Food Issue - Around the world: China

Chinatown Food Court bustle

Many people — even the most avid foodies — don't know about the Chinatown Food Court, the treasure that lies beyond the colorful dragons that flank the entrance to Atlanta's Chinatown up in Chamblee. One visit, however, will forever change your perception of Atlanta's culinary landscape. Food courts like this, where one can pop in for a quick, cheap meal without sacrificing any quality, are common in large Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The cafeteria-esque space is filled with the clatter of dishes, clicking chopsticks, sizzling woks, and the sound of proprietors shouting out orders ready for pick up in a mix of Chinese, Spanish and English. Groups of diners from every nationality imaginable huddle around their heaping dishes at sticky, worn-out tables in the communal dining area.

Each food stall is independently owned and specializes in some incarnation of Chinese food. Hong Kong Barbecue is by far the most popular. Its foggy window displays a proud assortment of lacquered red pork, mahogany ducks, crispy pork with crackly skin, and soy sauce chicken. The smiling cook, brandishing a huge cleaver, hacks away at the meat of your choice on a round cutting board indented with years of use, then places the impeccable slices in a soup, rice plate or noodles. Pay attention to the list of daily specials, where you can find treats such as Hainanese chicken rice. Chong Qing, a Szechuan restaurant, churns out platter after platter of dishes piled high with dried red chilies and the unmistakable smell of roasted Szechuan peppercorns. Other spots are a bit more Americanized and serve ubiquitous dishes like General Tso's chicken.

A word of caution: Most of the restaurants are cash-only and don't serve alcohol. There's an ATM near the entrance and a convenience store across the street. Most of the stalls will happily loan you a corkscrew or bottle opener if you bring your own booze — and you should because a little nip is just what you'll need amid the crazed bustle of this food court.

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