Torpy at Large: By bike or by bus, Buford Highway can be a wild, tasty ride

I recently noticed an organization was trying to recruit people crazy enough to peddle their bikes on Buford Highway, a seven-lane speedway known for tragic pedestrian crossings and MARTA drivers brawling with their jitney bus competitors.

My search for the source of this insanity ended with a call to Marian Liou, a woman who’s trying to get people excited about the road also known for international cuisine.

The Bike and Bites ride set for Saturday is the second one run by her fledgling We Love BuHi. Last fall, Liou persuaded 80 bicyclists to navigate the highway. No incidents to speak of. The fact that local cops escorted them greatly improved their odds.

But if risking it on two wheels doesn’t do it for you, don’t worry: Liou is leading a Buford Highway food crawl by bus on April 27. That’s on MARTA buses. In the past, MARTA drivers have duked it out with the chauffeurs of those little orange buses, the private line that ferries around Latino residents.

I sometimes go for the unusual when zeroing in on a story. And an Ivy League-educated corporate lawyer putting her career on hiatus to bring some love to Buford Highway certainly fits the bill.

After spending time with Liou on Buford Highway, I’m still not exactly sure what she’s trying to do other than spotlight the region’s most unique and sometimes bizarre road, unify merchants in a social/marketing effort and make a living doing it.

But that’s the allure of the Buford Highway — Thoroughfare of American Dreams, a fading suburban road reinvigorated over the past 30 years by waves of immigrant entrepreneurs.

Liou, a 36-year-old divorced mother of two, started it all a year ago as a tongue-in-cheek Instagram account detailing her new neighborhood. She had moved into a condo near the Pink Pony and found her new environs fascinating: the dueling buses, the dirt sidewalks to nowhere and the deep pool of characters.

“I started telling mini-stories, sort of like Humans of New York,” said the California native, referring to the popular blog that has street portraits and fascinating tales of the Big Apple’s inhabitants.

Buford Highway’s peculiar, genuine mix

It started as a photo-a-day endeavor that became something bordering on obsession. After six months she figured she’d try to make a career out of it. Doraville’s development org gave her a stipend to be sort of a social guide and she’s working with the DeKalb County visitors bureau to create a where-to map of her new favorite street.

“It’s curated,” she said. “I’ve eaten at most of the places on it.”

The map has like 20 flags denoting the country of origin of each restaurant. But the nationality of the cuisine doesn’t necessarily indicate the origin of the owner. There was something about the quirky blending of cultures that was inviting.

There’s the Korean restaurateur who saw opportunity in the growing Latino market and opened La Pastorcita, rated as one of the street’s most solid Mexican offerings.

It’s not a “Korean taco place,” she said, or some nouveau cross-cultural blend of culinary styles you’d see on the Food Channel.

“It’s a real taco place,” she said.

Or there’s Cam Vuong, an ethnic Chinese refugee from Vietnam who came to the U.S. in the late 1970s, bringing with him only what he carried. Two decades ago, he opened Canton House in an abandoned Sizzlers and the place is now routinely ranked among the region’s favorite dim sum joints. The massive chandelier gives the brightly lit dining hall a touch of class — that is, in a BuHi kind of way. Liou staged a foreign movie night there.

‘There’s dots on the road. I want to be a dot.’

Liou’s efforts have been noticed.

“I like what Marian is doing in trying to create community in a positive and upbeat manner,” said Chamblee Mayor Eric Clarkson, who will appear at Saturday’s bike ride.

Debbie Benedict, owner of Havana Sandwich Shop, called Liou’s effort to create a map of favored BuHi eateries “a great concept. It caught my eye. There’s dots on the road. I want to be a dot.”

Forty years ago, Benedict and her late husband, a Cuban immigrant, opened what was one of the first ethnic eateries on the road. But, she said, there has never been much of a concerted effort by merchants, or the various governmental entities, to band together.

Liou has volunteered to try to create cohesion among merchants who are as disparate a collection as you will ever see.

More than a couple dozen languages are spoken and the merchants don’t necessarily have a sense of camaraderie just because they share the same stretch of asphalt. In fact, they are often a wary bunch, focusing mainly on keeping the lights burning, their customers happy and competitors at bay.

‘Its like the African watering hole’

There are three separate cities along the highway — Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville, each with different missions, but all wanting to “freshen up” the road. The abandoned GM plant in Doraville promises to kick new life into the area. And Chamblee’s mayor said his town and Doraville are working together on “livable center study,” the kind of thing that gets city planners excited.

Harold Shinn, president of the Buford Highway Farmers Market, a United Nations of food, likes any kind of positive buzz for Buford Highway. But just because highly competitive folks from all over the world share the same stretch of road, don’t think they’re going to go all Kumbaya.

“It’s like the African watering hole,” Shinn explained. “We’re all at the water but there’s always someone trying to eat me.”

Now that might be an event for Liou to promote!

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