I moved to metro Atlanta in 1989, and the only Latin food I remember eating were tacos. That might be because I was 7 years old and couldn't drive and explore cuisines around the city on my own, or because there weren't a lot of options back then.
I do remember the 1996 Olympics though. My brothers and I were volunteers at the Paralympics and had the glory of walking around the Centennial Stadium in oversized blue t-shirts, passing out water bottles to world class athletes. The Olympics were a turning point for Atlanta - the construction boom in the years preceding the games was a major reason large communities of Hispanics began moving here for jobs.
During those Olympic years (1990-2000), metro Atlanta's foreign born population grew by an incredible 233 percent. That growth naturally sparked a whole new layer of services, businesses and of course, restaurants for these new communities.
Plaza Fiesta, embodies that growth. "It's the first hub where LatinX communities can come and do what they did in Latin America - go to the plaza," said Natalia.
It's packed with over 280 different businesses - bakeries, threading salons, insurance services, toy shops, clothing stalls, paleterias, and a food court with everything from tortas to enchiladas to arepas.
Claudia and Pedro Cardenas' cafe- Arepa Grill - is a sign of just how much food options have diversified. They opened Arepa Grill, a small food stall in Plaza Fiesta, in 2019. It's sandwiched (no pun intended!) between Carnitas Michoacan and la Espiga Dorada, a Mexican bakery. This year they expanded and opened another location - a full fast casual restaurant in Doraville.
The menu is full of Venezuelan staples like arepas, tequenos (fried cheese sticks, and cachapas (corn pancakes). It caters not just to Georgia's growing Venezuelan community (in 2015, there were 8,000 Venezuelans in the state, and as of 2019, there are about 23,000), but also to the diverse immigrant communities around Buford Highway.
"We decided to stay on Buford Highway because it is multicultural. You find every culture here: Japanese, Korean, Latin American. They are open minded people that want to discover our food," they told We Love Buford Highway, for the Sabores de Buford Highway campaign.
I like to think I fit in those categories - "open minded" and from another culture!
Which brings me to me, trying the food. An arepa is basically a pancake made of corn flour (gluten free!) - it's crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. It can be filled with cheese, chicken, beef, beans, or eggs. Kind of like a sandwich. I ordered the "Black Vegan" which was stuffed with black beans, avocado, and plantains. It also came with three different sauces - red, white and green.
The arepa was flavorful and satisfying - all the different starches were balanced out by the creamy avocado, green sauce( tangy cilantro and mint tasting) and the white sauce (tasted like sour cream with a hint of horseradish).
My husband had the "Pelua," which is an arepa filled with shredded beef and shredded gouda. He said it was "meaty and delicious." When I said I needed a better description he said, "it's corny." I then asked him if I could try a bite and he gave me a shred of beef 1 centimeter long. That tiny piece was pretty tasty.
Each arepa was $6.99. It's reassuring that they don't seem to be pricing out folks, even as their popularity and customer base is growing.
It's hard to keep pace with Buford Highway - it changes as fast as the city expands. But every time I drive along those six lanes, I'm reminded that I live in a world much bigger than Atlanta itself.
Enjoy your weekend, and maybe an arepa too.