While doing research for our book, Koreatown, USA, Matt Rodbard and I traveled all throughout America - Houston, Boston, Chicago, you name it - all the major cities. We even checked out Koreatowns in Montana and Minnesota. Of all of these places we visited, the one place I want to go back to right now is Atlanta.
More than any other city, Atlanta is a place that feels like the right mix between the North and the South, with just enough city and just enough country - perfect for a Dallas-born boy like me. And food-wise, there’s a huge variety of places to go and eat, with so many low-key spots that aren’t very well known.
And because Atlanta doesn't even come close to NYC, rent-wise, young people are heading down there to do amazing concepts without being bound by any overhead. They’re free to say "let’s do this, try that, experiment with something new," something that's super cool to see in person. While some might be hit or miss, others are awesome and really ballsy. Here are a few of my favorite spots to see the newest and hottest in the A.
Heirloom Market BBQ: This place is a prime example of experimentation that works. Even though Atlanta has its own Koreatown, the best Korean food I had in Atlanta was at Heirloom. It’s owned by Cody Taylor and Jiyeon Lee, a couple with an awesome story that makes their restaurant really work.
Jiyeon, who was actually a K-pop star in the early 90s, made her way to America, met Cody, and the two of them decided to open up this spot. It’s American-style brisket, smoked ribs and chicken, but they use all kinds of Korean ingredients, from the gochujang in their rubs to the Korean-style pickles they serve. The Korean influence is all Jiyeon, but the BBQ is Cody's. He’s from the Houston / Austin area and just knows Texas BBQ, so when you put those together you get the amazing food at Heirloom. You come here and you can tell these guys just care about doing good food and introducing Korean flavors into a town where it’s not as well-known.
Octopus Bar: This place is a regular ol' restaurant during dinner, but after 10 or 11pm, a small, pop-up style entrance appears, an entrance into a separate restaurant where all the industry folks come to hang out after work.
The place is run by Angus Brown and Nhan Le, and they've got a ton of weird off-the-menu stuff you can't get at their usual dinner restaurant. They basically just cook whatever they feel like doing that day, and it's well worth the wait to get a bunch of fantastic, inventive, small plates for under $10. This place epitomizes the beauty of Atlanta - I love the creativity and the fact that they’re free to take risks to do stuff that’s different.
The Third Space: Asha Gomez was known for her fried chicken over at Cardamom Hill, where she did no frills American-style food with authentic Indian flavor. But she's now moved over to Third Space, where she invites cooks from all over to come be guest chefs for a night. She doesn't do them often, but if you can get a spot at one of these you'll meet some really amazing people and experience some real Southern hospitality.
Buford Highway Farmers Market: This insane, expansive market has the largest inventory in the US of all kinds of Asian, international, sauce and pantry items. Run by a super cool, low-key Korean fellow, every aisle here is a different world, with items that you literally cannot find anywhere else in the US. If you’re visiting and have access to a kitchen, come here on a Sunday afternoon and pick some stuff up to cook Sunday dinner.
Atlanta is a great place to visit because there’s tons of off-the-beaten-path spots. You go there, you meet amazing people, see chefs who are always in their kitchens, and you can talk to them and hang out. The people are such a big part of why Atlanta is awesome, so don’t be afraid to say hello, strike up a conversation, and build a relationship.
Photo Credits: Atlanta Restaurant Blog, Atlantaintownpaper, The SmartKitchen
Cover Photo: Flickr/Shalabh Sharma