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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, located between Steve Reynolds Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road, surprised me.
Korean barbecue restaurants—where meals revolve around ribbons of meat sizzling on individual tabletop grills—may well be the Japanese steakhouses of the new millennium. In the 1960s and 1970s, Benihana and its brethren seduced diners with Westernized teppanyaki—nubs of beef, chicken, or seafood and tangles of sprouts flung around countertop hibachi griddles by knife-juggling cooks.
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.
A belly dancer dressed in turquoise-colored attire flutters to the center of the dining room, twirling a flaming sword. The DJ on the podium behind her cranks up the Arabic techno a few more decibels as she spins, drops onto the rug-covered floor, and continues rippling and shimmying while she balances the sword on her head. The flickering fire extinguishes, but she’s still beaming the kind of euphoric smile usually reserved for shampoo commercials. The five-year-old at our table stares mesmerized, his jaw hanging slack. I look over at his father: same expression.