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Meet the Woman Who Wants Buford Highway to Love Itself

Marian Liou of We Love Buford Highway sees the American dream in the three-mile stretch of restaurants

Brian Gassel/Eater Atlanta

Marian Liou has long been a fan of the numerous international cuisines found on Buford Highway. But now that she lives in the area, Liou has a deeper investment in improving the surrounding communities and the lives of BuHi's restaurant owners, many of whom are immigrants. To do that, she started We Love Buford Highway, a for-profit social enterprise that "envisions a safe, attractive, fun, and livable Buford Highway corridor that celebrates and is inclusive of its diverse communities." Eater recently chatted with Liou about her passion for BuHi, how she'd like to see it change for the better, her favorite restaurants in the area, and more.

Tell us a little bit about your background, how you became interested in Buford Highway.

I've been in Atlanta for about 12 years now, and I've always been eating up and down Buford Highway. But, it wasn't until I moved to Buford Highway about a year and a half ago, that I began taking more ownership that this is where I live now and maybe I should get involved in some way. I was eating here and living here and figured I should get involved. Living here, I was also frustrated by the media coverage of Buford Highway which ranges from very negative, like this is the deadliest street in the U.S., or very positive, like, "wow, have you had this amazing fish soup?" I knew there had to be something in between the two extremes. The more I got into the challenges of Buford Highway, I realized how much was really going on. There are so many different stories and histories and lines of power, there's a lot I still don't know. We Love Buford Highway started as an Instagram account and I figured I would give myself a year to see if I could develop it further. I care about all the stuff that goes on here on Buford Highway. It encompasses numerous important challenges: transportation, urban design, social justice, and immigrant issues. This is all really fascinating to me.

What is We Love Buford Highway all about?

I'm really trying to sell Buford Highway to itself. The diversity of Buford Highway is something that should be celebrated. The cities that Buford Highway runs through need to recognize their own strengths. This diversity is missing everywhere, it's missing in board rooms, there's such a lack of vocabulary to talk about the issues we face as a city or country. You see this at restaurants on Buford Highway where you'll find and Asian owner, but all his or her employees are Latino. If they can communicate, we should all be able to communicate. I want to reconcile these difference about how we communicate and how we come together as people. I want local leaders to realize they have a great untapped resource right here. I would like to see more collective events and activities that showcase Buford Highway in its entirety.

What role do you see food and restaurants playing in sustaining Buford Highway?

A big part of Buford Highway's success is about food, but it's also about the people who are making the food. It's about how those people came from somewhere else for a better life. It's really about the American dream. I am interested in how people who sacrifice so much to get here, and then because of language barriers or cultural barriers end up working in a restaurant. Often, their only option is making the food that they know. Part of what I am interested in doing is getting Buford Highway to believe in itself. For my current efforts, I have to go to each individual restaurant to get them to believe that what they are doing is important. There really isn't a community here of the people who work in the restaurants. Everyone is doing their own thing without realizing the collective power of all the great restaurants here.

Food plays an important role in cultural identity. How do you see that played out on Buford Highway?

This is what is really fascinating to me: how cuisine and successive generations of immigrants play with what they know, but are also trying to move the cuisine forward. Taking all their influences from where they grew up, what they ate growing up, and then combining that with how they were trained in culinary school, or from working at a finer restaurant. For second generation immigrants, they get a lot of flak for this, even from their own community. I hear comments all the time like, "I can eat that dish for much cheaper on Buford Highway, why should I go to midtown and pay twice as much for it?" This is one of the challenges of selling Buford Highway to itself, it's played out in the cost of the food here and the fact many owners don't pay attention to ambience and what they are charging the public for their food. I would love to divorce the terms ‘cheap' and ‘ethnic.' I have a friend that owns a Taiwanese restaurant in midtown and he has to be aware of what he charges for food based on the fact that many people know they can get similar food cheaper on Buford Highway. One of the things I want the owners on Buford Highway to know is that people who are out eating want to connect with that authenticity.

This might be an impossible question to answer, but what are your top three restaurants on Buford Highway?

This is a difficult one for me, as I spend so much time trying to promote all of the restaurants on Buford Highway. My thing is, please go to each place — I want them all to be successful. That being said, I do really like Las Delicias de La Abuela, a Colombian place located in an old Taco Bell. Another one I like is a cafeteria-type place, Batavia for Indonesian. I really do like the weekend lunch buffet at La Mei Zi. Someone told me it was just a step above Panda Express, but it's so exactly like the food my Grandma used to make, so it's like heaven to me. I do eat on Buford Highway often, at least three times per week, so it's hard to pick favorites.

So, when are you going to do your Buford Highway restaurant map/guide?

I do have a map that I put together with a friend who is a designer. I just don't know how to distribute it. Obviously, I can make thousands of copies and put a couple hundred in each restaurant, but, I want to make it work as a real tool, to get people and businesses to sign up so that it really works. Like the Midtown maps, either they have sponsorships or the restaurants are paying a fee, or the Midtown Alliance is supporting it. I need every restaurant that's featured on our map to be invested in what I am doing. And some people have been positive about the map and are willing to support it, but I don't just want it to be a one-off. Right now, it's too cluttered and we need to do some work on it. It's a bit overwhelming with the number of restaurants and business on Buford Highway; I need a way to make the map more user-friendly. It would make perfect sense to divide the restaurants on the map by ethnicity: Chinese, Korean, Mexican, and so on. But, to me, Buford Highway is the story of the American dream. I want to build cohesion instead of focusing on what divides us. That's the challenge.

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