Trolley Tour Shows Hidden Gems, Stories Of Buford Highway

Dan Raby / WABE

On a hot Saturday afternoon a large trolley pulls out of the Doraville Library parking lot. It’s the kind of bus you see rolling through Midtown painted in the gold and white of Georgia Tech. But instead of ferrying college students to class, this trolley is filled with excited foodies ready to try new snacks.

This trolley ride was the second in local group We Love BuHi’s food tours, which attempt to connect people with local businesses around Buford Highway while also showing how changes to the highway can lead to more accessibility.

We Love BuHi’s founder Marian Liou said she found inspiration in a tour that Explore Gwinnett, the Gwinnett County Convention and Visitors Bureau, put on for food writers and that she wanted to do a different take on the biking and walking tours the organization had done in the past.

“People who might not be interested in walking, biking or taking MARTA on Buford Highway to eat … now have another option,” Liou said. “I also wanted to inspire people to start thinking about how a circulator, or shuttle, might work in the area.”

Inside the trolley, volunteer coordinator and tour guide Grace Kim points out changes to the highway’s landscape and gleefully cheers on MARTA’s new long articulated busses. A second-generation Korean-American, Kim mixed her own personal story growing up near Buford Highway with facts about the hidden meanings in restaurant names and views on how votes on tax changes could affect the area.

Each tour is centered around a specific theme that all the food revolves around. For this tour everything was “chilled” – different takes on cold drinks, treats and heartier eats. Members sipped on fresh-squeezed passionfruit, blueberry and soursop (a fruit native to Central America, which in this reporter’s opinion tasted like a mixture of meat and sweet milk) juices at Columbian restaurant Las Delicias de la Abuela, munched on shrimp and pork spring rolls at Pho Bac and crowded around family-style tables at Chef Liu to try out hot and spicy cool noodles (Kind of an oxymoron but tasty,” Kim said).

At New Manila Mart, a “Filipino convenience store/ice cream parlor/community center” according to Kim, owner Martin Gustilo chats happily with the large group of visitors and explains the concept of balikbayan, giant care packages people come far and wide to ship back to family living the Philippines. He’s brought out trays filed with halo halo, which means “mix mix,” a delicious icy treat made of ube ice cream, red beans, shaved ice, coconut gels, monk fruit and more.

“I think [these tours] are really really fantastic,” Gustilo said. “Let me put it this way, if I visit a new city, I’d be more willing to try a tour group because it’s a great way to discover different places that I never knew before. It’s a great way to have an introduction”

And that aspect of introducing people to new experiences is just what Liou wants.

“My hope is to make lots and lots of first introductions.” Liou said. “I hope to introduce people to places they’ve never been, plates they’ve never seen, people they’ve never met, and make it impossibly easy for them to come back, because at least now there’s one familiar place, a familiar face and one familiar dish.”

That’s exactly what was happening for Chamblee resident Jenny Parker as she tried a chamoyada from Las Paletas Locas stand (literally the “crazy popsicle” stand) inside Chicago Supermarket in Pinetree Plaza.

“I’ve driven by these places so many times, but I’ve never known what was inside,” Parker said. “This gave me the chance to see what it’s like and to have a new spot to come back to.”

Liou said it’s understandable that some Atlantans may find Buford Highway a bit intimidating.

“We’ve all found ourselves in places that are brand new, where we haven’t familiarized ourselves yet with a community’s social and cultural norms and contours, and I think people can be fearful of ordering the ‘wrong’ dish or, worse, saying the ‘wrong’ thing and inadvertently offending someone,” Liou said. “Add to that the literal danger of the road itself, and it’s no wonder Buford Highway can seem intimidating. The flip side is acknowledging that, for many people, Buford Highway is home, and it’s the rest of Atlanta that’s intimidating.”

But it’s not just about showing off some tasty food. The tour also gives a new perspective on the people behind each of the small restaurants and plazas the trolley stops at. With each location, tour-goers get a chance to interact with the cooks, waiters and owners, learning about their immigration stories, how each started their business and more. At Chef Liu, for instance, Weiwing Huang and her 21-year-old daughter Vivian talked about moving to Atlanta and the difference between North Chinese and Cantonese cuisine.

Liou said these stories weren’t unusual – that these are the stories of immigrants:

“A lot of businesses are family-owned, and you often see children hanging out, helping out, even doing their homework in their parents’ restaurants. Whether or not these businesses continue or simply disappear depends in large part on the decisions of the second and third generation to follow in their parents’ footsteps, and on the decisions of the parents to encourage them to do so.”

The next Buford Highway trolley tour will be Aug. 28 with the theme “wrapped.” Tickets are free for members of We Love BuHi, or can be purchased on the group’s website.