When it comes to scouting for global eats, I could stick pins on a map of metro Atlanta, knowing where I’ll find restaurants catering to Vietnamese or Chinese or Korean or Mexican communities. Immigrant populations often settle in one area and stick together. But Duluth’s Santa Fe Mall (3750 Venture Drive, 770-622-9000, mallsantafe.com), located between Steve Reynolds Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road, surprised me.
It originally opened as Venture Mall, when it was best known for its second-run movie theater (which still exists). The place was rechristened in 2011 and tailored specifically toward Latinos. Duluth is a place where Asian businesses—including massive centers like Super H Mart and the Great Wall Supermarket—thrive. But Gwinnett’s Hispanic population grew around 150 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census, and now makes up about one-eighth of the county’s residents. It’s further fuel for the theory that Duluth is starting to edge out Buford Highway as our nexus of diverse eats.
Santa Fe Mall feels less congested than Buford Highway’s Plaza Fiesta but has the same energetic character. It houses an indoor playground, a family health center, and a warren of small stores selling fancy Western boots, frilly wedding dresses, and soccer gear. Best of all, though, the mall is home to a handful of modest but enchanting Mexican and Colombian food businesses. As fewer immigrants seem to be opening the kind of holes-in-the-wall that make for thrilling discoveries, this collection of counters is an especially welcome jaunt through authentic-minded dishes.
Does the idea of venturing into a mall that doubles as a cultural immersion experience sound intimidating? It isn’t. We’re essentially talking about a food court, and the format is as universal as the one at Lenox Square. Most of the counters include both the dishes on display and pictures of their specialties. Point to what looks enticing, and the friendly staffs take it from there, often bringing plates to your table.
Visiting on weekends particularly rewards, when cooks often prepare additional unique dishes and families fill the mall’s corridors and food-court tables. Start your explorations with the six delicias shown above.
This article originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.
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