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His way on the Highway

Three ethnic adventures along the city's favorite culinary corridor

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When you eat for a living, the meaning of food morphs in unexpected ways. There is, at worst, the way food can become a means of torturing others. And there is, less cruelly, the way the jaded palate can turn a traditional feast into something to be avoided. I indulged both perversions on Buford Highway last week.

Let's start with the second perversion. I know it's heresy, but the typical Thanksgiving bores me. No amount of nostalgia and warm fuzzy feelings can make me happy about facing an endless meal of turkey and dressing. People proffer their exotically concocted dressing like manna and I want to fall asleep. My own mother got bored with the traditional meal many years ago, and God bless her for turning to alternatives -- weird catered meals or experiments with nontraditional dishes.

So every year when Thanksgiving rolls around, Wayne and I avoid discussing it until the last moment. He's certainly more of a traditionalist than me but, like me, has become so over-exposed to food that we joyously celebrate days we don't have to eat as "freedom from food days."

Last year, we had Thanksgiving dinner on the floor at Imperial Fez, eating with our hands while belly dancers undulated about us. That was cool. This year was even more informal. We went to the festive El Rey del Taco (5288 Buford Highway, 770-986-0032). Martin Macias, the owner, is apparently the "king of the taco" who gives the Mexican cafe its name.

The place was packed on Thanksgiving, mainly with Latinos, although an Asian woman sat at the booth next to ours and when I asked her how her enchiladas were, she replied, "Too long! Too long!" She was referring to the wait for them, not their length. We had no such complaint. The servers, beautiful young women with heartbreaking smiles, though not very articulate in English, were prompt and did their best to translate dishes for us.

The menu here is much vaster than the average Buford Highway taqueria. Everyone's favorites are the $1 mini-tacos, almost dumpling-like snacks made with corn tortillas. I like the al pastor best, but you might enjoy the "tripa," translated on the menu as "chitlins bowels."

You'll find huge seafood cocteles, sandwiches, fried fish, fajitas, burritos, seafood soups and grilled specialties with which you can make your own tacos. I ordered a "mixta" of carnitas and al pastor. The al pastor turned out to be pork and steak marinated in pineapple juice and chiles. The carnitas were soft and chewy, less flavorful. The dish came with grilled onions, lots of white cheese, avocado, jalapeños, tomatoes and a ton of tocino, which is basically bacon. It's enough to make 10 big tacos and thus enough for two people.

Wayne ordered the Alambre, made with mild chiles, grilled beef, cactus (nopales), tocino and melted cheese. It too was enough for two people. Wayne ate every bit of it. He also drank a michelada -- perhaps the vilest drink on the planet. It's beer on ice with lemon and tomato juices, spiked with hot sauce.

El Rey has a long bar and two comfy dining rooms. Blue glass balls and star-shaped lamps hang from the ceiling, along with fake, trailing plants. There's a TV screen big enough to show the Cinerama version of The Sound of Music. Walls feature colors unknown outside Mexico.

To conclude our Thanksgiving meal, we visited nearby Mozart Bakery (5301 Buford Highway, 770-936-8726). This is one of countless Korean bakeries along Buford Highway. It apparently is trying to appeal to a broad cross-section since it offers a lot of coffee drinks as well as teas. One wall is lined with shelves holding sugary, mainly delicious pastries. I pigged out on a walnut cake while Wayne, more fascinated by the shapes than likely tastes, picked something screwy-looking with custard.

There are booths behind an iron fence decorated with big cubes of granite. As we left, we were treated to one of those rare cinematic moments. The only other people in the shop were a table split evenly with folks of Korean and American descent. A young couple was the obvious center of attention. They were all quiet and awkward. "Well," said one of the older people suddenly, "are you two ever going to get married or not?" The couple looked at one another and looked at me, as if pleading for rescue. I laughed. They laughed. "Soon, maybe!" the young Korean girl blurted.

A few days later, I embarked on perversion number two by inviting friends to meals I thought might torture them. Jeff joined me at Jeon Tong Korean Noodle House (5205 Buford Highway, 770-455-3211). He'd joined me for dim sum at the newly reopened Canton House a few weeks earlier and when I urged him to pick up the pace of his eating, he cried, "I'm doing the best I can!"

Now, looking around the cheerful Jeon Tong, he announced, "It's good to be adventurous." Then he ordered chicken soup. I insisted we first have some dumplings -- the spicy ones made with kimchi and tofu. To my surprise, he loved them. He liked the chicken soup, too, but what's not to like?

My own dish, classic bibimbap, was the usual rice with a variety of toppings, including a fried egg, but also featured a cured fish I'd never encountered before, plus an especially flavorful sauce.

A few days later, I took my friend Luke, a broadcast journalism student, to his first meal at Penang (4897 Buford Highway, 770-220-0308), one of our city's most unique venues. I have never taken anyone here who didn't end up loving the spicy Malaysian food. We started with chewy roti canai and the omelet made with baby oysters.

Then I ordered lamb rendang and Luke ordered sesame chicken with shrimp toast. We could not finish the entrees and I suggested he take the leftovers home to his family. We then visited Koryodang (5268 Buford Highway, 770-452-8880), another Korean bakery where Luke ate a pastry stuffed with custard and red beans. The next day he told me he skipped school and his mother had heartburn.

Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.

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