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Back to Buford

To discover Atlanta's true culinary bounty, head for the Highway

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Hysteria is sweeping Atlanta's foodie community. Friends, wringing their hands in the gym, told me last week that with the departure of the city's three best chefs -- Guenter Seeger, Richard Blais and Sotohiro Kosugi -- they might as well eat at home from now on.

But I told them the same thing my editor, Besha Rodell, observed in her article last week. Seeger's, despite the genius of its chef, was an inhospitable and absurdly overpriced restaurant. Likewise, Soto's service was notoriously bad. Why Richard Blais had to move, I'm not sure. He seemed to me to have hit the perfect balance between the esoteric, the playful and the sensual.

There's a simple solution to my friends' complaint that there's nothing interesting to eat in town now: Head to Buford Highway. I know many mainstream Atlantans are still intimidated or squeamish about dining in restaurants where the staffs speak little English and the menus often include animals and organs heretofore unknown as edible.

I hit three Buford Highway spots last week, dining alone in two of them, since it is far easier to take a book to an ethnic restaurant than convince the average friend to accompany me to House of Jellyfish (or whatever).

Rose D'Agostino did accompany me to Hae Woon Dae (5805 Buford Hwy., 770-458-6999). This popular Korean restaurant has repeatedly won Best of Atlanta awards from Creative Loafing and other publications for its cooked-at-the-table barbecue.

In all honesty, the restaurant is becoming a bit ragged. The ventilator over our table's grill was partially held together with packing tape and, worse, it didn't even seem to be working. In fact, an air-conditioning vent in the ceiling some distance away had more power and kept blowing the cooking smoke in my face. The server suggested I sit with Rose on the opposite side of the table.

But the place is still a trip. Even finding it -- in a shopping center with an adult movie theater -- is a trip. Inside, you'll find a décor that looks straight out of Blade Runner -- a multicultural mix that includes dozens of athletic trophies and the usual ethnic knick-knacks. The strangest moment is always when a man hustles out with a huge lump of fiery charcoal to dump in your table's grill. His nonchalance with the fire hazard is a bit disconcerting, but it's the charcoal that makes the food so tasty.

The menu is enormous, but in all my visits there, the servers have always pushed the first barbecue item, boneless short ribs, and the classic marinated beef, bulgogi. We dutifully agreed. The only other item we ordered was a plate of crispy fried pork dumplings.

As in most Korean restaurants, you receive an assortment of 10 or so noshes at the meal's beginning -- kimchi, bean sprouts, seaweed, for example. These are good nibbled while your meat is grilling or eaten with the barbecue. Typically, you dunk the barbecued meat in a sauce, then fold it into a big lettuce leaf with the condiments, including an intensely salty bean paste that, for me, always starts out as overwhelming and ends up addictive.

When I've not been in the mood for barbecue here, I've enjoyed choosing from the extensive menu of bibimbap creations. Bibimbap is a bowl of rice topped with grilled meats and vegetables, frequently with a fried egg and some red chile sauce.

Few restaurants in the area have produced as many raves in the last year or so as Chef Liu (5221 Buford Hwy., 770-936-0532). In fact, it produced so many raves so quickly, I didn't visit it until last week. But I'm here to testify. It's the best.

Yes, it's located in a prefabricated free-standing building in the middle of Pine Tree Plaza. There are two tiny, nondescript dining rooms. If you grab the right seat, as I did, you can get a view of the kitchen, where the staff performs the alchemy of making delicious, fragrant soups and probably the city's best dumplings. Prices are so low, Guenter Seeger would curl his lip.

Fortunately for me, I became friendly with a couple of English-speaking Chinese kids when I dined there alone. When I ordered a soup full of roasted, juicy brisket and thick noodles, they insisted I order a cruller -- a north China version of the French donut. Here, it's used to sop up whatever liquid you're eating.

Besides the soup, I ordered some bitter melon and shredded tofu, skipping the pig tongues and ears. Both were pleasant counterpoints to the soup (to which you should add all the diced pickles brought with it).

The dumplings are everyone's favorite here. You can get them with pork, sour vegetables, beef, lamb, shrimp -- even celery. They are fried until glossy and slightly crisp.

After my new friends declined to accept my mountain of leftovers, I took everything home. The dumplings do not reheat well, but they were delicious submerged in my leftover beef noodle soup.

Restaurante Guatemala (3384 Shallowford Road, 678-205-1412) is the latest tenant of the building that was the beloved Stringer's Fish Camp for so many years.

Warning: If you don't speak Spanish, don't expect to have a conversation here. You won't even be able to read the sign on your way in that they only accept cash. The main menu is translated, vaguely, but a list of specials will mystify you even after the server explains them in Spanish.

I found the food mediocre, but more new friends at the booth behind me, two Guatemalan plate glass installers, assured me that I should have ordered one of the special lunch stews instead of the carne adobada, translated as "pickled meat."

Actually, it was a thin steak heavily seasoned with red chile and other spices -- similar but with sharper notes than the Mexican version. It was served with tepid black beans into which the server, laughing, told me to stir the sour "crema" she'd brought to the table. You also crumble a bland cheese over the beans.

I've had this same dish at other restaurants and found it much better.

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