Atlanta doesn’t have a Little Italy or Chinatown, but it does have its own United Nations found on Buford Highway. The thoroughfare spans 7 miles through three counties and experienced an influx of Asian and Latin immigrants in the 1970s. The cheap rent allowed first-generation immigrants to open their own restaurants, giving other immigrants a place to go. While it’s developed a dedicated following of adventurous eaters, a destination for the typical Atlantan it was not. There was no glitz or glamour here—the street is in a period of transition—but a new light is emanating from “BuHi” as it experiences a resurgence, with a fresh crop of restaurants leading the way.
Sweet Hut Bakery & Cafe opened its doors in 2012 giving Atlantans an updated version of the area’s Chinese bakeries. With plush seats and bright decor, Sweet Hut lured patrons in with trendy bubble tea and a plethora of pastries. The founders, Howie Ewe, brother Patrick Ewe and Patrick’s wife, Amy Wong, immigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia and brought their penchant for cooking with them.
Five years later, Sweet Hut is on its way to being crowned an empire with multiple Atlanta locations (and two in Texas) and they were ready for a new idea: a Malaysian restaurant.
The resulting Food Terminal opened to resounding applause from critics and casual diners alike in the spring of 2017. Bursting with energy, Food Terminal sets itself apart from BuHi staples with a blend of modernity and well-executed food. The restaurant was carefully designed to reflect its roots and is reminiscent of a Malaysian food court with high ceilings, plenty of tables and tinges of neon. The bright space is punctuated by neon signs with Chinese characters that translate into different food items and hearken back to the night markets in Malaysia.
Even in a melting pot as diverse as BuHi, Malaysian isn’t a common cuisine. For the uninitiated, Malaysian food is an amalgam of native and regional Indian and Chinese cuisines influenced by Malaysia’s location in Southeast Asia. Food Terminal’s expansive menu (presented with flair as a glossy magazine) offers drool-inducing dishes like the tangy Szechuan steamed wontons and the show-stopping Cheese N’ Cheese, an over-the-top fried rice dish presented in a sizzling cast iron pan. You’ll also find comfort foods like the Grandma Wonton Barbecue Pork, a satisfying Cantonese combination of Food Terminal’s signature thin noodles tossed with pork, bok choy and a fried egg.
Wong and the Ewe brothers knew they had to wait until the time was right to open Food Terminal. “We’re slowly starting to see that people are accepting of different types of ethnic foods. A few years ago, maybe Malaysian food wouldn’t be quite as popular but Atlanta has a growing foodie culture, so they’re willing to try new ethnic flavors,” says Jane Ewe, the general manager. “There really isn’t a lot of Malaysian food on BuHi, but we’re trying to make it easy for people to want to give it a try.”
This synthesis of high-end design and elevated cuisine isn’t limited to just Food Terminal. Pop into Food Terminal’s neighbor, Dish Korean Cuisine, and find a tranquil setting with neutral wood decor and delicious Korean classics. Or drive a mile up the road to Tea House Formosa. The stylish Taiwanese cafe with white brick walls and mid-century modern furniture offers unique tea drinks (try the tea con pana) and treats that are perfect for lunch or a snack.
BuHi’s evolution isn’t just about aesthetically pleasing restaurants, as the national spotlight moves north from the cozy confines of inside Atlanta’s Perimeter. Masterpiece, a Szechuan joint in Duluth, is nestled in an unassuming strip mall with bare-bones décor. Don’t judge a book by its cover, though, because executive chef and owner Liu Ri (a native of Harbin, China) was nominated for the 2017 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast. Akin to the Oscars of the food world, the nomination ranks Ri in the same echelon as other esteemed Atlanta chefs like Steven Satterfield (Miller Union) and Kevin Gillespie (Gunshow). Ri’s nomination is all the more remarkable when you consider that, unlike the other chefs, he doesn’t have a public relations team working to put his restaurant on the map. But he’s perfected his craft and word spread that Masterpiece is a restaurant worth the drive out of the city. If you make your way there, try the fried eggplant with chili and pepper ash powders, as well as the twice cooked pork—thinly sliced pork belly cooked in a brown sauce with scallions.
During this exciting time to be on Buford Highway, will more restaurants like Food Terminal open? “Definitely,” Ewe says.