Food - A newbie's guide to eating at Plaza Fiesta
Finding good gorditas, carnitas, chicken Milanesa, and more at the Buford Highway shopping center
Back in March, CBS News' "Sunday Morning" featured Buford Highway's Plaza Fiesta, identifying it as a model for success among many now-abandoned shopping centers and malls that dot the American countryside. According to the segment, the once downtrodden mall drew more than 4 million visitors in 2013. Now a thriving Hispanic commercial hub, Plaza Fiesta is a gathering place, a vibrant marketplace, and, while it has yet to earn a reputation as a foodie destination like other Buford Highway establishments, home to a dozen or so food stalls, sweet shops, bakeries, raspados (Mexican snow cone) vendors, and even a Chinese buffet.
Stepping foot inside Plaza Fiesta's bustling interior on a Saturday or Sunday feels like a trip to Mexico, at least for a non-Hispanic guy like me. Families and young couples stroll through the festive main corridor where almost Disney-esque banners hang overhead. Window displays feature fancy quinceañera dresses and $500 cowboy boots. Meanwhile, the narrow rows of small vendors that branch off the main strip offer an infinite variety of goods and services — bus fares to cities south of the border, income tax services, salons, high-end auto speakers, a game of Guitar Hero, religious figurines, hundreds of colorful futbol jerseys, even ... ummm, booty-enhancing undergarments (I couldn't help but notice).
Like the shopping opportunities, the food options span from traditional to contemporary. The majority of them fit into a typical "mall food court" construct — you order at the counter, then take a seat in the large open area in the center. But there are also spots for carnitas or rotisserie chicken or gorditas that are hidden away among the side alleys of the mall. Exploration is essential. In one manic marathon of eating, I set out to sample the best dish from every restaurant/counter offering savory items inside the mall. At least that was the intent. I would simply ask the waiter or person behind the counter to suggest their signature dish. Unfortunately, most of them didn't speak any English and most of me didn't speak any Spanish. When the staff couldn't understand my mangled attempts at Español, I followed the advice or example of other shoppers and diners around me.
Here is a rundown of Plaza Fiesta eats, ordered from least to most favorite, from an admittedly Spanish-challenged white guy who was happily overwhelmed with wonder in a mostly Mexican mall on Buford Highway.
Yami's is actually part of a small consortium of food stands from the same owner (along with Pollos Mi Tierra and a churros stand). It has a counter in the food court and a sit-down area combined with Pollos Mi Tierra. The pizza looked to be roughly of convenience store quality, the wings looked far better, but I just couldn't bring myself to order pizza or wings at Plaza Fiesta. When the older gentleman behind the counter refused to offer any guidance, I went for a few of the gorditas ($2 each) that were featured on the electronic menu board. The oily barbacoa was too fatty, the steak asada was excessively tough, but the warm masa harina (corn flour) pouches that cradled the meats were quite nice with a spoonful of salsa and a sprinkling of cilantro. Maybe I should have gone with the wings after all. Suite 1032. 404-486-8333.
Off an adjacent alley near the food court, this popular rotisserie chicken stand with sit-down service draws families who share plentiful platters of chicken ($15 for a whole, $9 for a half), tortillas, salsa, and sides of rice and beans. The meat comes out tender and juicy, though the seasoning's a bit inconsistent — with the wings soaking up the oily, chili-based rub, and the breasts not showing much spice at all. And the charred but flabby skin somehow misses out on any of the crispness that the rotisserie should deliver. Not bad, but not particularly interesting, either. You may as well stick with Publix or Costco for your rotisserie needs. Suite N8-N10.
Among the myriad choices of tacos and quesadillas and Mexican entrées at this food court stall, I was persuaded by the friendly lady behind the counter to go with a Milanesa de pollo platter ($9). Thinly pounded chicken, lightly breaded, is plated beside a pile of fries and a scoop of rice. This is crowd-pleasing, gut-filling food done decently. Think basic carbs and protein, nothing more, nothing less. Suite 1141. 678-656-6093.
The neon signage here advertises seafood, hot dogs, and hamburgers, but I couldn't resist the glossy photos promoting a coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail, $7). As is typical of Mexican shrimp cocktails, a large bowl-shaped stemmed glass houses a handful of shrimp swimming in a sea of red. If the sweetness of bottled ketchup bothers you, you may want to avoid this sweet and purposefully soupy concoction. But the medium-size shrimp are plump and tender, with plenty of cilantro and avocado thrown on top to liven things up. I'm betting you can find better versions of coctel de camarones at other spots nearby. Suite 1031. 404-315-1030.
