Most metropolitan American cities offer geographically defined Chinatowns, kosher corners and Italian enclaves easily accessible to pedestrians seeking affordable ethnic eateries. Not so in the postmodern sprawl of metro Atlanta.
Our city's Asian and Latino restaurants are, for the most part, scattered among a glut of familiar fast-food chains, mysterious massage and herbal "healing" parlors and weekly rental "home-tels" that spontaneously scatter the surreal stretches of Buford Highway.
Food court cacophony: An unusual Asian/Latino mall, Plaza Fiesta offers one of few anchors among the acrimony of this sprawling street. While the shopping center's outlying stores such as Burlington Coat Factory and Marshall's are generically familiar, the inside of the mall is anything but. Narrow alleys ooze with shiny, silver-plated spinning wheels and multi-colored Madonnas. Loud mariachi music competes against the soap operas that are shown on large-screen TVs surrounding the food court. While children run toward flashing video games and spiraling slides, adults choose sustenance from one of the unusual food court eateries.
Get your goat and then some: Carnitas Michoacan is clearly the most popular spot within the mall's center. The tacos consist of fluffy homemade tortillas filled generously with beef and pork perfectly moist from slow roasting. The goat tacos have an interesting flavor but are a bit stringy to eat gracefully.
Mariscolandia serves up the most intriguing fast-food fare -- fresh seafood in glass goblets. The Mexican shrimp cocktail seems pricey at $9.50, but this mixture of gazpacho-like sauce full of fresh avocado, onions and plump shrimp served with condiments is enough for three. The ceviche (raw fish cured in lime, cilantro, et al) is artfully finessed. I love the seafood soup, where perfectly cooked octopus, shrimp and delicate fish are allowed to float in an unadulterated light broth reminiscent of the shore.
La Fonda Paisa features Colombian snacks, which are mild in spice and voluptuous in texture. The arripes, savory donuts stuffed with various fillings and served with a mild herb-and-oil side sauce, are comfort food from some Latina grandma I must have known in a past life.
Sweetness Comes in Strange Shapes: Atlanta Churros features long, serrated cigar-shaped doughnuts served plain for $1.50 or piped with vanilla, chocolate or tropical fruit flavors for $2.
La Suprema, an authentic Mexican bakery, offers large, pastel-colored breads and sweets in artistic forms. One of the best bets, however, is the unassuming pastel de elote, a corn cake mixed with coconut or nuts -- the perfect combination of sweet and savory mystery ingredients all moistened with some sort of delectable dairy dew.
Other attractions include Taqueria Norteña and Puras Tortas. And for the non-adventurous, there's always Michael's Pizza, which offers slices as fine as any other mall: crust topped with sauce in a box.
Plaza Fiesta, however, is a place where it's best to combine the sensible and the sensational. Buy some business blouses at Burlington Coat Factory and then purchase some silver bling, a Day-Glo-bright religious icon and some delicious octopus rings.