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With gold accents and shimmering flower chandeliers, Royal China's new space in Duluth literally shines. Arrive early to beat the crowds for excellent dim sum.
The most global culinary destination in Gwinnett, the metro area’s most international county, at first glance looks like a typical American food court. But the bazaar inside Duluth’s Assi Plaza brings together the cuisines of Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, the Philippines, and Peru under one roof. Compared to the other Asian hypermarkets—Super H Mart, Great Wall Supermarket, and Mega Mart—opened in recent years along Pleasant Hill Road, Assi (which launched in 2009) delivers the most cross-cultural reach. In its food court, counters with attractive, uniform signage face a common dining area with wood-grain, laminated tables grouped on a linoleum floor that draws the eye with its sunny colors. Every vendor posts backlit pictures of staggeringly diverse menu items.
A decade ago, Atlanta's Chinese food scene went through a tantalizing phase in which Buford Highway restaurant owners would constantly lure away each other's best dim sum cooks, who swapped loyalties like a culinary Game of Thrones. Out of those competitive switcheroos came impeccably fresh dumplings and other snacky tidbits wheeled through large dining rooms on jangling, tempting carts.
For ages the most famous restaurant in Johns Creek, the golf-obsessed town in north Fulton County where office parks and subdivisions define the landscape, was Sia’s. The eclectic bistro mirrored the fusion cuisine fashionable in 1990s Buckhead. Sia’s closed quietly last year, and its space turned into a Persian buffet, one example of how the population—and the dining scene—has become increasingly international.
When I think of Peter Cheng, I imagine him in his tall, white chef's hat, walking down the road alone like Bill Bixby in the old Incredible Hulk series, trailed by sad piano music as he moves from one kitchen to the next. Cheng, who last December set up shop in Atlanta for the second time in five years, has made inscrutability as much of a trademark as his arousing, incendiary Szechuan dishes.
Four years ago, local food fanatics discovered the Szechuan cooking of Peter Cheng in a scruffy Marietta strip-mall joint called Tasty China—an innocuous name that became synonymous with nuclear meltdowns of the mouth. Cheng, who had two food writers chasing after him for the New Yorker and the Oxford American this year, possesses a culinary charisma that is two parts Pied Piper and one part Marquis de Sade: He wrangles devotees, hurting them so good with his "hot and numbing" beef rolls and his fried eggplant riddled with chiles, and then he leaves them for a restaurant in another town.
The former location of Chef Liu was one of the great eccentric restaurant venues in Atlanta, a Northern Chinese restaurant that focused on dumplings shacked up in a former Baskin-Robbins outpost in the middle of Pinetree Plaza. I remember getting ice cream at that odd rectangular space in 1995 after a meal at Happy Valley. Chef Liu's kitchen was cramped, which probably made for short tempers: When I reviewed the restaurant for Creative Loafing in 2005, I remember the staff shouting at each other during more than one visit.
What does the rest of the world eat for breakfast? Such a question may not keep you up at night, but even the most active ethnic buffs often draw a blank when it comes to other cultures’ ways of starting the day. Breakfast central for the local Beijing community is Northern China Eatery, a sweet, unadorned dining room on Buford Highway that sits in the shadows of Italy Optical, a fancy Asian-owned establishment whose sign you should watch for in order to make the proper turn. There is no need to scramble out of bed early for hot soy milk; crisp, long crullers served plain or folded into thin egg cakes with hot sauce; dumplings; savory cakes; and other unexpected, delicious treats. Breakfast is served all day between 9:30 a.m. and 10 p.m. (except Thursday, when the restaurant’s hours are shorter) alongside dishes such as pig’s feet, pig’s ears, noodles with preserved vegetables, and hot pots filled with stewed oxtail or (I kid you not) ox penis.