Seafood is the thing here — cocktails, fried, and especially ceviche. Despite its setting on the edge of the food court, the wraparound bar counter here offers the fanciest and sleekest seating in Plaza Fiesta. But the signature dish, a mixed seafood ceviche tostada, is a cheap bite at just $3.75. You get two stacked tortillas piled high with roughly chopped shrimp and squid and scallops, mixed with onions and tomato, liberally sprinkled with cilantro and slices of avocado. A squirt of lime and a spoonful of the rust-red hot sauce liven it up considerably and leaves you feeling happily refreshed. Suite 1034. 404-633-2110.
The older gentleman behind this tiny Colombian counter pointed me to the beautiful little empanada de pollo ($1.50), a junior Hot Pocket-y pouch of lightly sweet, flaky dough, thick around the edges, filled with pleasantly stringy but fairly bland chicken. Order a cortado here if you need a quick caffeine boost to fuel more shopping and eating. Suite O6-O7. 404-486-8333.
I was trying to avoid any of the bakeries, but, with crisped brown edges and fluffy interiors oozing with cheese, the queso and sweet corn arepas ($4) at modern Squisito looked too good to miss. I argued myself into classifying these arepas as a savory bite (thus qualifying for the eating marathon) rather than a dessert. Then I bit into one. Corny and cheesy? Yes. But it was also abundantly buttery, and eggy, and heavy like a dense, sugary (gasp!) cornbread. In light of all the other eating I was undertaking, I couldn't handle more than a few bites. Suite 1023A. 404-248-7146.
All you have to do here — the Carnitas Michoacan inside the mall, not the one outside — is look at the name of the place and the big hunks of pork piled high behind the counter to find guidance on what to order: carnitas, that tender inside and lightly crunchy outside paragon of pork that's typically braised then browned in fat. This little spot, 20 feet down an alley from the main food court, offers table seating and abundantly friendly service. The gentleman taking my order reaffirmed that carnitas was the way to go. I went with a trio of tacos ($8.50), which arrived in a matter of minutes. The crisp, warm soft tortillas piled with pork would be fine on their own, but please pile on the pickled spicy onions and peppers, which await brave souls in a glass jar upon every table. Both are perfect foils for the fatty chopped pork. Add a squirt of lime and one of the trio of salsas, some of the cilantro and diced onion that also top the table, and these deeply flavorful carnitas tacos rival any in town. Suite 1050. 404-477-0785.
Whenever I have Mexican tortas (AKA SANDWICHES!), I wonder why it's been so long since my last one. Puras Tortas has a diverse menu of tacos, flautas, salads, chicken, and more, but the woman behind the counter quickly and wisely steered me to the torta Cubano ($7). I happily obliged. It's the first item listed and the most expensive torta on the menu, for good reason. The official description reads "roasted pork loin, chorizo, beef franks, ham and egg." But that doesn't begin to capture the messy overload of oily meats and drippy crema and mushy avocado and spicy black beans, all piled and pressed inside a soft, toasted sesame seed roll. Good lord, have mercy. Suite 1033. 404-633-2110.
Tucked far away in a corner by the Discolandia record store at the opposite end of the mall from the food court, Tropical Corner is a combo fruit stand and takeout counter with a broad menu and its own little section of bare-bones seating. The feel is more rustic than any of the other options in the mall, a bit less ... commercial. The crew here spoke absolutely no English, so they weren't much help in my selection. I first noticed a dark and enticing chicken mole and corn husk-wrapped tamales in steam trays behind the counter, then plates of chicken and cheese quesadillas coming out which seemed to be the most popular dish being served, but after surveying what the kitchen seemed to be spending a lot of time on, I settled on a simple black bean gordita ($3). The gorditas themselves get stacked up behind the counter, but when you order you're asked (in Spanish) if you'd like crema (essentially a thin sour cream), queso (in this case a crumbly white cheese), or lettuce. The answer is yes. The plastic plate arrived over the counter with a plastic fork and knife stabbed into the gordita itself. A healthy pile of shredded lettuce, bright white crema, and queso were also piled on. The gordita exterior was soft and full of deep corn flavor. The interior was thick and rich with pitch-black mashed beans. If I had a grandma back in Mexico, I imagine this is the dish she would make for me on every visit. My neighbor at a nearby counter stool kindly warned me about the salsa, saying, "Careful, it's hot!" But if you like hot, you'll love its long lingering burn. Suite B12-B13-B14-C11-C13-Q1-Q2. 404-454-7206.
All in all, I'll be back for more — more Tropical Corner and more Plaza Fiesta. After all, a man's gotta get his butt-enhancers, whether in padded form or in the form of crema-laden gorditas.