Eat Global, Stay Local
By Hope S. Philbrick
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson is the busiest airport in the world, shuttling over 240,000 passengers to more than 150 U.S. and 80 international destinations every day. But once you’ve arrived in Atlanta, you won’t need a passport or frequent flyer membership to savor global cuisines.
In a city where it’s possible to dine out every meal of the day, every day of the week, every month of the year without repeating a restaurant twice, it perhaps comes as no surprise that you can circle the globe here in culinary terms. From swanky fine dining restaurants to humble mom-and-pop shops, this city has it all. There’s perhaps no better place to take a gastronomic tour and no better way to explore Atlanta than by eating.
If a country, region or ethnicity exists on earth, odds are that somewhere in Atlanta there’s a restaurant serving that native cuisine. Here, are some favorites among the hundreds of options. All these picks serve authentic cuisine prepared by chefs who cook from their roots using fresh ingredients, most of which is sourced locally—farm-to-table proof that talented cooks infuse raw ingredients with character.
International flavors are not new to the Atlanta dining scene. With three locations, Grecian Gyro celebrated its 30 anniversary in 2012. “Everything is made using time-honored recipes,” says owner George Koulouris, whose father Nick launched the fast-casual restaurant. “My dad learned to cook from his mom in the same region where Kalamata olives are grown.” The menu features Greek favorites like gyro sandwiches (beef and lamb tucked into a soft pita) and souvlaki (skewers) with nine different protein options plus salads and sides like hand-cut potato dusted with herbs or topped with feta cheese—all priced under $10. Yet flavor draws customer loyalty even more than affordability. “What sets us apart is our sauce,” says Koulouris. Based on a secret family recipe, the tangy blend of herbs and spices is deliciously addictive.
Persian cuisine, which has regional influences from Greek Mediterranean to Indian fare, is elegantly served at Sufi’s.The fine-dining destination stages live musical performances on Friday and Saturday evenings because, as owner Mohsen Roozi says, “a restaurant is more than its food: a restaurant is also its atmosphere, the service, the music.” Meals here start with traditional Persian bread served with sabzi (assorted fresh herbs, feta cheese, walnuts, olives and butter). “Fresh ingredients are most important,” says Roozi. His commitment to quality is evident across the menu, from hummus to shish kabobs (grilled meats and veggies slow-cooked over an open flame), rice dishes adorned with nuts, veggies and dried fruits, wrap sandwiches made with tender meats, and stews like the signature fesenjoon with chicken, ground walnuts and sweet pomegranate.
Cardamom Hill serves up unexpected Indian cuisine. “Most of the Indian food served in the U.S. is from Northern India,” says Chef Asha Gomez, a native of Kerala who cooks the food of her homeland. Situated on the western coast of southern India, the cuisine of Kerala is rich in seafood, coconut, rice and spices such as cardamom, ginger, turmeric and black pepper. “I grew up with my mom and her three sisters making magic in the kitchen,” she says. One bite is all that’s needed to become spellbound with dishes like fish roasted in banana leaf, pork vindaloo that Gomez describes as “our version of barbecue” with a vinegar-tinged sauce, braised short ribs in a smooth roasted coconut sauce, and Kerala-style fried chicken with subtle but addictive spices.
Coconut is also a distinctive element of Thai cuisine, balancing spicy heat with sweetness for delicious harmony. The folks at Bangkok Thyme are perfectionists driven by nostalgia to serve “exactly what we grew up with,” says manager and partner Sakchai Srongprapa. “We approach all the recipes the same as we remember as the ‘real’ taste.” Chef Mala Rujirek takes a zesty approach to classics like pad Thai rice noodles, spicy holy basil chicken with jalapeno pepper sauce, green papaya salad with garlic and Thai bird chili, and Masaman curry flavored with coconut milk and cardamom and topped with cashew nuts and avocado. “In our dishes you get a burst of all flavors,” says Srongprapa. “Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savory.” It’s a scrumptious blend.
