Food & Drink

On a Road Trip Through the Sun Belt, One Writer Discovers the World on a Plate

The American South is home to some of the most diverse food cultures in the world. Von Diaz hits the road to discover the region's many flavors and communities. 
Atlanta map
Annika Huett

As a kid in Atlanta in the 1980s, I would often road-trip with my family through the South, heading to Savannah for pralines on River Street or Chattanooga to ogle the aquarium. The destinations would change, but the lunch options were consistent—often biscuits, peanuts, and fried chicken at some greasy spoon—the iconic cuisine of the eastern end of the Sun Belt and for us, a family from Puerto Rico, quintessentially American.

As I got older, I learned that beyond the collard greens and apple pie there are Salvadoran pupusas, Bangladeshi biryani, and intensely spiced Mexican chicken. I still enjoy exploring the South by car, but now I thrill more to the immigrant-focused backstories and dishes from restaurants that are too often overshadowed by the region's most famous dishes. On a recent drive up I-85, from Montgomery, Alabama, through Atlanta and up to Charlotte, North Carolina, I discovered flavors from Ethiopia, Thailand, and more: the whole world on a plate in just three days.

Day 1

Montgomery is a proud Southern city that played a pivotal role in the Civil Rights Movement—and yet the Alabama capital was built by the Greeks. At least, a good portion of its early food scene was. You can feel it today not so much in the souvlaki or feta but in the approach to hospitality imparted by Montgomery's early Greek-born restaurateurs. A block from the place where Rosa Parks got on a city bus that day in 1955 is Chris' Hotdogs, a lunch counter opened in 1917 by Christopher Anastasios “Mr. Chris” Katechis. He opted to serve burgers and classic hot dogs after realizing that his adopted countrymen didn't have a taste for Greek dishes. Though it was the segregated South, Katechis welcomed everyone to his restaurant; Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. often ate on the same red leather stools where I devoured my hot dog (topped with the house's spiced chili sauce and paired with onion rings that my neighbor on the next barstool—Gwynne, a regular for 37 years—rightly insisted I try). At the end of my meal, Katechis's grandson Costas “Gus” Katechis, who runs the place today with his father, Theo (Chris Katechis's son), poured me a friendly shot of bourbon on the house.

It's a similar story a couple of miles north at Mr. Gus' Ristorante, launched by Dimitri Polizos in 2008, which serves Greek salads and stuffed grape leaves alongside pizzas, and the more formal Charles Anthony's Restaurant at The Pub, started in 1972 by Charles Anthony Kamburis, which does a mean steak. The Greek influence is even more pervasive up in Birmingham, where must-visits include Nabeel's, owned for years by Patras-born John Krontiras (he is now the general manager), whose moussaka is one of the best dishes in the state.

Day 2

The two-and-a-half-hour drive from Montgomery to Atlanta isn't memorable, but it goes fast. My tip: Have a small breakfast so you're plenty hungry by the time you reach Buford Highway, a 40-mile stretch on the outskirts of the city whose gray suburban sprawl belies the fact that it is home to one of the most varied sets of cuisines in America. Lively dim sum joints, bulgogi spots, and taco bars sit shoulder to shoulder beneath gaudy signs in every language. Started by the immigrant owners of the highway's gas stations and strip malls to feed their workforce, these small but phenomenal dining establishments are popular today with folks from across the city, who will brave the Atlanta traffic for the vermicelli salads and water chestnut dumplings.

This trip, I went straight to Salsa Taqueria & Wings, tucked behind a Shell station, for beef and chicken birria tacos whose shells had been dipped in sauce before being perfectly fried. Heaven. I've been coming to Buford Highway since I was a kid, when my family would stock up on plantains and other Puerto Rican staples at its farmers market, so I knew not to overdo it on my first stop. Next I drove half a mile north to Bismillah, a takeout spot at a Bangladeshi grocer where the braised lamb shank is eye-rollingly delicious. I followed this by visiting Tum Pok Pok, the new kid on the highway, whose dedicated owner, Adidsara Weerasin, does tamarind-rich pad thai with head-on grilled prawns just like back home in northeast Thailand. I was full, but I wasn't done. Before I left, I had to swing by Sweet Hut, an old favorite. Anyone who has ever had the taro Swiss cake and bubble tea knows that the spot can't be missed.

Day 3

Beloved as Buford is to me, I couldn't wait to get to Charlotte, whose increasingly numerous Ethiopian cultural houses and restaurants reflect the community that is spreading throughout this fast-growing metropolis. I hit the road early and made it to Nile Restaurant, in eastern Charlotte, in time for lunch. The tables were already full of the city's varied citizenry, here for dishes like fried phyllo-pastry pockets of spicy lamb. The air was fragrant with the berbere seasoning used on the chicken. Hospitality comes straight from the Southern playbook, with husband-and-wife team Zerabruk Abay and Tsige Meshesha cooking and serving each dish. I filled my simple table with sambusa and shiro chickpea purée with perfectly soft injera.

If I'd had more time, I would have headed to Enat and Abugida, two Ethiopian cafés I'd been told to try, but those will have to wait for the next road trip. So I stocked up on teff grains and black wush wush tea at Nile's storefront grocer and spent the drive back plotting my return.

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.