhelming, yes — what the Atlanta Journal-Constitution once called the Global Bazaar of The South is one of those places that seems like it might take forever to truly get a handle on, and that's the whole point — this is a place that keeps you coming back, again and again, because every time you think you're getting close, everything appears to have changed, yet again.

Of course, there are ways for even the least familiar visitors to brush up against Buford Highway's best bits, which you will find not only convenient to the Perimeter, but in some cases, MARTA — the Chamblee and Doraville stations are within not-particularly-scenic walking distance of many of Buford Highway's best shopping centers and restaurants, and despite the strip's reputation for punishing car-centricity, there are workarounds for determined pedestrians. (Always proceed with caution.)

New to Atlanta? Passing through town? After multiple visits and so many times driving end to end over the years, here are just a few essential stops to get you acclimated.

Buford Highway Farmers Market

Since the 1970's, this Perimeter-adjacent temple for fresh produce — and a rather large one, at roughly 100,000 square feet — has brought the best of the world to local shoppers, from local ramps in the springtime to Thai guavas in the dead of winter. Owned by a local Korean family, this is a farmers market in the Atlanta sense, which is to say, it is a giant indoor grocery store, celebrated for carrying one of the most studiously diverse ranges of offerings of any market in the country. Note: The market is easily and safely reached on foot from the Doraville MARTA station — come around the back, past the Las Delicias de la Abuela restaurant, which serves Colombian-style burgers, hot dogs, barbecued ribs, and so much else, late into the evening.

Plaza Fiesta

Whether you're in the market for cowboy boots or a quinceañera gown, or you just need to pick up a little something at the botanica, this 350,000-square-foot shopping center — parts of it extensively themed — looks and feels more like the inner-ring suburbs of Los Angeles than something on the other side of the country, and certainly not something 10 minutes or so from the glitz of Lenox Square. Part shopping plaza, part indoor flea market, with a food court (where good vendors seem to come and go, all too quickly), a rather complete supermarket with its own taqueria inside, and even a nightclub, there's a lot to take in here. One of the most interesting stops at the moment is the low-key Ethiopian cafe tucked into the far back corner, facing out to Clairmont Road; stop in for a cup of strong coffee and contemplate the wealth of lunch options within easy grasp, beginning right across the highway at the iconic Lee's Bakery, known to many a local as the home of expert-level banh mi and pho.

Atlanta Chinatown

You'll need to make the briefest detour from Buford Highway to get to this impressive complex, but it's also one of the easiest places to get to via MARTA, located nearly across the street from the Chamblee station. Centered around a pleasant garden courtyard, you can do all kinds of shopping here, food included — the on-site market has its own bakery and cafe — but many visitors are here exclusively for the food court. From the slightly Americanized (but still good) hot pot and Szechuan place to the Hong Kong-style BBQ vendor that's much better than the uninitiated visitor might have expected to ever find in Atlanta, nobody's going away hungry. A very Buford Highway thing: There's also a Mexican bar — as in, an actual cantina, not another margs + chips + guac factory — at the far corner of the mall.

Food Terminal

Bubble teas and breads at Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe are an essential Buford Highway stop for many; the owners of that particular spot struck gold again with this casual, modern hang for what's billed as Malaysian cooking, but actually ends up more Malaysian-ish, skating rather freely around Asia for inspiration. When you think about where you are, this seems only fitting. From Hainanese chicken to kimchi fried rice, roti canal to big plates of char siu pork, you're covered here. There are certainly plenty of restaurants nearby with a more singular focus, starting next door at the also quite modern Dish Korean Cuisine or the thoroughly Malaysian Mamak, just up the street, but Food Terminal feels like the one that's having all the fun.

White Windmill Bakery & Cafe

One of the things you quickly learn about Buford Highway is that it has a lot of everything, and that certainly goes for bakeries. While you could easily content yourself with chain imports like Paris Baguette or Tous Les Jours and go away quite happy, you'd be missing out on something far better. With only two locations, both right here in Atlanta, this homegrown Korean bakery is what so many of the chains might have been before they went multinational. From soft buns stuffed with strawberries and fresh cream to fairly impressive kouign amann and madeleines, there's a stunning amount to choose from and a generous amount of samples laid out that will likely result in you walking out with far more than you might have expected. (It also helps that prices are more than reasonable.) Bonus: There's a pretty good coffee bar in here, too.

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