Glimpse the depth and breadth of Atlanta’s diversity with a drive along Buford Highway. While other cities have distinct neighborhoods (e.g., “China Town”) here restaurants and other businesses of various nationalities sit side-by-side. Tucked into a corner of a strip mall that’s angled behind a gas station, it’s difficult to spot Co’m Vietnamese Grill from the street. But it’s worth the search. Chef Tuyet Nguyen serves flavorful traditional dishes with Chinese, French and Thai influences. Marked by fresh ingredients and clean flavors, favorites like satay char-grilled chicken seasoned with lemongrass and ginger, fragrant rice infused with tropical flavors, pickled daikon and carrot sandwich, and “bo luc lac” beef seared in a shaken wok with onions, veggies and special sauce uniquely satisfy.
Billed as “a destination unparalled,” 10 Degrees South specializes in South African cuisine. Stroll in and feel transported to Cape Town with its sleek, contemporary décor infused with animal prints, folk art and earthy elements. South African cuisine fuses African continent cooking traditions with French, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch, German and Malaysian influences. Dishes feature game meats, seafood, seasonal produce and intoxicating spices. Boerewors (lean beef sausage) is served with a side of tomato onion sauce; calamari arrives tossed in tangy lemon butter or spicy peri-peri sauce made with the hot Birds Eye Pepper; Cape Kingclip, a firm white fish, is grilled to perfection and served with thick lemon butter sauce, rice and vegetables; chicken curry is accompanied by banana slices, diced tomatoes, coconut flakes and mango chutney. For dessert don’t skip Di’s Delight: The restaurateur’s mom makes her moist fruit sponge cake fresh each day.
For a more “hands-on” African dining experience try Desta Ethiopian Kitchen. Traditionally, Ethiopian cuisine is consumed not with forks but with pinched pieces of injera, a spongy sour flatbread made of teff flour—though if it’s an issue utensils are allowed here. Co-owners Ashenafi Nega and Titi Demisse modernize classic recipes by toning down spice levels (that can be tailored to order) and ramping up the freshness and quality of ingredients. Fish is delivered daily and vegetables are sourced locally while spices are imported from “back home,” says Nega, including cardamom and berbere, a blend of dried ground chilies, garlic, ginger, basil, pepper and the fenugreek herb. The best-selling vegetable platter presents eight delicious concoctions. Kitfo (beef tartar), fish tibs (sautéed marinated tilapia), and dulet (ground beef, liver and trip sautéed in house spices) are also popular. Desta means joy or happiness in the Amharic language, which is how this place makes diners feel.
Irish pubs are also known for their upbeat vibe. Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant is a casual place where you’ll feel welcomed upon opening the door. Founded by three Irish and Irish-American entrepreneurs, the pub first opened in Atlanta in 1996 (the owners currently operate 14 locations across the U.S.). To infuse the space with an authentic vibe, the three-level venue was created in Dublin by the Irish Pub Company and shipped overseas. Still, “a pub isn’t so much about the décor as the interaction between people,” says James Moore, director of development. So staff members are friendly folks not shy about starting conversations. Several beers and whiskeys are imported from Ireland, as are the smoked salmon, lamb, bacon and sausages Chef Bryan McAllister transforms into traditional dishes like bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, fish and chips, shepherd’s pie and more.
European cuisine has strong traditions yet also emphasizes innovation. “Spanish ingredients and cuisine are a good canvas for being creative,” says Federico Castellucci III, a fifth-generation restaurateur and co-owner of The Iberian Pig Kitchen & Bar. The goal at this Spanish restaurant is to create unique, standout dishes. Complex flavors reign. “We believe in slow roasting to let layered flavors develop,” says Chef Chad Crete. Pork cheeks for the popular tacos are roasted eight hours. Goat is slow braised a minimum of six hours until it’s fall-off-the-bone tender for creamy, hearty cabrito carbonara. While imported ingredients lend authenticity, local and organic ingredients are used as much as possible. Because Castellucci believes a dining experience is not just about food but also about people, he makes a point of working the room.
-Photo Credits: Grecian wraps by Cassi Batchelor Sassafras Photography; thali courtesy Cardamom Hill / 360 Media; spicy basil courtesy Bangkok Thyme; prawns Sara Hanna Photography; vegatarian platter courtesy Desta Ethiopian Kitchen; fish and chips courtesy Fadó Irish Pub & Restaurant.