Chamblee, GA, May 8, 2017 – by Emily Morris for The Post – The entrance comprises a façade with a tiled hipped roof characteristic of Chinese temples and buildings of state. It houses Chinese businesses as well as the Chamblee Chamber of Commerce. For the curious passerby, Chamblee’s Chinatown Mall offers more than interesting architecture. Buford Highway may be known as the hub of ethnic food in Atlanta, but Chinatown Mall is an escape into Chinese culture that has gained renown among an increasingly diverse clientele.
This article recalls my first trip to Chinatown Mall. I followed the walkway leading from the front of the building to a central open-air courtyard, where I heard the chirping of birds flying through a colorful and tranquil courtyard garden. The picturesque landscape features small trees, grasses, colorful flowers, and rosebushes with pink roses surrounding a small koi pond traversed by an arched bridge painted red, the Chinese color of good fortune. The murals on the walls behind the garden display traditional Chinese landscapes.
Red and gold Chinese paper lanterns hang above the walkway at the perimeter of the garden, and cement patio tables provide customers with seating in the peaceful setting just outside the food court area of the mall. Entering the food court, a diverse crowd of customers gathered for lunch. I met with Gina and Liang Rivers, who own Chong Qing Hot Pot and China Kitchen. Gina filled me in on the content of their restaurants as well as the history of Chinatown Mall.
Gina refers to the fare served at her two restaurants as “Grandma’s” Chinese cooking; traditional dishes. China Kitchen offers mostly northern Chinese cuisine, with a focus on noodles and fewer spicy dishes, and Chong Qing Hot Pot centers on the spicier flavors of the southwestern Szechuan Province of China. While you will not find trendy décor at the restaurants and menus are written on white boards, the quality of the food takes priority. Commitment to authenticity distinguishes China Kitchen and Chong Qing Hot Pot from more contemporary Chinese eateries, as the cooks prepare every meal in the wok without premade sauces and do not keep food under heat lamps.
Over a series of flavorful Chinese dishes and bubble tea, Gina informed me that the mall opened in Chamblee nearly thirty years ago, when it serviced the large Chinese community. Until only a few years ago, its menus and signage exclusively used Chinese characters. Now it serves as a destination for people of all demographics, ethnic heritage, and nationalities, and the mall has incorporated English translations into signage and menus as well. People drive from out of state to visit the Chinatown Mall, and Chinese visitors to Georgia’s World Congress Center make a stop as news of the mall made its way to China over the years. As a result, Gina and Liang employ cashiers fluent in both English and Mandarin.
As for the food, we started with savory onion cake, a pan-fried bread with green onions. Not dissimilar to an Italian focaccia, onion cake is typically eaten for breakfast in China. Next we had delicious Shang Hai Soup Dumplings, (Xiao Long Bao), which are pork dumplings filled with soup that we pierced with a chopstick to allow the soup to flow into spoons with large bowls. Scrumptious and a diversion from typical lunch fare, the soup dumplings constituted my favorite dish of the day. On a screen above the counter, a video demonstrates how cooks prepare the dumplings by hand.
Last but not least, we tried a platter of the Chong Qing Spicy Chicken and one of the Eggplant in Garlic Sauce. The spicy chicken is cooked in Chong Qing’s own Szechuan Chili Sauce, prepared in-house and available in bottles for customers to purchase. We ordered the boneless variety of the fried and crispy chicken, which is paired with hot chili peppers. The eggplant dish is also quite piquant, and both are perfect for those who like their food with heat. The colorful red chili peppers of the chicken dish and the purple eggplants made for vibrant photography, especially with the garden in the background.
The mall provides an excellent excursion into Chinese culture in Georgia, and as Gina states, a trip there is like a “mini vacation to China without airfare.” Gina compares the mall to a “geode,” in that visitors who walk through the building to the garden area find themselves in a new world they may have missed while just driving by.
I look forward to returning to Chinatown Mall, visiting the shops and revisiting the food court, and encouraging friends and family to make a trip.