The strip mall sandwiched between Buford Highway and Clairmont Avenue transforms itself every so many years. Its current incarnation, Plaza Fiesta, with its eye-popping colored walls, is probably its most significant in a while. Its two throwaway anchors -- a seedy Marshalls and Burlington Coat Factory -- can be overlooked. But its diverse mix of Mexican, Cuban, Colombian, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants are all within walking distance of one another.
Mexican wonderland: Walk in the front side (facing Buford Highway) at the Clinica de la Mama and you find an open-air video arcade and a large jungle gym to keep the kids happy. There's usually a music event or contest going on, which keeps things lively throughout the day or evening. There's also spill-over from whatever band is playing at the DeKalb Atlanta Centre, which is located around back.
Food court fun: There's not a Mickey D's or Chick-fil-A in sight at the mall's food court. (Can you imagine?) Tacos La Nortena (404-320-0770) offers Mexican, Cuban and Colombian cuisine. My Spanish-speaking dining partner tried the chicken enchiladas with salsa verde ($6.95) and a side of refried beans and rice. They were filling, if not very fancy. Canadian-born owner/manager Dianne Babyak pegged me as a non-Spanish-speaker and presented me with the gringo menu. But I chose one of the daily specials, the yucca con carnitas ($8.95), large chunks of pork tossed with fried hunks of yucca and topped with a vinegary slaw of carrots and cabbage. The dish was good, but could've been great if it had come with the lemon-and-garlic dipping sauce that often accompanies such dishes. The biggest disappointment was the pupusas ($1.65), which were too bready -- not cheesy -- and contained no chopped pork, as far as I could tell.
I was tempted to order the lengua quesadilla ($3.89) at Sonora Tacos Express. Then I decided I wasn't up for cow-tongue no matter how much cheese was oozing around it. Tongue also shows up in a burrito ($2.99) along with more traditional chicken, beef, pork and barbecue filling options. Tortas (sandwiches) include similar stuffings.
Mariscolandia (404-315-1030) is the priciest of the restaurants, with plenty of camarón (shrimp) choices, including quesadillas ($6.50), breaded and fried plates ($10), and shrimp with octopus ($8.50). Of course, if you're not that daring, there's always the hot dog ($3).
On the flip side: Along the front of the building are several pho shops (including the ever-popular Pho 79, 404-728-9129) as well as the Chinese restaurant Happy Valley. One of the best pho shops in the city, Pho Ca Dao (404-982-0700), is a good quick stop for hearty meat and vegetables steeped in soothing broth. The pho ga ($5.25) includes chicken -- and for red-meat eaters, there are plenty of brisket and flank steak varieties. The fresh spring rolls ($2.25) hit the spot.