Where to find great old- and new-school Chinese food in Atlanta

Excellent Chinese, regardless of how you define what's authentic

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Golden Buddha's interior
Golden Buddha’s interior

Photograph by John Song

Old-School

Gilded and Americanized

Discussions have long raged about what is and isn’t authentic Chinese food and whether or not Chinese restaurants are allowed to evolve with the times. Meanwhile, one proudly old-school place on Clairmont Road near Toco Hills has for 44 years served a loyal clientele—a solid mix of Westerners and Asians—in a low-ceilinged dining room guarded by an enormous gilded statue.

When Been Lee opened Golden Buddha in 1975, there was no doubt that his kitchen had to please locals who would eat pretty much anything as long as it was fried, sweet, and came in large portions. Generations of Atlantans made a ritual of these Americanized Chinese dishes, from sweet and sour chicken to pork with broccoli, egg drop soup to (of course) fried rice.

Sweet and sour chicken

Photograph by John Song

But Lee, who is Chinese and was born and raised in Korea, also offers a far spicier and more distinctive Korean menu with hallmark dishes such as jjajangmyun (flour noodles with a thick, salty, smoky sauce made from fermented soybeans) with shrimp, squid, pork, and onions; a bright-red jjamppong (a seafood noodle soup with scallops, squid, and shrimp in a broth spiked with hot chilies); and colossal Empress Chicken Wings with a rich, garlicky lacquer coating flesh that’s been partially flayed from the bone, to facilitate otherwise messy eating.

Bossy, well-dressed waiters deliver dishes in minutes, telling you how much sauce to put on your noodles, and a constant scrum of business reminds you why a place like Golden Buddha can’t be improved upon.

Urban Wu's modern interior
Urban Wu’s interior

Photograph by John Song

New-School

Minimalist yet still transportive

Part of a new generation of Chinese restaurants, Xiao’s Way Noodle House, which opened this spring in Johns Creek, is embracing a modern aesthetic and an impersonal style of service. To order, you pencil in what you want from a printed list and wait for a buzzer’s summons. If you order correctly, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous, handmade soup dumplings (xiao long bao) served hot in a steamer; Chinese pork, chicken, or beef burgers (rou jia mo) on crisped steamed buns; and, for lunch, Taiwanese bento boxes with pick-your-own proteins and veggies.

When it comes to choosing from the huge selection of noodles, however, the process easily goes off the rails. How are you supposed to know that the stir-fry you ordered is, in fact, a deep-fried basket of thick noodles with seafood inside? And what about the beef noodle soup versus the spicy beef noodle soup? Discussing the merits of both with a real human could have helped you make a better choice.

Hunan Chicken

Photograph by John Song

Sleek, modern places such as Xiao’s, Ah-Ma’s Taiwanese Kitchen in Midtown, Gu’s Kitchen in Chamblee, Urban Wu in Buckhead, and Hai Authentic Chinese in Decatur may feel emotionally cold to the Golden Buddha crowd, but all five are true to their culture and backed by serious kitchens. The food will transport you to Taiwan or Sichuan, even if the dining room doesn’t. So, while you may like the pomp and showmanship—not to mention the community vibe—of the old-school Chinese restaurants, you’ll likely find a more enlightened menu at the minimalist places that eschew the red and the gold.

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

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