Juniper Cafe opened in December, bringing bright flavors and a cheery atmosphere to northwest Atlanta. A concept from chefs Ron Hsu and Aaron Philips, and beverage director Carl Van Tyle Gilbert — the team behind Lazy Betty — Juniper is a departure from its high-end, tasting menu-only older sibling.
Named after Hsu’s niece, Juniper is a casual, family-friendly all-day cafe that primarily serves Vietnamese dishes. In addition to the bright white dining room with blue jewel-tone accents, the spacious covered patio includes a takeout window for that morning treat. Both locales invite people to linger and gather with friends.
Juniper is also a culinary playground for Hsu. The Chinese chef grew up in his parents’ Chinese restaurants outside of Atlanta, but studied French cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney, Australia. After serving as chef de cuisine at a Virginia-Highland restaurant, he found his way to the kitchen of Le Bernadin, where he was promoted to executive sous chef after seven years. When he opened Lazy Betty in Atlanta’s Candler Park neighborhood in 2019, he didn’t commit to just one cuisine, leaving himself open to various influences.
Vietnamese cuisine, though, has long interested Hsu. He grew up eating at now-closed Atlanta Vietnamese restaurants on the famed Buford Highway, and still goes to Lee’s Bakery, an institution, when he needs a classic banh mi fix. “After growing up in Chinese restaurants and being influenced by both my parents, then going to a French culinary school, I’ve always gravitated towards Vietnamese food,” says Hsu. (There is a strong linkage between Vietnamese and French cuisines, not least because of the longtime colonial French presence in Vietnam.) “I found it to be the perfect cross-section of Chinese food and my French training.”
At Juniper, Hsu and his team whip up dishes that balance sweet, tart, spicy, and cool flavors found in ingredients like starfruit, lemongrass, fish sauce, and mint. While the menu is primarily Vietnamese, Hsu remains open to inspiration. “I’ll always gravitate towards mixing and matching things, or at least being inspired by different kinds of cuisines,” says Hsu. “Even though Juniper’s Vietnamese, it’s also influenced by Chinese and French and other cultures too.”
Here are five dishes that tell the story of Juniper Cafe — and that you won’t want to miss.
1. Kumquat soda
Of the five sodas offered at Juniper Cafe, each made in-house with a blend of purées and fresh-squeezed juice, the non-alcoholic kumquat soda is a standout. “We wanted to make sure that we can offer something that is still very craft and custom for people that don’t drink alcohol,” says Hsu. “We express that through our craft soda program.” The citrus, known for its petite size and sweet-tart flavor, flies under the radar of most American palates but is featured in Southeast Asian cuisines and makes for a soda that complements the Vietnamese dishes.
For imbibers, Juniper Cafe’s refreshing cocktail options include the Patio Country with gin, green tea shochu, kiwi, lemongrass, Suze, and lime juice.
2. Bánh xèo
The bánh xèo is a crepe made with rice flour and coconut milk, which give it a slightly more crisp texture than French crepe, but is still tender. This dish is one of Hsu’s favorites on the menu because, as he says, it’s a “hodgepodge” of textures — the crepe is stuffed with Georgia-caught shrimp, shiitake mushrooms, and herbs, and served with crisp lettuce. “You’re getting something that’s cooked, that’s light, but also raw at the same time if you wrap it in the lettuce, which is how I would recommend eating it,” says Hsu.
3. Vietnamese hot fried chicken
Hsu loves this fried chicken dish because it speaks to his southern side — he even uses chicken farmed in north Georgia — but it’s heavy on the Vietnamese flavors. The chicken is marinated in buttermilk infused with lemongrass, mint, garlic, ginger, and cilantro; instead of flour breading, Hsu uses rice flour and corn starch, which which gives the chicken a crispy texture. Once the chicken is fried, it gets tossed in a hot chili oil and is served with a drizzle of hot honey. “It’s one of our most popular items,” says Hsu.
4. Papaya salad
“For me, papaya salad was just one of the quintessential salads you should have on a Vietnamese menu,” says Hsu. At Juniper, the savory salad gets a fruity twist with the addition of strawberries and star fruit, which has a lychee-like flavor and gets its name from its shape. “Papaya salad is perfect for the hot weather in Georgia,” he says. “It’s very light and aromatic with all the herbs, and very fresh at the same time.”
5. Breakfast banh mi
To Hsu, a breakfast sandwich is served on a biscuit, “but that’s not really Vietnamese,” he says, laughing. So they came up with a breakfast banh mi that hits those savory morning notes with Vietnamese flair. The sandwich features a housemade baguette topped with a baked French omelet that’s thick and fluffy, and housemade Vietnamese sausage with glass noodles, fermented black beans, ginger, honey, and fish sauce. It’s finished with pickled veggies and a red pepper relish.